How does the world look in the aftermath of the Russo-Georgian war? Some observers have interpreted this war as a sign the 19th century is back: a world of great powers fighting great games over control of natural resources.
Certainly, Russia has been fighting in part to grab control of the energy pipelines transmitting oil and gas from Central Asia to Western Europe. But the world of great powers fighting over resources never really went away. It was merely sprayed with ideology.
Nor did the course of the war seem especially 19th century. Russian or British generals waging the Great Game would have marched to Tbilisi, hanged the president, installed a reliable puppet and marched out again. In this war, the Russians were deterred from entering the Georgian capital because the 20th-century rules of international conduct forbade it (and because their pretexts for the war confined them to South Ossetia).
Of course, they didn't keep those rules, but they didn't ignore them completely, either. Instead of a 19th-century war, then, what we have just witnessed is a postmodern war.
Two recent books - The New Cold War, by Edward Lucas, and The Return of History and the End of Dreams, by Robert Kagan - have argued that, instead of a peaceful world of co-operative democracies, we face a new struggle, global and ideological, between Western democracies and economically successful authoritarian states such as Russia and China.
At first glance, the Georgia crisis fits that description well - especially since many Georgians seek entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a way of entrenching their own fledgling democracy as much as a protection against Russia. Many people in the Caucasus, the Balkans and other troubled areas say the same thing.
In fact, as the crisis revealed, the "Western democracies" were not one camp but two. Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, Ukraine and the United States wanted clear support for Georgia and its early entry into NATO, condemnation of Russian aggression and the threat of strong penalties (such as exclusion from the G8) if Moscow maintained its hard line.
On the other hand, France, Germany, Benelux, Spain and Italy wanted a softer policy, one that avoided condemnation, in order to keep Russia engaged with the West. Britain sought a third way - being pro-Georgian but not anti-Russian - but London is likely to drift in the direction of the U.S.-New Europe camp in practice.
The division within Europe overlaps with an ideological distinction stressed by Mr. Kagan in an earlier book: those who see a need for sovereign states and military power (and so are NATO-minded) versus those who believe "lawfare" has replaced warfare in a world of soft power, global rules and supranational bodies (and so look to the European Union as their main security provider).
If that is so, then the world is really a three-way struggle among authoritarians, national democrats and global legalists. But the odd thing is that, when the crisis broke, those who rushed to defend the new international norms were not the global legalists but the national democrats - in particular, the Polish and Baltic leaders who came to Tbilisi to show solidarity with the Georgians.
The global legalists were very quiet about Russia's breaking of the rules. The EU mission to Moscow led by France's Nicolas Sarkozy operated on the premise that it was necessary to avoid condemning Russia in order to be a successful mediator. Yet, Mr. Sarkozy and his EU team were bamboozled into accepting and promoting a ceasefire agreement that contained loopholes through which the Russians drove entire tank battalions. And that diplomatic failure was made easier precisely because the Russians were not put in the dock.
In the end, the EU argument that pooling sovereignty leads to greater real power proved to be a sham - and worse than a sham. It led in practice to collective impotence and self-deception. And there is a reason why that will always happen.
Global legalism rests on the delusion that powers with the ability to assert their interest in some vital matter can be prevented from doing so solely by rules in which every state has a modest long-term theoretical investment. But as soon as a real crisis erupts, the global legalists realize that their legal restraints are incapable of restraining the rule-breaker. To maintain their legalist fiction, therefore, they have to deny or obfuscate the fact that the rules have been broken or that any particular state is responsible for the conflict.
If they have to take sides, they tend to support the stronger power, since that makes it easier to solve the dispute in a way that seemingly conforms to the rules. Might is cloaked with right to save the blushes of the "international community." If the rules are to have real impact, they must be backed by more than a legalist fiction.
In the Georgia crisis, those nation-states and international bodies that defended the global rules, that condemned Russia for breaking them, and that used the soft power of public diplomacy to restore their effectiveness were all forces that could ultimately call on hard power and/or serious national self-interest to support their words. Practitioners of hard power were able to use soft power; advocates of soft power ended up wielding no power.
Neither NATO nor the EU covered itself with glory in this crisis. But the EU actively appeased Russia, while NATO at least resisted feebly. NATO can exert real pressure on Russia, in part because it disposes of real military power, in part because it includes states, notably Poland, that have a real stake in Russia's not winning outright in Georgia.
Moreover, Poland and its New Europe allies have an additional motive for their defence of Georgia: They are still conscious of the value of their own democratic sovereignty. More elderly democracies in Western Europe seem to have forgotten the pleasures of self-government.
This postmodern war is still continuing. Yet, it has already proved a great deal: the limits of military power in Russia's case, the limits of soft power in Europe's case, and the emptiness of global legalism without roots in real nations, real interests and real democratic accountability.
The opinions expressed are those of the author.
Follow us on Twitter: