A New “Great Game”?
There is growing concern, particularly among conservative commentators, that the increasingly activist posture of Russia over the last couple of years portends a resumption of the Cold War, which was thought to have ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In many cases, commentators see a revival of the Cold War because Russia is again revisiting her familiar Cold War haunts, from naval bases in Libya and Yemen to strong-arm tactics with Ukraine, Georgia, and the “Stans” of Central Asia. We need to be careful in analyzing these events, however, because the prospect we face today is not our fathers’ Cold War. We should not expect tensions to escalate across a globe bifurcated by anything as clear-cut as a vast ideological divide with eschatological overtones. Instead, what we are likely to see is a situation more like that of the period from 1870 to 1945, when a collection of nations among which there was more economic and military parity – and not nearly as much self-conscious political disparity as in the Cold War or the War on Terror — jockeyed against each other, seeking hegemony of regions and control of resources.
The sun is low on the horizon, at the moment, for the United States as the world’s “hyperpower.” I do not say this with any swelling of the heart, or joy – it is going to be bad for America, and for a lot of other people, that our brief brush with hyperpowerdom appears to be ending, for now. Nor do I accuse George W. Bush of causing this demise, or of squandering a legacy that might otherwise be intact. The arguments on this head are for another post; the point here is that we are losing the capacity of a hyperpower to preside over the status quo essentially unchallenged by peers, because of our latent power and reputation. We are being challenged, as we speak — and by nation-state peers with agendas, not by suicidal religious radicals. We will be challenged more in the future.
A surprisingly useful prism through which to view the emerging period of multi-nation activism is the homely and often comical situation with piracy off the coast of Somalia. I note at the outset that this is not just any old piracy situation. It matters a great deal because of its geographic location, which is significant to East-West trade as well as to the stability of the Middle East – and hence, to the Mediterranean, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The chokepoint-infested waterways from the Turkish Straits to Suez to Hormuz represent the world’s most broadly significant geographic juncture. There is not another one like it, with the power to affect the stability of three continents, the relative influence of their various nations, and the maritime trade of all.
Geopolitical signifcance of the Middle East
We in the West have little corporate memory of this area before it was subdued by Europe, and tacitly ceded to the administrative colonial leadership of Great Britain. But its history is actually one of repeated conquest by hegemons and wanna-bes, from the ancient Persians to the Roman Empire, the forces of the Islamic hegira to the European Crusaders, the Imperial Ottomans to the European colonial powers of the seventeenth through early twentieth centuries. The era of the oil industry has, contrary to the view advanced by Western academics, been marked by a historically unique freedom for the Middle East from conquest and external rule. “Oil” is not the reason for the Middle East’s history as a great, disputed boundary between civilizations. The kings, emperors, and caliphs of previous ages did not march on the Middle East because of what lay under it, or even very much who walked over it, but because of where it is.
Technology, communication, and modes of transport have evolved over the centuries. The Crusades, ensuing on the wars of Islam, represent the last time Europeans sought to subdue the Middle East to secure land routes. But we are still, today, in the maritime technological and commercial age that helped shape the race between colonial Spain, Britain, and France, to rule, or at least be the principal European influence over, the waterways around the Middle East. Those waterways still have the import they did when Napoleon invaded Egypt for the purpose of blocking Britain’s maritime path to India; and when Alexander I of Russia took it as a premise of Russian policy that the whole belt of the Black Sea, Ottoman Turkey, and the Middle East would either block Russia and make her vulnerable, if ruled by others, or expand her power and resource security, if ruled by herself.
Maritime commerce and security still have the meaning to national existence on land that they had when the Europeans built the Suez Canal — not just to provide a canal in that convenient spot, but to drive a European stake in that position on the Mediterranean Sea: a sea that Europe must hold – and has often had to fight to hold quiescent — for its most basic security. Rule of the oceans still has the general significance to national power that prompted Imperial Germany to engage in a naval arms race with Great Britain — ruler of the Pax Britannica, in the decades before World War I – and to seek, as Napoleon had, to position Germany athwart Britain’s path to the Far East, with late-coming colonial enterprises in the Middle Eastern region, and collusion with the Ottoman Empire.
