The grand chessboard, mark 2

In the current war theatre, the most im portant players are Russia, the U.S. and some European countries, notably the UK. Many people emphasize that nobody truly cares about Ukraine, that it is just a pawn in their game. This may be so, indeed. Many countries have either been treated as pawns or designated as war theatres where proxy wars can be conducted. Hard power has always played a preponderant role, not only in international relations but also in international economics. International trade was never a story about Portugal selling wine to England, and England exporting wheat to Portugal in return, so both nations (regions) are better off. It is a simple model, but it is an an effective one in shaping people’s views; a myth-maker. International economics was always about exploiting natural resources, accessing previously uncontested markets, controlling the price of strategic goods, and maybe extending dominion over large territories. Ukraine isn’t a significant player in such a global game. In fact, the stakes are much higher than Ukraine itself.


Had the UK accepted the leadership of Hitler over large chunks of Europe, WWII could have lasted only a year or so. Then, of course, other wars would ensue because this wouldn’t be equilibrium. Rudolf Hess thought the war with Britain was a mistake because the Brits were also Aryans and for geopolitical reasons (or both). He tried to end the war, but was captured after his flight to Scotland. The deputy Führer of Germany wasn’t pardoned, and died in Spandau Prison in 1987 at the age of 93. Maybe attacking Western Europe before attacking the USSR wasn’t a mistake for the Nazis. They needed the full economic and military might of the entire continent before challenging Russia. Germany alone didn’t stand a chance, neither in WWI nor in WWII: today we know that. Germans potentially knew that too. Yet, the concept of Lebensraum (living room) isn’t only a German concept, a figment of the Nazi imagination. It still has currency today. For instance, Brzezinski wrote in 1997 that no ruler that would constrain American influence would be allowed to emerge in Eurasia. Eurasia should be an all-American zone of influence, capital, trade, and a geopolitical fortress where no other force would be allowed to enter, according to his theory. He thought Eurasia was the grand new chessboard after the collapse of the USSR. Today, Brzezinski’s 1997 vision is insufficient because there is a new player in town: China. If one dares to follow in the footsteps of Brzezinski she should add China to the equation. Nevertheless, Brzezinski’s argument is no less compelling for that: on the contrary, as China emerged as a new power Eurasia became all the more important.


To begin with, I think Russia can’t win against the full economic and military might of NATO in the long run. Actually, this much should be obvious to Putin himself. Russia could perhaps win in the very short term at the expense of the long term, but even this may not happen. If Russia had only invaded Donbass, that could perhaps have been a tactical victory. However, by extending the war to Kiev, Russia has potentially made a very bad move because Kiev is no longer a Russian city. There has been a tremendous population change since 2007. This poses questions about the strategic as opposed to tactical capabilities of the Russian ruling elite –and Putin himself. Have they considered all possibilities? Are they ready for a long period of heavy sanctions? I hadn’t considered that last week, and neither had so many commentators. But Putin should know better. If not, then Russia will suffer from a lot more than what a temporary war would cause. It may be true that Ukraine is only the currently visible locus of a long-standing enmity between Europe-Atlantic and Asia-Pacific.


In the 1990s, American inflation was conquered. It was also common currency that capitalism would be immune to any deep economic crisis. Highbrow economists thought that because the world was unipolar and American hegemony was secured after 1991, the business cycle would display much less amplitude, and crises would be much less severe. This vision collapsed after 2008. However, during Clinton’s second term between 1996 and 2000, these ideas were commonly accepted. As a corollary, international relations folks developed the notion of soft power. There would be no need for weapons: diplomacy, media, democratic values, and unfettered markets would suffice to make sure equilibrium is maintained. After the second war in Iraq this vision also collapsed. After all, a return to arms was visible everywhere: 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia, Syria. Perhaps things haven’t changed simply because the USSR was dissolved, and transformed into Russia. Perhaps cold war beliefs weren’t so true. Communism doesn’t exist except in a few small countries, and is generally considered bankrupt, but the struggle for geopolitical and economic superiority endures. Wars and heavy-handed military interventions do continue.


In the last two decades, European countries and the Anglo Saxon world have been ideologically and politically transformed. The U.S., for instance, isn’t the same U.S. since the 2004 Patriot Act. In many Western democracies, right-wing populist politicians either have won the elections or have come close to winning. In the 1990s, in the aftermath of the collapse of communism, western democracies presented themselves as champions of free speech, human rights, minority rights etc. They were doing so before the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, but between 1991 and 2000 this image was accepted by most of the non-Western world as well. History ended; democracy and liberalism won. However, after 2000, everything changed.

The so-called soft power wasn’t working as intended a decade ago, and the U.S. returned back to the old days, i.e. the use of hard power. The EU was reluctant to follow, but they did follow nonetheless, notably in Iraq in 2003. After that, major European countries began to develop policies that didn’t entirely square with American interests. For example, former German Chancellor Schroeder has been sitting on the board of a company that is just an extension of the Russian giant Gazprom. Didn’t Emmanuel Macron say in November 2019, “what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO”? A return to a closely knit Atlantic Alliance was warranted. Today’s burgeoning anti-Russian feelings and the attitude of the media show that in order to convince national public opinions, calls for democracy aren’t sufficient. What is before us is a very dangerous Huntington-inspired clash of civilizations. Imbued with right-wing populisms, the European public opinion could buy that argument –or some very influential people think so inside of the EU. Appearances can be deceiving, but the ideological arguments that sneak into main street media are indicative of a huge problem. Borders should be opened to Ukrainians because they are blond and have blue eyes, and they are Christians, but others – including Russians – don’t deserve that leniency! If we turn back to Christian charity, we will also turn back to the Middle Ages. Of course Ukrainians should be evacuated at once, but the arguments put forward to convince Europeans that they deserve their help are problematic to say the least.


The Obama Doctrine would direct American resources and politico-military prowess towards China. Wouldn’t it be good to simplify the grand chessboard and focus on the Pacific Rim rather than spending money, effort, and intellectual resources in the MENA region? Perhaps, but even if this happens other war theatres will emerge. I think that China can’t be contained: this still looks as a pipe dream. It was difficult to even ‘contain’ the Iranian influence in the region, let alone China. Can Russia be contained? In the next few years, board games will continue to be popular among global powers, but not for long. We may in fact be witnessing the beginning of a new era.

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