However it turns out, the current fighting between Russia and Georgia - the first major military offensive by Russia outside its borders since the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 - is likely to have long-term consequences for the United States. Georgia's independence and democracy deserve U.S. support in this crisis, and we should make that position clear.
When we were in Romania a decade ago, Romanians would regularly tell us that the United States was naive about Russia. Then, Russia's economy was weak and its politics much more democratic and open than they are today. In fact, 10 years ago this month, low oil prices ($10 a barrel!) and chaotic management led Russia to default on its debt. The next year, under President Boris N. Yeltsin, Russia helped bring a peaceful end to the war in Kosovo.
But Romanians would tell us: Wait till Russia is back. When its economy rebounds and its political leadership regains self-confidence, watch out. This week, our Romanian friends are thinking, though they are too diplomatic to say it: We told you so.
Georgia's fight with Russia is not about religion - most of the people in both nations have been Christian Orthodox for centuries. Nor is it really about land, despite the rhetoric on South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two regions of Georgia dominated by ethnic minorities. The land isn't that valuable, few Russians live there.
For Georgians, their fight with Russia is similar to America's fight with Great Britain more than two centuries ago. They want to govern themselves, independent of Russia. Georgia is a democracy; it fears the domination of Russia, which under Vladimir V. Putin is clearly much less democratic.
It is precisely Georgian democracy and independence that Russian nationalists see as a threat. By declaring independence from Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Georgia transformed itself from Russia's favorite source of good wine into a potential risk. By 2003, Georgia's "Rose revolution" brought to power a young, Columbia University-trained president, Mikhail Saakashvili, who quickly became the Energizer Bunny of Western values on Russia's border.
More dangerously, from the point of view of hard-liners in the Kremlin, Georgia's move encouraged a similar "Orange revolution" in Russia's much larger neighbor, Ukraine. And then Georgia campaigned hard to join NATO and the European Union.
Russian nationalists, who under Mr. Putin dominate the government, have two fears - one rational, the other not. If Georgia, a small country with a border and close historic ties with Russia, can maintain its democracy and ally with the United States and the European Union, pro-Western, democratic forces from Slovakia to Kyrgyzstan will be emboldened. And their domestic opponents, who pine for a Russia-dominated Eurasia, will be demoralized. This is the rational fear of the Putinists. The irrational fear is that if Georgia (and Ukraine) join NATO and the EU, Russia will be less secure. The truth is that these institutions, creations of the post-World War II global order, brought Europe the longest period of peace and the greatest economic boom in its history.
What makes the current battle important to the United States is that many other countries will draw the same conclusions from the results as the Russians and Georgians do. Can Russia's neighbors remain democratic? Can they ally with the United States? Does their future lie with Western values?
This week, much of the world is watching the Olympics in China. But in Ukraine, people are watching Georgia too. So are the people of countries already in NATO, such as the Poles and Romanians. Are they really free of Russian domination? Or were the last two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 just an interlude, like Georgia's three years of independence between the fall of the Russian czar in 1918 and consolidation of Soviet Communism in 1921? Even in Western Europe and Asia, America's friends and enemies are asking if authoritarian Russia has a bright future in world politics.
These attitudes matter to the U.S. In international relations as in investing, expectations of the future drive current decisions. For a while, the democratic model that America pioneered two centuries ago, and that countries from France to Taiwan solidified, had the momentum. We could see this in Romania in the 1990s. When NATO and EU membership became real prospects for their country, the democrats and Westernizers were emboldened and their opponents were demoralized. The results of this week's fighting in Georgia are likely to have similar consequences, but with more widespread repercussions. That's why the U.S. - and its NATO allies in Europe - needs to say clearly and publicly that we support Georgia's right to democracy, to independence and to alliance with the West. President Bush's strong criticism yesterday of Russia's actions - and similar recent statements by Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama - are important first steps.
Whether or not the U.S. has the concrete tools, diplomatic or otherwise, to persuade Russia to reverse course now is not the only point. We were not able to reverse the Soviet Union's annexation of the Baltic countries in the late 1940s - but neither did we recognize them as legally part of the Soviet Union. Keeping hope alive for democrats around the world has been part of America's role since 1776.
Jim Rosapepe, U.S. ambassador to Romania from 1998 to 2001 and chairman of the Maryland/Leningrad Sister State Committee from 1995 to 1997, is a Maryland state senator. Sheilah Kast, his wife, was an ABC News correspondent in Russia and Georgia during the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. She is host of "Maryland Morning" on WYPR-FM.