The geographic reality perceived by Alexander I persists today, as it did when Winston Churchill sought, in 1943, to have the Allied Powers open a front in the Balkans. He hoped then to block a Soviet Russian ally that he accurately assessed as seeking to at least partially realize, through the land conquests of World War II, Alexander’s vision of Russian power extending to the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. Churchill’s advocacy of the Gallipoli operation in World War I derived from this very concern: that Western Europe must block the advances of a hegemonic Germany (allied with the Ottoman Empire), or an imperial Russia, on Europe’s vulnerable, unstable southeastern flank (which is also its direct path to the Far East). That flank started with the Balkans, but continues through the Levant, and across Egypt and North Africa, as well as the Arabian peninsula, modern Iraq, and Persian Iran.
The priority of ideology in policy changes over time, but geography does not. Harry Truman saw the same thing Churchill did, when in the late 1940s he was confronted with Stalin menacing Greece, Turkey, and Iran through a combination of conventional military threat, proxy destabilization, and patronage of local insurgencies. Americans have tended to see this solely in terms of a Cold War confrontation between ideological opponents, with would-be “realists” interpreting the US reaction as a concern about power over “oil.” But the dimension of both sides seeking to prevent the other from creating a vulnerable security boundary for him, by establishing an exclusionary hegemony over the Middle East, is the stronger and more enduring dynamic in question. Power in the Middle East is power not just over natural resources, but power to affect the security and stability of all the regions it borders, as well as the access of commercial transportation to the region – the globe’s great crossroads — itself. Whether there were oil there or not, Europe, Asia, and a global maritime America would all have national security interests in the Middle East.
The antipiracy gaggle off Somalia
It is in this context that we have to evaluate the impact of piracy in one corner of the Middle East. It may be that historians will one day locate, in this (fittingly) maritime situation, the beginning of the end of the post-WWII Pax Americana. I make this analytically heroic suggestion because, without any particular notice being paid by Americans or Europeans, we are seeing develop, in the waters off Somalia, a most informative kind of evidence that we are no longer the hyperpower we were fifteen years ago: the arrival of navy after navy to operate in support of UN resolutions, but independently of official leadership by the US, according to multiple national agendas.
It is not that significant, of course, that the European Union is mounting its inaugural military force deployment to combat piracy off Somalia, in “Operation Atalanta.” There is a similar precedent for this deployment, in the naval deployments of the Western European Union to the Persian Gulf in the late 1980s, and during the early period of former Yugoslavia’s break-up in the 1990s. The EU’s antipiracy force thus does not actually represent the first military effort by a European coalition, outside of NATO, since 1949. The sentiment for collective European action, independent of the US-led NATO alliance, has been a persistent factor in European politics for over two decades now; its manifestation today is a culmination of a longstanding trend, rather than an abrupt change of face.
What is significant is the fact that Russia’s was one of the first navies on station in the Gulf of Aden, and that China, India, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and now Japan and South Korea, have also considered it necessary and/or desirable to dispatch their own naval task forces to the region – all to operate under national control. The navies of Europe, the US, and the British Commonwealth operate under one or the other of NATO, the EU, or the “AUSCANUKUS” collective (the US, UK, Canada, and Australia) – operating, as these navies have since the 1940s and 1950s, in commonly agreed frameworks and for collective political purposes. But there are, and will be, an unprecedented number of navies present that are operating not in political coalitions, but on their own. (A January 2009 interview with Vice Admiral William Gortney, Commander of US Naval Forces in the Central Command Region – also Commander, Fifth Fleet — clarifies that there is communication among the various navies, even though there is no command or control relationship with many of them. The navies with which we have robust bilateral relations – e.g., India, Japan, South Korea – we no doubt have or will have good communication and exchange with, for these operations. But the political difference of there not being an overarching coalition, as there has been in Iraq and Afghanistan, is what is significant. The United States is performing a coordination function, not an oversight function, for a significant number of the navies present.)
