Washington’s policy towards Tbilisi needs to draw on evidence and actions rather than competing narratives that lack nuance and lead to decisions that are bad for both countries.

The August 2008 conflict between Georgia and Russia was fought on the battlefield and in the newsroom. While the Georgians were defeated soundly on the battlefield, they were far more successful, particularly in the United States, in building upon a media narrative that was quite favourable to their country.

Narratives are extremely important for small countries like Georgia. They function as cognitive shortcuts through which a few pieces of information are woven together to create a story that explains, or even defines, the country in question. Policymakers at the higher levels rarely spend a lot of time thinking about smaller countries until some kind of crisis hits. At that time, they often fall back upon the narrative, or the few things they think they know, about that country. Few countries have worked harder or more successfully than Georgia to craft a narrative that appeals specifically to Washington.

The Georgia narrative

The Georgia narrative that, until recently, received bipartisan, and almost unanimous, support in Washington rests on several components. Firstly, Georgia is viewed as having unique strategic value, partly due to its location as part of an essential transit route bringing Caspian and Central Asian resources to Europe and the West, and partly because it is seen as a key player in the region’s broader political dynamics. Secondly, Georgia is understood to be, in former President George W. Bush’s unfortunate terminology, a ‘beacon’ of democracy in a sea of post-Soviet autocracies and kleptocracies. Thirdly, Georgia is seen as a pro-Western country that has historically been part of Europe and is waiting to take its rightful place among Western nations.

The three pillars of the Georgia narrative are political and strategic in nature, but the narrative has always rested on more than just political issues. It has also drawn on the notion that there is something special about Georgia, that it is a land of good wine and food, lively people and beautiful mountains; a country that stands out from the others in the region. I have spent a great deal of time in Georgia and believe that this part of the narrative is largely true. There is something special about Georgia. The food is better, the weather more pleasant, the people more outgoing and the overall vibe less Soviet than in other post-Soviet countries. What bearing this should have on US foreign policy, however, is not at all clear. Nonetheless, it has certainly shaped US policy towards Georgia for at least the last several years.

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Lincoln Mitchell is the Arnold A. Saltzman Assistant Professor in the Practice of International Politics at Columbia University. His book Uncertain Democracy: US Foreign Policy and Georgia’s Rose Revolution was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2008.

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