Gold Medals and Lead Bullets

Three incredible things happened Sunday night. One: the Russian military pursued a defeated foe out of South Ossetia, demanding the surrender of an army defending a democratic nation. Two: China began to pull away from the rest of the world in the gold medal count at the Olympics. Three: The United States was shown to be powerless to stop either of these things.

Olympic glory is the less serious of the events that have captured the attention of the world these past few days. After all, in the grand scheme of things, sports do not matter. At its heart, the gentlemanly rules of sportsmanship, foggy as they can sometimes be, keep sports rooted to the confines of friendly competition. Nations and peoples will not rise and fall based on the outcome of any sporting event, whether it be the Olympics, World Cup, or a backyard croquet match. Overall athletic success in the Olympics, however, is an indication of a country’s ability to focus resources on frivolous endeavors. That is, if a country can spare the time and the money to manufacture a battalion’s worth of first-class athletes, then what the world sees is a very public display of that country’s power, focus, and economic fortitude.

After the end of the Cold War, the Soviet sports machine broke down just as quickly as the union. (East Germany was an Olympic powerhouse, but their success was due to a massive and systemic effort to dope their athletes, propelling them to disproportionate achievements.) Left alone as the world’s sole superpower, the United States’ dominance in every summer games until this year’s was a direct symptom of its preeminence in the world. Consequently, as we have overstretched and squandered our power, as our economic might has faltered, and as China continues its rapid rise, the United States falls behind. The Olympics are the perfect coming out party for China. It became obvious a while ago that saying China was becoming a superpower was inaccurate. China is a superpower. Their goal now is to become the most powerful country in the world. In the fraternal confines of athletics, we see China’s mission statement for the coming decades.

Thankfully, China chose to remain at peace as it became a world leader, so while it remains an ambiguous friend to the United States, it is not an enemy.

Russia, on the other hand, is the nightmare scenario of the spread of authoritarian capitalism. Russia under Vladimir Putin has shown no qualms in using threats, punishments, and now violence, to reestablish its control over its near-abroad after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The buffer Russia prefers to keep between itself and the rest of the world has been in the DNA of Russian leaders for centuries, ranking as the paramount strategy of Russian foreign relations. Any loss of influence in a bordering state will not be tolerated for long. It is anachronistic in its bold aspirations to empire, and ultimately dangerous.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili miscalculated when he sent his army into the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Russia had been waiting for an opportunity to pounce on its wayward former republic, and seized the opportunity Georgia presented them. Using rhetoric disturbingly reminiscent of Germany’s in 1938 and 1939, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared that his country was protecting Russian citizens, and would punish those who harmed them. It only took a couple of days for the Georgian military to be routed, and to flee South Ossetia. But a war to ostensibly free South Ossetia from Georgian oppression has instead turned into an effort to establish Russian dominance over Georgia. Russia has poured thousands of troops into not just South Ossetia, but another breakaway area of Georgia, Abkhazia. Russian jets have bombed the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, and Sunday night invaded Georgia proper, marching on the city of Gori in an attempt to cut the country in half. Georgia, reeling, called for a ceasefire, only to be ignored. Finally, today, Medvedev declared that operations in Georgia had ceased, even though there are still reports of fighting and bombing.

Russia has shown that it is willing and capable to threaten one of its neighbors with destruction if it violates Russia’s near-abroad strategy. This conflict had little to do with South Ossetia, and everything to do with Georgia throwing off the Russian yoke. In Russia’s reality, its neighbors are not permitted to follow their own course, establish their own alliances, or make entreaties to a west that Russia has never trusted. There is something to be said for the South Ossetians desire for independence, but there is no justification for Russia’s actions this week.

While Russian troops marched on Gori, the United States’ impotence in the affair was on full display in Beijing. Instead of flying back to Washington to coordinate a western diplomatic response to the crisis, President George W. Bush was attending multiple Olympic events and sitting down for a quick interview with Bob Costas. Normally such behavior could rightly be characterized as dereliction of duty, but the question today is, what could Bush have done anyway? Russia is riding its newly acquired natural resource wealth back to its former status as a superpower, and the west’s dependence on those resources, combined with Russia’s diplomatic influence in places like Iran, means that Russian regard for western, and American, concerns, is fast diminishing.

So in two very dramatic ways, in the sporting and political arenas, we see the United States letting events pass it by, unable to dictate the course those events take.