Even before the dust settles on the humanitarian tragedy unfolding today in South Ossetia and the full extent of the damage is known, one essential truth has emerged: The Caucasus region, Russia and indeed all the nations that once comprised the Soviet Union are of crucial strategic interest to the United States.

Witness the spike in oil prices within hours of the outbreak of hostilities, concerns about oil pipeline safety, weapons proliferation, and the fact that both U.S. presidential candidates devoted valuable campaign time to this foreign policy issue.

Despite the region`s importance, the current crisis has demonstrated that the United States and Europe have disturbingly limited diplomatic leverage in the Eurasia region.

Less than a week after Russia and Georgia started fighting, European and American officials have actively begun shuttle diplomacy between Moscow and Tbilisi and the results so far are positive but inconclusive. The fact remains that similar initiatives in the past failed to prevent the outbreak of hostilities, much less resolve the underlying conflict, and it is far from certain that they will work any better this time.

This diplomacy deficit has many causes - including conflicting economic and energy interests in the West, inconsistent policies of multilateral organizations and regressive politics in many former Soviet states - but a major cause is the limited investment of time and money in the region by many Western nations since 2001.

The United States and European governments have neglected the quotidian work of formal diplomatic relations as well as the informal connections that constitute civil society. Unglamorous but essential, these formal and informal relations are the ties that bind, especially when it comes to a crisis like the one we faced this week in Georgia.

Preoccupied with other conflicts and increased demands on the Treasury, the U.S. government in particular has reduced its foreign assistance to the region each year for the last seven years, so that today financial support for engagement between citizens and institutions in America and their counterparts in the Eurasia region is one-half what it was in 2000.

Projects ranging from the improvement of local governments to small business development to international education exchanges - activities that not only help build prosperity and stability in the region, but also improve the environment in which economic and diplomatic relations occur - are put at risk by the sharp reduction in government financing.

This in a region of 12 rapidly developing countries - six of which are secular Muslim nations - all of which are essential to managing some of the most serious international challenges we face, from nuclear proliferation to energy security to labor migration.

There is considerable political will today in the United States and Europe to do something to contain the current crisis in Georgia and prevent the outbreak of new ones in the many hotspots in the Eurasia region.

As leaders apply themselves to the deferred maintenance on formal relations with the countries of Eurasia, they should not overlook the importance of strengthening international engagement at the citizen level, the soft power that, if stewarded properly, can help prevent conflict and help resolve conflicts when they arise.

When the dust settles on the current crisis in the Caucasus, debate over what precisely went wrong will no doubt continue for some time. One point on which all should be able to agree is that engagement at the citizen level must be fostered, and financed, to help avert future crises like the one in Georgia and to extend the diplomatic reach of the governments concerned when they do erupt.

OP-ED: William Horton Beebe - Center

President, Eurasia Foundation, Washington, D.C.

International Herald Tribune (IHT), Paris, France, Friday, August 15, 2008