The piracy problem in the Middle Eastern backwater is shaping up to turn into the biggest naval free-for-all in modern history. We need not dwell on the significance of this development to on-scene operating safety, of which the recent reported encounter between the Chinese and Indian naval contingents may be the first in a series of incidents. I do not even find it to be most significant, about relative US power, and our maritime Pax Americana, that so many other nations have, at least ostensibly, considered it necessary to send naval task forces to the Gulf of Aden, rather than leaving us to handle it.
One treatment of the latter dynamic can be found at the indispensable Information Dissemination blog, in the analysis of its “Armchair Admiral” that the US actually chose a passive course in the Gulf of Aden deliberately, to draw in the other naval deployments we see now, through our own inaction. This may be a valid assessment, although I can’t applaud it as the Armchair Admiral does – because such a tactic had to (rather irresponsibly, in my view) assume away competing political intentions on the part of other actors like Russia and China. No geopolitical situation develops, or is dealt with, in a vacuum; and what is significant to our world standing in this one is that the Somali piracy problem represents an opportunity for other nations to establish a maritime presence in an area with no natural local hegemon, where we have been regarded as the sheriff of the seas for decades – and, in this situation, we did not seek to give Russia and China any qualms or political inhibitions, even pro forma ones, about taking that opportunity. Moreover, other nations who are their regional rivals – India, Japan, perhaps South Korea — have decided that they need to get in on the action – and on the same terms: operating independently for their own national purposes.
This development is very different from nations like Japan and India joining the Iraq coalition, or even from Japan sending a minesweeping task force to the Persian Gulf, to operate as part of the multinational coalition, in Desert Storm. For a country like Malaysia, whose priority of protecting her abundant national shipping is simple and clear, it makes sense to accept the simplest explanation for her decision to send an escort task force to Somalia. For Russia and China, and their great-power rivals India and Japan, we would be imprudent not to consider that the motive is something more. The import of the opportunity in this situation, for Russia to reestablish a military presence on the Horn of Africa, at a key Middle Eastern juncture, is obvious to everyone except, I think, Americans.
China, in her turn, cannot allow Russia to occupy that position unchallenged, because it lies athwart China’s path to her key African clients (and indeed, if Russia could consolidate a hegemonic influence in the Middle East, Moscow would effectively make Beijing as dependent on her goodwill to the West as the same move would make Europe and America to the East). We should, further, not discount the likelihood that India and Japan have the same concern about Russia and China bolstering their regional power, through this move on the Middle East, that the European colonial powers used to have about each other.
The opportunity for Russia
The underlying factor in all these calculations is that American maritime hegemony is not, today, sufficiently absolute to reassure China about Russia’s prospects for making inroads by a maritime path in the Middle East, or to reassure India or Japan, in turn, about China’s. Whether this is a function of a deliberate passivity on our part or not, the strategic hole being opened looks the same. The real geostrategic issue here is not actually whether the US Navy, or a European naval coalition, can effectively suppress piracy. We are almost certain to find that it can, as it appears to already be doing. The real issue is that the United States is showing no signs of asserting maritime hegemony, and instead is leaving the field open for a tacit challenge from Russia – and none of China, India, or Japan is certain of what we will do. They cannot afford to leave, wide open for a Russian power move, a field that we may not assert dominance over.
We need have no illusions about Russia’s current intentions. Diplomatically, Russia has been overtly laboring to undermine the NATO alliance for some time, proposing to supervene it with a larger alliance encompassing Russia, NATO, and other major nations. Moscow is using her control of the flow of gas through Ukraine to gradually put Kiev in an untenable financial position, from which she will only be able to extricate herself by making concessions to Russia on her sovereignty and independence. We should have no doubt that Russia will use such tactics against her gas customers in Europe, if the developing situation in that industry continues to offer her potential opportunities. Europeans understandably view this prospect with grave apprehension.
