Opinion | How to Reset Georgia’s Foreign Policy

We have argued in the previous piece that the self-centered nature of Georgia’s foreign policy has outlived itself and can no longer protect the national interests adequately when both regional and international realities are changing. But what is the way out of this impasse?

Author: Giorgi Paniashvili has been in Georgia’s diplomatic service for 12 years. This article reflects his personal opinion.

To refresh its foreign policy agenda, Georgia has to start perceiving itself as a contributing actor of international politics and not as an indolent subject of the imminent international setting. It is from this viewpoint that we shall understand the comparative advantages the country has for contributing to the common cause with its allies, while protecting its vital interests now and in the future.

The new, collaborative foreign policy agenda can be based on four interrelated components, related to various levels of Georgia’s international engagement:

  • Globally – Georgia shall stand for promoting and protecting Human Rights;
  • Regionally – the country should position itself as a platform for foreign policy analysis and security talks;
  • From Security Perspective – it shall incubate fresh ideas, focusing on tackling new threats and collaborate with partners;
  • From the economic cooperation perspective – Georgia shall accent scientific cooperation, new technologies, and innovations. 

Seeking a systemic solution to Georgia’s key security and foreign policy problem – the ongoing Russian military occupation – shall be streamlined through these agenda items, putting its various elements on Georgia’s shared agenda with its foreign partners.

Winds of Change: Regional and International Context 

Recently, the status quo in Georgia’s neighborhood has changed. Renewed conflict and the terms of uneasy peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia have significantly altered security landscape of the region. Decades-old regional disagreements are far from being resolved. It will take many more meetings and difficult negotiations to heal the old wounds and find the way to peace that can sustain development. The newly established security context – albeit perhaps temporary and transitional – will have its impact on economic infrastructure and transit routes of the region that are vital for Georgia and for its international position.

The apparent lapse of both vision and leadership from the U.S. and the EU in the past few years left the security gap, which is being swiftly filled up by Russia, but also increasingly by more assertive Turkey, which does not shy away from challenging some key security interests of its traditional allies in the EU and NATO. Significant regional shifts have not gone unnoticed by Tehran, which is carefully observing the situation and seeking to adjust its role.

Poisoning of Alexei Navalny and his subsequent arrest have nudged Russia once again – perhaps decisively – away from political Europe. Yet, mass protests across Russia, triggered by Navalny’s arrest exposed the growing potential for internal political instability. Mass demonstrations and ongoing democratic resistance in Belarus similarly reminded us that even in the bosom of the most authoritarian regimes, people strive/drive/crave for change.

Its location and cultural proximity to its neighboring countries allow Georgia to become the right place for studying, analyzing, and catalyzing debate about these regional faultlines.

Its location and cultural proximity to its neighboring countries allow Georgia to become the right place for studying, analyzing, and catalyzing debate about these regional faultlines, the developments they trigger, and the implications they have nationally, regionally, and internationally.

Being in the teeth of yet ongoing pandemic, western democracies struggle to avoid the collapse of their national economies, already preparing themselves for the emerging challenges in a post-pandemic environment. It seems that speedy economic recovery and advance will entirely depend on technological breakthroughs that also bring forward some ethical and political controversies such as the use of artificial intelligence (including in warfare), the use of big data, changing the balance between privacy and security. These technology-related topics might also be affecting Georgia’s security environment and economic development.

Promoting Global Agenda – Human Rights

Georgia still has a long way to travel before it claims its seat among the democracies wherein the rule of law and human rights protection are irreversibly ingrained processes. Still, Georgia is considered to have advanced furthest in the region – an experience that can be converted into foreign policy capital but also the one that must be preserved despite regional volatility. Georgia’s larger neighbors can not credibly use the human rights dimension as a foreign policy tool. This can set Georgia’s foreign policy mix apart and make it more authentic.

To preserve and advance its human rights credentials, Georgia has to realize that these achievements are to be defended and promoted not only domestically but internationally as well. The abduction of exiled Azeri journalist, Afgan Mukhtarli stands out as a bleak reminder that even if Georgia was to be surrounded by strategic partners, human rights issues would function beyond the national scope.

Apart from its intrinsic importance, human rights promotion on a global scale as well as regionally has a clear foreign political dimension for Georgia. By supporting human rights and democratic developments in the neighborhood, Georgia can erect the rampart of defense around its own democratic achievements and better ensure their long-term sustainability. On the other hand, by raising its voice on human rights and democratic developments in the region, Georgia will position itself as an unequivocal ally for both NATO and the EU, adding more political and moral weight to its positions.  

