PUBLISHED AS “THE GREAT GAME – THEN AND NOW” FRONT PAGE ARTICLE IN BRITIĆ [UNITED KINGDOM] MARCH 14, 2017. PUBLISHED IN PEĆAT [SERBIA] & EKURD DAILY [TURKEY IRAQ SYRIA] ON MARCH 15, 2017.
Back in the days of Empire two great powers indulged in the “Great Game”, a geopolitical term made popular by Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and The Man Who Would Be King. It was yesterday’s Game of Thrones, international politics in real life, not an entertainment streaming on Netflix or a series playing on HBO – actual genocide, nation building and destruction, treason, diplomatic double dealing, greed, military adventurism and mayhem, lots of mayhem.
Great Britain, the Empire that ruled the seas, used sea power to conquer and subjugate new territory – the Indian subcontinent, more than 1.7 million square miles, a wealth of natural resources and a population in the millions. Russia, the other player in the Great Game, then an Empire of 8.8 million square miles, of even more natural resources was dead set against England’s expansion policies.
This was the yin and yang of the Great Game: England’s dominion and control over lands it had conquered running counter to Russia’s further expansion and incursion into Asia.
Originally the playing field was Turkestan, Persia, Afghanistan, parts of India [Pakistan] and Tibet [China]. But the field of battle shifted over the decades. It migrated to Europe, Asia and the Middle East during the First and Second World Wars. Nominally Great Britain and Russia were allies but try and sell that story to Tsar Nicholas II who was deposed and assassinated after the Allies surreptitiously repatriated Lenin, dropping him off at the Finland Station in St. Petersburg, or to the Allies once Hitler was dead and Germany defeated.
After the Second World War things changed; the Great Game’s reset button had to be pushed. Once the Game was booted up a new player, the United States was substituted for England, who was no longer the stuff of empire. Russia, now the USSR now supported by the Warsaw Pact nations was still in the game. In response, the United States countered with NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
For the next 50 years, the Great Game was an exercise in restraint and equilibrium – a series of calculated tit-for-tat moves by one side with a calibrated response by the other. Russia got mired in a decade long Afghan war until United States provided an exit strategy. America is now bogged down in its own never ending Afghan war but Russia is noticeably absent and non-involved. America has been left twisting in the wind with the conflict remaining local and not subject to the rules and constraints of the Great Game.
The Great Game’s pas de deux played without misstep for decades even when unexpected events threatened stability – the Hungarian Revolution, the Suez crisis, the Vietnamese War, the fall of the Berlin War, the breakup of the USSR, the invasion of Iraq did not upset the applecart.
Of late with Obama in charge a change is evident. Obama and the West became intent in expanding the NATO franchise far from the cold waters of the North Atlantic. They want NATO in the warm waters of the Black Sea, co-opting the Ukraine at the very doorstep of what is now a diminished Russia. The sandy beaches of Greece and Turkey’s Aegean Sea are not enough. This is a marked departure from the status quo.
The obvious response - Putin’s “liberation” and annexation of the Crimea - was appropriate and expected. Both players made the appropriate bellicose statements and comments. After an exchange of shots across bows and borders the players called “time” – time to regroup and recalibrate before things got out of hand.
We have just witnessed an unexpected, dangerous, unprecedented response which is yet to be proven and documented. Vladimir Putin, fearing the continuance of the Obama worldview and NATO expansion should Hillary Clinton be elected, interfered in the 2016 American Presidential election – a serious breach of the unwritten rules of the Great Game. The extent of this intrusion into domestic elections is still classified but there is consensus amongst all United States intelligence agencies that it did in fact take place.
The unforeseen consequence was the election of Donald Trump - an unknown, untested and possibly suicidal populist leader in the mold of Huey Long, Joe McCarthy and George Wallace. The introduction of this wild card into the Great Game should give us all pause.
When the Game was played with a full deck, no jokers wild, there was room for entrenched interests to lobby for a robust but unnecessary defense. Russia and the United States were on an ever-escalating nuclear proliferation binge for years. No one, not even dotty senile Ronald Reagan believed that the Star War Defense would work or was needed but it sure kept the economy chugging along. The launching of a dog or a Sputnik by the Russians did not make us less safe, it was just another ho-hum moment for the pundits to trot out tired clichés.
Donald Trump’s election and inauguration is being used by both the left and the right to paint Russia as a scapegoat. What is puzzling is that these politically opposed points of view converge dangerously.
The left, intent in continuing Obama’s NATO expansion policy and smarting at Hillary Clinton’s defeat, paints Russia as a clear and present danger to be attacked and defeated. The right, dead set on making ‘America Great Again”, bringing jobs back to the USA, is supporting an additional $54 billion in defense spending. There is consensus that a confrontation with Russia is inevitable.
The key players no longer control the Great Game. Turkey, a NATO ally, is playing footsies with Russia in Syria. Turkey intent in the destruction of the Kurds and their aspirations for independence is sabotaging the fight against ISIS in Iraq. China is testing the waters of the South China Sea building islands and claiming territory. North Korea keeps testing missiles in the Sea of Japan. Saudi Arabia is bent to follow its own Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea agenda come what may. I’ll stop here – I think I have made my point.
This is not how one plays at the Great Game, especially when one of the key players, Donald Trump, is psychologically unfit while the other, Vladimir Putin, doesn’t give a shit.