In addition to functioning as Iran’s principal nuclear patron, resuming her arms patronage of Syria, and invading Georgia, Russia has assigned her navy a rapidly increasing prominence over the past eighteen months, dramatically elevating its budget and procurement efforts, and deploying it to a level not undertaken since the end of the Cold War. Since the invasion of Georgia in August 2008, Russia has deployed thirteen naval ships into the Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific, Mediterranean Sea, and Indian Ocean, including, of course, the deployment to Venezuela and Cuba, as well as the antipiracy task force in the Gulf of Aden. This abruptly active deployment profile has been interestingly coincident with an apparent move by Medvedev (and assuredly Putin) to bring the entrenched leadership of Russia’s military more firmly under their control – a move which is, in particular, entailing moving the navy’s headquarters out of Moscow, and to St. Petersburg. Far from making the navy a bureaucratic backwater, this move suggests a determination on the part of the political leadership to isolate the navy from the rest of the general staff, deal with it more directly from the highest political level, and give it a unique prominence.
Although Russia has been publicly noncommittal about rumors to this effect, we can expect her to resume using Tartus (Syria) and Tripoli (Libya) for forward naval basing, probably in the next two years. Assuming Russia’s antipiracy (and other) deployments continue without provoking a US reaction, we can also expect the Russian navy to resume patronage of Yemen’s Socotra Island anchorage, another reemerging pattern of the Cold War years. The implications of revived naval presence are obvious – but the likely differences of this emerging situation from the Cold War are found in two other of its features.
Differences from the Cold War
The first has already been alluded to: that Russia is not the only actor making a bid for maritime significance in the Middle East. The sheer number of navies proposing to deploy there, but not operate under the umbrella of a US-led coalition, is the most important aspect of the antipiracy effort. Most of them are not like Malaysia, small states without regional power aspirations, seeking mainly to protect their shipping. They are, rather, exactly the list of Asia’s rival great powers: Russia, China, India, and Japan. Over the antipiracy operation itself we should not expect significant squabbling; but the portents of this multipolar manifestation for the future of hemispheric geopolitics are tremendous. Here at the starting line, at least, of a world not ordered by the Pax Americana, the Asian powers perceive themselves as peer competitors in a manner similar to that of the European colonialists a century ago: Great Britain, France, and Germany, which saw themselves as locked in certain geographically-dictated dynamics with each other, as well as with Russia, and the Ottoman Empire.
Because an ideological Islam is such a factor in the Middle East and South Asia, it will perforce be a factor in Russia’s and China’s new “Great Game” there. The difference in the coming years will be that Russia and China themselves –as well as India and Japan, to the extent they remain in the game – will be motivated, and primarily affected, by a less-ideological seeking of national power, control of resources and transport routes, and the means of regional hegemony. They will act far more as Russia and China, traditional nation-states in the context of their historical aspirations and enduring geographic realities, than as agents of any universalist ideology. There will be no grand talk of the state withering away.
The emerging struggle for hemispheric order will thus not be a new Cold War; it will have too many national actors and too little ideological universalism. It is likely to have another key difference from the Cold War as well, one that is also being thrown into relief by the little drama in the Gulf of Aden: that is, the potential importance of paramilitary, and “private” security and commercial actors, to long-term political developments. The US and Europe are actually cutting the path in this regard, with Blackwater, and a number of other American and European security firms, gearing up to offer privately-sourced piracy protection to commercial shipping. That is one thing when American and British firms are being hired – firms whose actions are, legitimately, their own, and subject to critical review by the people’s civilian representatives, and the press; it is quite another if the Russians start doing it.
It is not at all hard to see how Russia could use ostensibly “private” security firms, in a maritime role in the waterways of the Middle East, to both obfuscate and facilitate her execution of national policy. The basis for operating in this manner exists already, in the fact that Russia’s private security firms are generally run by ex-KGB agents and Spetsnaz members, and the government has often either turned a blind eye to the use of their talents by private interests against each other, or even encouraged it. Investigative journalists even report that the government has made use of private security or private military operatives against private Russian entities, as well as against foreign targets. And this, in turn, is all entirely aside from the penetration of private security and commercial organizations by organized crime.
