On Aug. 7, Georgian troops attacked the country’s breakaway region of South Ossetia. On Aug. 8, Russian troops responded by invading Georgia. The Western response was primarily rhetorical. On the weekend of Oct. 11, the G-7 met in Washington to plan a joint response to the global financial crisis. Rather than defining a joint plan, the decision — by default — was that each nation would act to save its own financial system with a series of broadly agreed upon guidelines.
The Aug. 7 and Oct. 11 events are connected only in their consequences. Each showed the weakness of international institutions and confirmed the primacy of the nation-state, or more precisely, the nation and the state. (A nation is a collection of people who share an ethnicity. A state is the entity that rules a piece of land. A nation-state — the foundation of the modern international order — is what is formed when the nation and state overlap.) Together, the two events posed challenges that overwhelmed the global significance of the Iraqi and Afghan wars.
In and of itself, Russia’s attack on Georgia was not globally significant. Georgia is a small country in the Caucasus, and its fate ultimately does not affect the world. But Georgia was aligned with the United States and with Europe, and it had been seen by some as a candidate for membership in NATO. Thus, what was important about the Russian attack was that it occurred at all, and that the West did not respond to it beyond rhetoric.
The Global Financial Crisis
What was demonstrated in politico-military terms in Georgia was then demonstrated in economic terms in the financial crisis. All of the multinational systems created after World War II failed during the crisis — or more precisely, the crisis went well beyond their briefs and resources. None of the systems could cope, and many broke down. On Oct. 11, it became clear that the G-7 could cooperate, but not through unified action. On Oct. 12, when the Europeans held their eurozone summit, it became clear that they would only act as individual nations.
As with the aftermath of the Georgian war, the most significant developments after Oct. 11 happened in Europe. The European Union is first and foremost an arrangement for managing Europe’s economy. Its bureaucracy in Brussels has increased its authority and effectiveness throughout the last decade. The problem with the European Union is that it was an institution designed to manage prosperity. When it confronted serious adversity, however, it froze, devolving power to the component states.
Consider the European Central Bank (ECB), an institution created for managing the euro. Its primary charge — and only real authority — is to work to limit inflation. But limiting inflation is a problem that needs to be addressed when economies are otherwise functioning well. The financial crisis is a case where the European system is malfunctioning. The ECB was not created to deal with that. It has managed, with the agreement of member governments, to expand its function beyond inflation control, but it ultimately lacks the staff or the mindset to do all the things that other central banks were doing. To be more precise, it is a central bank without a single finance ministry to work with. Unlike other central banks, whose authority coincides with the nations they serve, the ECB serves multiple nations with multiple interests and finance ministries. By its nature, its power is limited.
In the end, power did not reside with Europe, but rather with its individual countries. It wasn’t Brussels that was implementing decisions made in Strasbourg; the centers of power were in Paris, London, Rome, Berlin and the other capitals of Europe and the world. Power devolved back to the states that governed nations. Or, to be more precise, the twin crises revealed that power had never left there.
Between the events in Georgia and the financial crisis, what we saw was the breakdown of multinational entities. This was particularly marked in Europe, in large part because the Europeans were the most invested in multilateralism and because they were in the crosshairs of both crises. The Russian resurgence affected them the most, and the fallout of the U.S. financial crisis hit them the hardest. They had to improvise the most, being multilateral but imperfectly developed, to say the least. In a sense, the Europeans were the laboratory of multilateralism and its intersection with crisis.
Clearly, the world has pivoted toward the nation-state as the prime actor and away from transnational and subnational groups. The financial crisis could be solved by monetizing the net assets of societies to correct financial imbalances. The only institution that could do that was the state, which could use its sovereign power and credibility, based on its ability to tax the economy, to underwrite the financial system.
The year 2008 has therefore seen two things. First, and probably most important, it resurrected the nation-state and shifted the global balance between the state and business. Second, it redefined the global geopolitical system, opening the door to a resurgence of Russian power and revealing the underlying fragmentation of Europe and weaknesses of NATO.
The most important manifestation of this is Europe. In the face of Russian power, there is no united European position. In the face of the financial crisis, the Europeans coordinate, but they do not act as one. After the summer of 2008, it is no longer fair to talk about Europe as a single entity, about NATO as a fully functioning alliance, or about a world in which the nation-state is obsolete. The nation-state was the only institution that worked.
This is far more important than either of the immediate issues. The fate of Georgia is of minor consequence to the world. The financial crisis will pass into history, joining Brady bonds, the Resolution Trust Corp. and the bailout of New York City as a historical oddity. What will remain is a new international system in which the Russian question — followed by the German question — is once again at the center of things, and in which states act with confidence in shaping the economic and business environment for better or worse.
The world is a very different place from what it was in the spring of 2008. Or, to be more precise, it is a much more traditional place than many thought. It is a world of nations pursuing their own interests and collaborating where they choose. Those interests are economic, political and military, and they are part of a single fabric. The illusion of multilateralism was not put to rest — it will never die — but it was certainly put to bed. It is a world we can readily recognize from history.