The assassination of the heir to the imperial throne of Austria-Hungary in Serbia ignited World War I in August 1914. The event triggered interlocking agreements among two sets of Europe's great powers in a tiny part of the Continent that was of little account in the grand scheme of things.
Georgia is not Serbia, 2008 is not 1914, and Russia and the United States are not Russia and Imperial Germany of 1914. The various great powers of today are not armed to the teeth in confrontation with one another and they are not itching for a fight, egged on by mutually reinforcing hubris about national capabilities, will, ambitions and pride.
But events in Georgia, "half way around the world" as President Bush reminded us, can and will have broader repercussions, most particularly on Russia's relations with Europe and especially the United States, far beyond anything at stake in the Caucasus.
Russia's ambition to dominate its "Near Abroad" was a major impetus to the current crisis. But so too was a failure in the West, especially in the United States, to understand the dynamics of power, purpose and principle in Europe and Eurasia — "Eurasia" because Georgia is by no stretch of the imagination part of "Europe."
For the West, the fatal moment came last April at the Bucharest NATO summit. Paragraph 23 of the Summit Declaration states: "We agreed today that these countries [Ukraine and Georgia] will become members of NATO." This was intended as a sop to the U.S. president who had pushed for an interim step to NATO membership called a Membership Action Plan (MAP).
European allies unwilling to go even that far — in major part because of concerns over possible Russian reaction — agreed to the supposed compromise language. But the words that NATO chose were much stronger than MAP. In fact, they connoted clearly that all the allies were prepared to make the strategic commitment to Ukraine and Georgia that is the heart of NATO membership.
This was, in terms of the political will of nations, the moment when the two countries "joined" the alliance. I cautioned then that the allies had taken a step that few understood and had made a commitment that fewer still were prepared to honor.
I was not alone in reading NATO's words in this way. Russia's Vladimir Putin and Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili did so, as well. To Putin, NATO's words were perceived — or misperceived — as a further step to isolate Russia from decisions about the future of European/Eurasian security and perhaps also to "surround" Russia.
NATO's actions followed the decision by its member states to ratify the independence of Kosovo — and Russian logic is not completely faulty in seeing a parallel with the two Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At the same time, the United States was obtaining agreement from the Czech Republic and Poland to base part of an anti-missile shield designed to guard against Iran, but that Russia saw as pushing U.S. military power closer to its frontiers, just as it had seen NATO create bases in Romania and Bulgaria.
From Moscow's point of view, both actions violated the spirit of commitments made in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act.
For his part, Saakashvili had reason to believe he was finally in the NATO "club," with all that that implies about allies' willingness to protect Georgia's security and to back him up in difficulties with an assertive or aggressive neighbor. Russia was likely lying in wait for some precipitate act, but Saakashvili took the decisive step — the equivalent of the assassination of the Austrian archduke — with a major military thrust into South Ossetia that killed many people.
Saakashvili clearly got it wrong.
NATO is most fundamentally about the willingness of each ally to "agree that an armed attack against one or more of them . . . [is] an attack against them all." In Georgia's case, this was nonsense, as we have seen dramatically over the past many days as not a single NATO ally was prepared to send troops or even to discipline Russia.
There are lessons now to be learned by all.
Russia should consider that if it is to become a fully accepted and integrated country in the outside world, it must take its troops home, respect Georgia's sovereignty, enter into diplomacy about South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and temper its high-flown rhetoric.
Meanwhile, some American commentators should tone down their rhetoric and implicit threats it appears NATO has no intention of honoring. The United States also should persuade Saakashvili to curb both his rhetoric and actions, while reassuring Georgia of America's friendship.
And the West as a whole should observe there is a difference between the worthy goal of promoting democracy and pushing a military alliance to another country's borders that serves no necessary strategic or political purpose.
When President George H.W. Bush presented his vision of a "Europe whole and free and at peace," and President Bill Clinton created the architecture to pursue that vision, two goals were uppermost: take Central Europe permanently off the geopolitical chessboard and draw Russia productively into the outside world.
These goals were intended in part to replace "spheres of influence" politics with cooperative institutions based on democracy, economic advancement, and mutual awareness that nothing was worth another European cataclysm. This is the same combination that abolished war among nations of Western Europe following World War II.
It is still possible to revive the vision and to pursue the architecture. Russia bears the greater responsibility. But the United States and its NATO partners also have their own parts to play in working again for a "Europe whole and free and at peace."
Robert E. Hunter, U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Clinton, is a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in Providence Journal on September 9, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.