Watching the crisis in the Caucasus unfold, I realized that the Georgian leadership probably did not receive the brief manual that is normally given out to every independent state when it is granted its sovereignty license by the United Nations. Not many people are aware of this manual. I was told about it by a veteran Cypriot diplomat, who noted that the leadership in Cyprus received their copy only on August 14, 1974. That was the day Turkish "peacekeepers" embarked on the second stage of their military operation on the island, which left its mark on Cyprus to this day. So, like the Georgians, the Cypriots did not receive the booklet when it would have been most useful. In the hope that greater awareness of this publication will help other small states avoid the tragic fate of Georgia and Cyprus, here are some of its key points, in no particular order of importance.
Sovereignty is not made of kryptonite. In other words, you cannot hide behind it and expect it to stop bullets. Sovereignty is a concept that makes sense to great powers. Small states haven't a chance in hell of upholding their sovereignty unless they have an ace up their sleeve. This normally comes in the form of patronage from one of the great powers, and even that is not foolproof. Unfortunately for the Georgians, like naive upstarts, they bought the empty promises of the Bush administration.
Independence is overrated. No small state can be truly independent, and it is arguably a difficult achievement for even the greatest of powers. The desire for independence should not be allowed to blur reality. It can only be relative for small states, and must be balanced between their minimum ambitions and the aspirations of their most powerful neighbor. Georgia's desire to become a full-fledged member of NATO, with Putin's Russia hulking over it, clearly reflected an unbalanced sense of independence, and a misunderstanding of the motivations and policies of Western powers.
Do not be flattered by the praise of more powerful states: The measure of your success should be yours to determine. Georgia was lauded for its democracy, its pro- Western attitude, its support of liberty and freedom, and its contribution to the war in Iraq. Was any of this helpful when the Russians came barging in? The answer is a glaring "nope." So, Georgia failed the small-state test. By the way, being a democracy did not help Cyprus in 1974: The United States still backed the military dictatorship in Greece when it invaded the island, first through a coup against Cyprus' legitimate government, and did nothing to prevent the subsequent invasion, ethnic cleansing, division and occupation of the island by another U.S. client and NATO ally, Turkey. Nor has the fact that since the 1974 catastrophe, the Republic of Cyprus has proved to be a model democracy, a bastion of political stability and a successful economy - truly, one of a handful of shining stars in the post-colonial abyss of failures - helped the island to regain its full sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Do the math, cut your losses. This means you should avoid spending outrageous sums on defense and not overestimate the value of territorial integrity. Small states will never be able to truly defend themselves against the hulks dominating the international arena. They will also have a very tough time preserving territories that are obviously determined to break off from the whole. It may be unfair, and it may be illegal, but breakaway minorities cannot be controlled unless there is a clear decision to use force against them. As the cases of Kosovo and now South Ossetia have shown, even a willingness to keep those minorities at bay by force may ultimately yield only a Pyrrhic victory. Therefore - and this is true in Cyprus, too, which is currently in the midst of a much-lauded negotiating process for reunification - the possibility of breaking away from the separatists should be seriously considered. Let them go their own way. If the Cypriot case is anything to go by, the Greek Cypriots have done quite well since they were separated from their Turkish compatriots, though perhaps not quite as well as if they had parted for good, and not maintained an official insistence on reunification at nearly any cost. The Georgians and the Serbs would do well to just let separatist territories go - the eventual benefits will far outweigh the pain and the nationalist opposition at home.
A final word of warning: The international arena is in constant flux, and small states should follow the changes closely. For the most part, it will not be these states that will determine the new world order. Therefore, they should at least aspire to be on the mailing list when the new rule book on international relations comes out.
This article was first published in Haaretz on August 15, 2008.