"Spiced with cayenne pepper." That is how one German diplomat described Tuesday's declaration by NATO foreign ministers on the situation in Georgia and the alliance's relationship to Russia.
For a military organization responsible for the collective defense of 26 countries, that zing is there for a reason. In contrast to the European Union, whose comments often seem somewhat callow as it opines on political issues across the globe, NATO tends to weigh its words carefully. Indeed, NATO statements often seem short on content and somewhat meaningless to the casual listener.
Not, though, the one formulated by NATO foreign ministers on Tuesday in Brussels. The alliance is demanding that Russia withdraw its troops from Georgia as called for by the peace plan signed by both sides last week. Until that happens, no meetings of the NATO-Russia Council will be held. In addition, the foreign ministers want to send a special envoy and a team of experts to Georgia in order to get both civilian and military reconstruction underway.
"Empty words," Russian NATO ambassador Dimitry Rogozin said, jeering at the trans-Atlantic alliance's message. And there are some NATO members who see it that way, too. For days, the presidents of Latvia, Czech Republic and Slovakia, among others, have been calling for more.
But then, as happened last week during a meeting of EU foreign ministers, the "wimps from the West," as one Eastern European diplomat was heard to growl, had their say -- and blocked everything. The diplomat described what they had in mind as "appeasement" -- the kind of "placation and conciliation" that the Allies once pursued with Hitler's Germany for far too long. There are many in Germany, Italy or Great Britain who feel the same.
It is a viewpoint that seems to have gained the upper hand -- the idea that Russia can be a partner for peace has rapidly lost credence since Moscow sent its rockets, tanks and soldiers to Georgia. Just one month ago, polls showed 53 percent of all Poles opposed the stationing of US missiles in their country. But with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Poland on Wednesday to sign the treaty allowing parts of the American missile shield to be stationed there, most in Poland will be celebrating along with her and Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Just why the political climate changed so quickly is clear: Russia. The matter of who actually started the war in Georgia has become secondary.
Still, it is the "wimps" that have the better arguments. When German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warns that "the dialogue with Russia should not be broken off," he is right. The NATO-Russia Council, Steinmeier points out, was not conceived as a "fair-weather commission." On the contrary, he says, it is "especially necessary to help navigate troubled waters." As soon as Russia has completely withdrawn from Georgia, he says, a meeting with the Moscow leadership must be considered.
That may sound irresolute, perhaps even cowardly. But among the 26 foreign ministers gathered in Brussels on Tuesday, it is one that found a solid majority -- even among those who are sending a different message back home.
The reason is clear: Anyone who takes a clear-headed look at the situation must come to the conclusion that there really is no alternative to a dialogue with the Kremlin. What would be the alternative? Arming Georgia and Ukraine? Deploying NATO troops? Where would they be sent?
"The conflict is clear," Steinmeier said after the NATO meeting. "The first answers have been given. But they haven't solved the conflict."
To solve them -- together with Russia and the US, and preferably under the umbrella of the United Nations -- will take considerable time. It will take many more watered-down, empty-sounding statements; many more discreet, diplomatic moves. It is not the time of the warmongers. It is the time of the wimps.