Donald Trump’s recent rhetoric about an “obsolete” NATO alliance has surely disturbed Germans and French who think about their nations’ security. But their anxiety level is probably low next to that of a dozen Eurasian nations that Trump has probably never considered — including a few that are not even members of NATO.
One of them is Georgia. This predominately Christian former Soviet republic of 4.5 million people bet its future a dozen years ago on the notion that it could pull away from Moscow’s sphere of influence — and its autocratic political model — and integrate into the West. With broad popular support, its political leaders have struggled to build a market economy and liberal political institutions, including free media, independent courts and competitive elections.
The results have frequently been mixed. There have been ups and downs, including a Russian invasion in 2008 that stripped Georgia of two of its provinces. Yet until now the nation has been kept largely on track by its single-minded pursuit of two big goals: membership in the European Union and admission to NATO.
Now, suddenly, both the union and the alliance appear in danger of crumbling at the hands of populists and nationalists who would retreat behind refortified borders, turn away migrants and abandon international commitments. What happens if the Trumpists win?
“Definitely that will be a shock for [Georgian] society,” the country’s elected president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, told me last week. “And of course it would be a very serious problem for our security. Because we have a neighbor that has a very different idea of what Georgia should be.” That, of course, would be Russia.
As Margvelashvili pointed out, Georgia shares its potential dilemma with a larger region. Trump’s complaints, and those of President Obama, about the “free riders” of NATO such as Germany and France ignore the critical role the alliance has played for a host of smaller and far less prosperous nations since the end of the Cold War. Under the alliance’s tutelage, countries that might have lapsed into dictatorships or chaos instead became functioning democracies. To earn NATO security guarantees, or even a looser association as “partners for peace,” they granted rights to ethnic minorities, tolerated opposition media and cracked down on corruption.
In the end, NATO oversaw what was probably the most successful nation-building effort in history. A score of countries — Poland and Hungary, Latvia and Estonia, Serbia and Croatia, and yes, Ukraine and Georgia — adopted the Western, liberal model of statehood under the allies’ scrutiny, even though not all have yet joined NATO or the European Union.
A Trump victory would put that historic geopolitical shift at risk. It would open the question of whether new NATO members such as the Baltic states — not to mention Georgia and Ukraine — were really safe from Russian aggression. And it would maroon a bunch of countries that are on their way to Western integration but haven’t yet arrived there.
Trump and his supporters might dismiss such a loss — but Margvelashvili said they would regret it. “You cannot discount countries that are smaller because you think that is the way the world order works,” he said. “If you push cases like Georgia and Ukraine into some bad portfolio and forget about them, you will get further complications — not only vis-à-vis Russia, but in other parts of the world,” where regional powers — China, say, or Iran — aspire to dominate their neighbors.
Georgia offers perhaps the clearest example of how the prospect of NATO membership and progress in consolidating democracy have been intertwined. In 2012, the pro-Western government was ousted in a parliamentary election — itself a democratic achievement of sorts. The new coalition was led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire with distinctly Trump-like qualities, including a penchant for populist demagoguery and an inclination to autocracy.
For a while it looked like the new regime might reverse much of what the country had accomplished. Leaders of the previous government were hounded with criminal investigations; media not supportive of the government came under pressure. But Ivanishvili had promised that he would continue seeking E.U. and NATO membership, which gave Brussels and Washington extraordinary leverage. Thanks to their pressure, the political opposition is still functioning; the most watched television network remains independent and critical of the government; and elections scheduled for this fall look to be hotly competitive. Oh, and by the way, Georgia still has 750 troops under NATO command in Afghanistan.
The rhetoric from Trump has given a boost to pro-Russian parties in Georgia’s campaign. Their argument, said Margvelashvili, has been consistent: “You might want NATO. You might want Europe. But it is not going to happen.” Until now, it hasn’t been a persuasive argument. Georgia’s president, and leaders like him across Eurasia, can only hope this U.S. political season does not make it so.
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