By supporting human rights and democratic developments in the neighborhood, Georgia can erect the rampart of defense around its own democratic achievements

Apart from all that, promoting human rights and democracy in the neighborhood will enable Georgia to establish rapport with civil activists, representatives of media, and the opposition in neighboring countries. This will help enrich the access of Georgia’s allies to the wealth of – at times repressed – opinion, but will also hedge for the future, when these forces may find themselves at the helm – as it happened during the surprising ascension of Nikol Pashinyan in Armenia.

Likewise, establishing contacts with Russia’s civil activists and the opposition could offer better insight into Russian affairs as well as ensure some personal linkage with its future political elites. The same could be said about Belarus. Knowledge and information acquired through such contacts could serve as a good source for policy-planning and forward-looking decision-making that might be extremely useful for Georgia, as well as for its western allies.

It must be said in passing, that such foreign policy carries risks when dealing with the current authorities. Pursuing it would require a consistent adjustment of Georgia’s security and intelligence stance, which is beyond the remit of this article. On the other hand, Georgia championing human rights can not be seen in isolation from another aspect, more palatable for the current governing elites – serving as a platform for encounters and discussions.

Georgia – Platform for Regional Knowledge and Discussion

Fated to be located at the faultline between both global and regional powers, Georgia has an exceptional – if traumatic – experience of facing the security and foreign policy challenges. Not to dig deeper into history, since the 1990s Georgia has experienced Russia’s direct military aggression, hybrid warfare attacks, humanitarian crises, attempts to create terrorist enclaves, and transit corridors for the terrorists. Even today, Georgia still has to coexist with the ongoing military occupation and its dramatic consequences. Yet, Georgia also has an experience of surmounting the shadows of the past with Turkey, building regional alliances, and using economic projects to bolster its security.

Georgia’s institutional memory is enriched and complemented by geographic location and historic memories, that still need to be critically re-assessed and converted into a practical set of policy actions. Neighboring Russia, Turkey, and Iran is a unique location for Georgia to become the potential center for applied regional studies. That very status of the regional laboratory could be achieved through projecting Georgia as a neutral, safe platform for research, discussions, and talks on hot topics of regional and international importance.

Georgia’s location makes it a comfortable place for regional talks and discussions. For other countries of the region, Georgia is located closer not only geographically but also politically and culturally, closer and safer than Moscow, Brussels, Astana, or Geneva. At the same time, visiting Tbilisi is far less politically charged than paying a visit to any of the mentioned cities.

Being well informed about the challenges of the region, and having the capacity to inform the partners better and earlier is in Georgia’s vital national interest.

Already existing practice of regional forums, conferences, and discussions such as – Riga International Conference, Snow Meeting in Trakai (Lithuania), Global Security Forum in Bratislava, and others might be used as a template to help Georgian policy-makers to rethink and then reshape Georgia’s regional positioning. The way that has been paved by Batumi Security Conference is still to be advanced and deepened in the years to come. Forums like Batumi Conference should be used as formats to project Georgia’s foreign policy positioning.

By holding regular talks and discussions Georgia will also help build the capacity of its research and foreign policy cadre, will boost local expertise, and promote international demand on it. Preciously few Georgians communicate to international specialized and wider audiences – researchers, experts, journalists. In the era of instant and mass information, this puts the country at a disadvantage. But more than that, by boosting local capacity Georgia will become a much more reliable and valuable partner for the EU and NATO, contribute to a better understanding of the regional context and its various nuances. Being better informed and having the capacity to inform the partners better and earlier is in Georgia’s vital national interest.

Focusing on New Threats    

There is no doubt that ongoing military occupation and its consequences will remain Georgia’s top foreign policy concern for quite some time. Yet, it is also apparent that traditional warfare has changed and the threats are no longer only conventional. Georgia shall not prepare for yesterday’s wars, but must protect itself today and build resilience against tomorrow’s challenges.

As the role of non-military means in achieving political and strategic goals have grown, Georgia’s partners in NATO and the EU have acknowledged hybrid warfare as a new reality, focusing more on new types of threats such as cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, fake news, character assassinations, orchestrated incitement to corruption and military coups, intolerance and electoral apathy. 

