How to handle an angry bear

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Experts and commentators have been pouring out books, pamphlets and articles in recent times telling us that conventional wars between states are a thing of the past and that all nations now instead face a kind of globalized, nihilistic terrorism requiring entirely new responses. Unfortunately the Russians have just proved them wrong.

Here we have a good old-fashioned territorial war between two states, one large and one tiny, complete with buffer zones, occupying forces and tanks. There is the familiar talk of the need to protect Russian citizens in the South Ossetian and Abkhazian enclaves, which Russia regards as almost its own territory. The added irony is that it was Josef Stalin, a Georgian, who put many of the Russians there in the first place.

In the predicted new age of asymmetrical warfare, David is always supposed to outwit and beat Goliath. But in this case Goliath has prevailed with ease and Russia is behaving as though it never heard the argument. The simple Moscow view is that Georgia is a tiresome and badly behaved little neighbor, and that it must be firmly brought into line.

Further aggravations — in Russian eyes — has been Georgia’s march toward NATO membership and its readiness to offer an alternative pipeline system — outside Russian control — for oil and gas from Central Asia to the West. Russian bombs have been trying to put a stop to that.

Nations that feel hassled and encircled can turn angry and do violent things. History teaches that lesson very clearly. Although nothing can ever justify the barbarities of Japanese troops during World War II, there is no doubt that Japan’s original impulse to extend its sphere of influence by conquest was prompted by the fear that it was being encircled and cut off from vital supplies, especially oil supplies. Russia today certainly feels hassled and surrounded, with some justification.

It bears deep trauma scars from its horrific communist past and a sense of humiliation that is always dangerous in any national psyche. Western leaders have been vowing to take measures to discipline the Russians somehow for their Georgian incursion, but the situation calls for psychology, not bluster and threats.

This is what has been completely lacking in Western policy toward Russia. Almost from the moment the old Soviet Union imploded the West has been lecturing and hectoring Russia on how to run its affairs — how to be more democratic and what it should do and say. Both from Washington and from Brussels the tone has been patronizing and superior, guaranteed to increase Russian resentment and a feeling of being downgraded and isolated.

As for the Americans, they seem to have lost their bearings. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been rushing from capital to capital talking about the need to uphold “trans-Atlantic values.” Back in the U.S., both presidential hopefuls have been vying with each other to sound tough and to assert American “leadership” in shaping the modern world. Yet none of these people seems to understand what is happening.

America is a mighty nation, but it is no longer in charge. Power and values are shifting. The pressure that may change Russia’s undeniably bullying attitude, and its readiness to resort to old-fashioned military violence, will come not from Western leaders’ demands to extend NATO to Georgia, or other former Soviet Union states, let alone from plans to install new antimissile defensive systems right under Russia’s nose. It will come from foreign investors, who are now fleeing Russia in droves, and from vastly rich Russians, including the famous oligarchs, whose assets and bank deposits are now scattered across the global economy.

The oligarchs may have little interest in trans-Atlantic values, but they have every interesting in staying on good terms with the whole global economy, both its rising Asian parts and its Atlantic parts. So while Western politicians, still talking about the need to impose Atlantic dominance and influence, are busy making things worse and the Russians even more intransigent, international capital markets and the business investment community are working the other way, toward encouraging a better behaved Russia with more calibrated and proportionate responses to problems in its neighborhood.

This will take time, patience and tact. High oil and gas prices ensure that plenty of cash will continue rolling into Russian coffers, so Russian state finances are still in very good shape. But Russian private enterprise and trade need good and positive relations with the rest of world business and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has already been making clear that he does not want to see Russian economic progress damaged by the present disputes.

So it is global economic sentiment, not Western politician’s bellicose rhetoric, that will in the end have most influence on Kremlin decisions. Until leading Western, and especially American, policymakers and opinion-formers have grasped the new realities of a changed world order, they would do best to keep quiet and let markets do their work.

David Howell is a former British Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a member of the House of Lords (howelld@parliament.uk www.lordhowell.com).