Georgia and Pakistan: A Tale of Two Client States

by Anatol Lieven

International relations South Asia 13 mins read

As the situations become more complicated in Pakistan and Georgia, both American allies, the U.S. is faced with some tough choices.

Every empire-indeed, every state that wishes to project dominant influence beyond its borders-sooner or later runs into the question of how to manage client states: states which imperial powers can closely influence without having to incur the expense, risk and unpopularity of occupying and ruling them directly. Empires like Rome, China, the Netherlands and Britain have all used a strategy of clientism as well as direct rule. For the U.S., this is the core of America’s entire global project, since in the vast majority of cases direct empire is ruled out both by democratic ideology and sheer lack of manpower.

While cheaper in every way than direct empire, client states have however always been extremely tricky to manage. If they are too strong, they will either escape from your influence altogether-or on the other hand use that influence to pursue their own local ambitions, which may have nothing in common with your interests. If they are too weak, they will collapse in the face of their external or internal enemies, leaving the imperial state with the agonizing choice of either accepting a serious geopolitical defeat or stepping in and ruling these states directly, with everything that this entails.

An extra complication is that quite often, it is precisely the influence of the imperial state which is responsible for weakening the client state: whether externally, by embroiling it in wider geopolitical conflicts with more powerful neighbors or internally, by demanding various forms of tribute that weaken its domestic prestige and infuriate powerful sections of its population. This may be through the provision of military help, agreement to unfavourable terms of trade, official conformity to the imperial religion or unpopular domestic reforms. These are dilemmas that have faced one great power after another. Two of the most disastrous examples of mismanaging a collapsing client state were the U.S. in Vietnam in the 1960s and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

If you take “democracy” (albeit often of a very thin and formal kind, better described as “democratism”) as the official religion of the contemporary American empire, then every one of these factors and problems applies to present U.S. efforts to exert predominant influence in various parts of the world. At the present moment, they are dramatized by the travails of two very different American clients, Pakistan and Georgia. The similarities and differences between them illuminate wider issues in America’s current global strategy.

The first, and most obvious, is the difference between essential and non-essential clients. Pakistan is obviously in the former category, both because Pakistan is vital to America’s interests as presently defined, and because-occasional gibberings like recent ones by Frederick Kagan and Michael O’Hanlon notwithstanding-a U.S. invasion and occupation of Pakistan is simply not an option. Even a more limited military intervention in Pakistan’s tribal areas or to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would be fraught with truly appalling risks. In other words, however unsatisfactory the relationship from America’s point of view, it has to remain a relationship of influence, not direct control.

If the U.S. is to remain engaged in the Muslim world at all, then Pakistan is vital to U.S. interests: Most immediately, because of its critical impact on developments in neighboring Afghanistan; more generally, because its sheer size and extensive diaspora (especially in Britain) make it a vital potential prize for enemies of America (with six times the population of Afghanistan or Iraq, Pakistan is well over half the size of the entire Arab world); and finally, because of the apocalyptic threat of terrorists getting their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons-a threat which is far less real than it can appear from much Western analysis and reporting.

The opposition that Musharraf’s administration is facing from within the Pakistani elite is due partly to his own mistakes and partly to certain inexorable patterns of Pakistani politics, which eventually doom every regime to failure because it cannot satisfy the incessant demands for jobs and other patronage from its own supporters.1

As far as the Pakistani masses are concerned, however, by far the most important reason for the steep fall in his popularity has been his subservience to the demands of the U.S. in the “war on terror”, which most Pakistanis detest. But while the U.S. might modify its policy somewhat in this regard, as long as the U.S. remains heavily present on the ground in Afghanistan and committed to the Karzai “administration” there, it obviously cannot afford to let any Pakistani administration off the hook over this-quite apart from the need for Pakistani help in pursuing international terrorists based in Pakistan and breaking up plots aimed at the U.S., or more frequently Britain.

The U.S. now finds itself in the embarrassing position of either backing to the bitter end a man who has after all undertaken immense risks in order to help the U.S., or ditching him in the name of “democracy”-which would send a pretty discouraging signal to U.S. allies elsewhere in the region. Washington thinks that it has a replacement candidate available in the person of Benazir Bhutto, but if she misgoverns Pakistan as she did twice before, and also fails to do more to crack down on Islamist extremism, then in a few years time the U.S. may find that it does not have many options. Washington would either have to back a return to full military dictatorship-which would leave America’s official religion in tatters-or accept an Islamist presence in a ruling coalition, which would raise risks that much of the Washington establishment would find completely unacceptable.

The U.S. has to confront these extremely difficult dilemmas in the case of Pakistan because it has no choice but to do so. But Georgia, on the other hand, presents a set of dilemmas which are lesser in scope, which have a smaller impact on U.S. policy because of the willingness of much of the U.S. media to ignore developments in Georgia which do not suit dominant U.S. paradigms and ambitions. Of course, objectively speaking, the geopolitical risks and moral embarrassments involved in supporting the Saakashvili regime in Georgia should be condemned more than those involved in supporting Musharraf because they are to a great extent gratuitous: they are not compelled by truly vital U.S. interests.

The risks for the U.S. in Georgia are essentially twofold. The first is already occurring: the Saakashvili administration could become so authoritarian at home that it will reduce the entire U.S. democracy promotion agenda in the former Soviet Union to a farce. The second is much more serious: It is that faced with growing domestic discontent, Saakashvili will seek to rally the nation behind him through an attack on one of the two Russian-backed separatist territories, Abkhazia or (more likely) South Ossetia. The president could gamble that faced with the humiliation of seeing a favored client crushed by Russia, the U.S. will feel impelled to come to Georgia’s aid.

If Saakashvili ever does make that grave decision, it will be the last one he makes as Georgian president. For in practical military terms, there is almost nothing that the U.S. could or would do to help Georgia in these circumstances. Nonetheless, this would indeed represent a humiliation for the U.S., as well as a very great and totally unnecessary crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. It would also have serious implications for Russian behavior in other areas of truly vital U.S. interest, like Iran.

Fortunately, in the case of Georgia the danger of this happening is to some extent mitigated by the fact that-at least judging by the remarks of European officials-recent events have made it much less likely that Georgia will join NATO. Therefore one reason for Russian hostility to Georgia will fade, or at least not grow further.

Above all, Georgia illustrates a fundamental historical truth about client states: a great power should only adopt them when it has no other choice to defend vital interests, or when they are strong enough to act as an effective buffer against a real enemy. Pakistan meets the first of these criteria; Georgia meets neither. Georgia might qualify as at least an important interest if there were a real chance of the energy of Central Asia (and not just Azerbaijan) flowing through Georgia to the West. But for a long time to come, a mixture of geographical reality, legal ambiguity, and Russian, Iranian and Chinese power seems almost certain to prevent this from happening.

In the case of Pakistan, the U.S. needs to maintain its influence by increasing but redirecting its aid, as recommended in an interesting paper last week by Senator Joseph Biden. If necessary, Americans need to be asked to make the kind of sacrifices to help Pakistan that they made to strengthen European and Asian states against Communism. In the case of Georgia, U.S. policymakers should take a hard look at what aid and influence in that country really bring to the U.S. at all.


1 See Anatol Lieven, “A Difficult Country: Pakistan and the Case for Developmental Realism”, The National Interest (Spring 2006).

The National Interest November 2007