What a Republican Congress Does and Doesn’t Mean for US-Georgia Relations
The month of November brought a feeding frenzy for Western foreign policy pundits covering Georgia. The sacking of Defense Minister Irakli Alasania and subsequent resignation of Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze sparked consternation among pro-NATO journalists. The country’s commitment to integration with the West was called into question while the words “Georgia” and “crisis” became inseparable. Almost one month later the sky hasn’t fallen, and Georgia remains ostensibly within the Washington-Brussels diplomatic orbit.
While alarmist punditry has abated with regards to Georgia’s foreign policy orientation, political shifts across the Atlantic have implications for the country’s relationship with NATO. The November midterm elections in the US put the GOP in the Congressional driver’s seat. While that most likely doesn’t mean that wholesale changes are on the horizon, the Republicans will have more influence over foreign policy than at any point during Obama’s presidency.
After taking control of the Senate on 4 November, the GOP awarded former Presidential nominee and foreign policy hawk John McCain (R-Arizona) the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The 6th term Senator is known for taking hard lines during the Iraq War, Syrian Civil War and the recent crisis in Ukraine. McCain has been a vocal proponent of NATO expansion and has tabbed Georgia as a high-priority candidate. During the weeks immediately following Russia’s February annexation of Crimea, he told Voice of America that the US Congress would take steps to “accelerate the path of Georgia and Moldova into NATO.”
Fellow Republican Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) will take up the top position in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker has come out in favor of furnishing Kiev with armaments. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), another new addition to the Foreign Relations Committee, is also putting his political weight behind a muscular foreign policy that includes a harder line toward Moscow. While the changing of the congressional guard won’t dramatically alter defense policy toward Georgia (bilateral security cooperation is already proceeding apace), much hinges on the outcome of ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. The Obama administration has been forced to tread lightly due to Russia’s membership in the P5+1 group of powers committed to curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Once talks are concluded, the administration will have more flexibility to be proactive in countering Russian ambitions.
The Republican Congress could cause that to happen sooner rather than later. Because many GOP legislators are determined to intensify sanctions against Iran even in the midst of negotiations, the outcome of the midterms could result in an accelerated resolution: either increased sanctions induce the Iranian leadership to accept a deal favorable to the P5+1, or talks collapse altogether. A resolution to negotiations (whether successful or non) will take one of Russia’s largest bargaining chips off the table. That would further embolden US security hawks aiming to bolster support for the country’s allies in Eurasia, with Georgia being of particularly high priority.
On 18 September (prior to the midterm elections) the Democratic Senate passed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, a bill granting Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova official designation as “major non-NATO allies.” This moniker would give Georgia more access to military assistance but includes no collective security commitment. In any event the House of Representatives has failed to come through with a corresponding bill, but the very term “non-NATO” speaks volumes about the relationship between the US and Georgia. The American side has both the interest and inclination to increase its commitments to Georgia and other regional allies, as long as those commitments are non-binding.
At the margins, a GOP-led Congress should place a higher priority on relations with Georgia. But only at the margins. NATO membership likely remains off the table, even if NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared on 17 November that “Georgia will be a member of NATO, provided it fulfills the necessary criteria.” Stoltenberg refrained from any mention of a timetable, or of America’s interest in bringing Georgia on as a full-fledged member. When it comes to the alliance, all roads lead to Washington, and the beltway crowd appears to have little stomach for taking on additional risk.
President Obama’s words more accurately reflected American interest when he declared in March that “Neither Ukraine or Georgia are on the path to NATO membership.” That is something a Republican majority in Congress won’t change. While pundits cried wolf with regards to the Alasania sacking last month, they were right about one thing. Georgia’s relationship with NATO depends more on developments in Tbilisi than in Washington.