Overt threats multiply, but adversaries are also becoming increasingly skillful at striking from the shadows, pursuing new tactics to divide and destabilize, using new technologies to exploit differences and disagreements of democratic societies, as well as “exacerbating the uncertainties of an uncertain world” as the British Secretary of Defense Ben Wallace said during the NATO conference recently. These new tactics are used to undermine the infrastructural, financial, healthcare, education systems of the adversaries, thus trying to undermine the normal way of life.

Georgia has been very much exposed to many of these new threats. It has directly experienced some, which have been even tested in Georgia by Russia before becoming the standard fare of Moscow’s operations further west.

These relatively new tactics will continue to change the threat landscape of the region, becoming even more sophisticated, smart, and comprehensive at the hands of regional adversaries. Georgia must better understand the growing importance of these new challenges, learn them better, adapt accordingly, and pay much more foreign policy attention to them.

This is the moment now to get involved in debates about the ethics of using artificial intelligence, especially in warfare. Georgia needs allied support for building resilience firewall around its crucial infrastructure.

In that regard, Georgia should take a more proactive and deterrent stance while talking about these new threats rather than complacently lagging behind and focusing only on those hybrid attacks that it has become a target of in the past. NATO countries have already adjusted their strategies and action plans to new threats and challenges of hybrid warfare.            

In this context, adjustment of Georgia’s foreign policy language and strategies to hybrid warfare threats seems inevitable and even retarded. Almost certainly, in the years to come, Georgia will be mostly facing these new types of threats and it will have to start addressing them both politically and technologically. So the sooner the better.

This is the moment now to get involved in debates about the ethics of using artificial intelligence, especially in warfare. Georgia needs allied support for building resilience firewall around its crucial infrastructure, but also much more joint, collaborative research in how to secure the very institutions of democracy against malevolent onslaughts: this concerns the systems of public education, civil service development, and crisis response, to name just a few.

Impact of Scientific Breakthroughs, New Technologies, and Innovations

Gone are the times when cutting-edge technologies were available only to the few wealthiest nations. Technology became ubiquitous and cheap – this holds both promise and threats. The renewed conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh plainly demonstrated their deadly force, and they can prove a decisive role in accomplishing political, military and economic goals. The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia proved – in a destructive way – that better access to and knowledge of new technologies gives the competitive edge. Georgian foreign policy must try to protect itself and to focus its allies’ and neighbors’ attention on the constructive aspects of the new technologies that may foster regional security and cooperation.

Being one of the transit-states, new technologies and innovations might become defining for Georgia’s future place in the region.

Being one of the transit-states, new technologies and innovations might become defining for Georgia’s future place in the region.    

One should realize that the gastronomic, winery, or agricultural products give their distinctive charm to the Georgian diplomacy, but they won’t be enough for advancing Georgia’s foreign policy purpose in the decades to come.

Innovating and using the new technologies, discussing the ways the benefits of the new knowledge can be shared by smaller countries, working with international and regional partners to make the benefits accessible for Georgia – that is the way to avoid further failures on the international arena. There has been a point in time when the innovative use of technologies helped Georgia leapfrog from its necrotic public service delivery systems to the most innovative systems. Unfortunately, the momentum for making this innovation Georgia’s international calling card has been squandered. This mistake shall not repeat itself.

Not to find oneself unprepared and unequipped in light of the arising challenges, Georgia should start shifting its foreign policy focus from – tasty Georgian dishes like Khachapuri and Khinkali to  – scientific cooperation and new technology trends. The European Union provides ample opportunities to be explored and encouraged. Similarly, strategic partnership frameworks with the US and the UK can and must include technological, scientific, and educational and cooperation.

In lieu of conclusion  

These are daunting challenges. Georgia’s foreign service lacks the experience and expertise of dealing with these new trends. Obviously, it will take some time and effort, as well as partners’ assistance to better grasp and harness these emerging trends. But it is a vision worth articulating, a challenge worthy of our future, the decision worth taking.

Georgia’s revamped foreign policy agenda will become more vocal, better heard, its partnerships richer and more diversified, the country’s security interests better protected now and in the future. It will also supersede security concerns and look forward to building human security and prosperity.

Of course, diplomacy must change. The romantic old days of twisting whiskey glasses in one’s hands while speaking flamboyantly are – sadly for some of us – the thing of the past. But the challenging renewal brings its own fun.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)