If the private security battle referenced in this oil industry incident in Ukraine is indicative (and we have reason to suppose it reflects a de facto policy position on the part of the highest Russian leadership), we should not expect the Russian version of “private maritime security” to be demure or self-restraining. We know the Russians are, rather naturally, already thinking of deploying it, and only if we are naïve would we believe that their use of it would have the comparatively benign and transparent character of American or European deployments. The fallout is not likely to be back-alley assassinations, so much, although those are certainly possible. But nominally private civilians have the potential to act in opposition to American policies and intentions, without those acts constituting an overt national military confrontation. The difficulty of identifying such actions for what they are, and countering them effectively, only increases with the officially non-military status of the actors.
Rulers commissioning private armies and brigands to advance their policies is an old, old pattern, and one that has prevailed in Asia more recently than in Europe. China is not in the position Russia currently is, to deploy nominally “private” security and paramilitary forces; the arrivals of Chinese in any guise will be promptly recognized as national policy overtures. But China has another skill that will be very much in play in this new Great Game: that of economic entrenchment in strategically significant locations. As she has done in Central American and parts of the Caribbean, China has invested heavily in warehousing, transportation, infrastructure, and port services in the Horn of Africa. She is not there merely to extract oil and sell arms to local thugs; she is acquiring a position from which to both conduct surveillance of rival powers, as they act in the region, and to block their advances with her own local indispensability. China recognizes that her national power is not up to an overt confrontation with Russia (or the US) in the Middle East; but by driving in preemptive commercial and economic stakes, she can slow Russia down, and probably block her at key junctures.
Neither Russia nor China wants a maritime presence in the Gulf of Aden, or elsewhere in the Middle East, solely to protect her shipping. America and our allies can do that for them – if we will — and indeed are busy doing so now. They are there today because their rival efforts, to leverage maritime presence for achieving influence ashore in the region, have begun. The new Great Game will not be a straightforward matter of gray-hull warships circling each other to convey national menace, as during the Cold War. It will not be ruled by the primacy of two global powers, but rather will be made messy, and very possibly more dangerous, by the participation of multiple regional ones. There will be little distorting (or clarifying) ideological cover for this struggle for power and hegemony. To the extent it involves Asian powers wielding often asymmetric and unconventional “force,” and leveraging the opportunities offered by “low-intensity” conflict like piracy or terrorism, it will be difficult for Americans to sort out, according to our abstract categories of political thought.
Where is America’s head in all this?
Americans are not well-equipped, to begin with, to understand the importance of geography and regional rivalry to the Eastern hemisphere. We are a unique, continental maritime power, an unchallenged hemispheric hegemon, with hundreds of miles of unimpeded coastline on the world’s two most politically and commercially significant oceans. We have only an abstract national/cultural stake in the history of the Middle East, and of the nations in the furthest reaches of its hemisphere that have been affected by it. We think of the region’s unseemly eruptions as occasionally hindering our trade, as with the Barbary pirates of adjacent, Islamic North Africa, and the impact of coups and revolutions, in Iran and Iraq, on the oil industry. Our national history and tribal geographical consciousness ill-suit us to understanding that for Russia, non-Slavic rule of the Balkans, and American hegemony of the Middle East, constitute a hostile condition for her southern gateway to the world’s oceans. We have difficulty perceiving that Russia is perpetually motivated by this dynamic vulnerability, and that in seeking to redress it, Moscow must set off alarm bells in Beijing, Delhi, and even Tokyo – as well as the capitals of Europe. Russia’s potential gain, of a controlling regional power in that end of Asia, is a potential loss to them: a threat to their unfettered access to it, and hence to their access to resources and opportunities for trade. Nothing in Russia’s national posture since Putin came to power gives us reason to be sanguine about Russian intentions.
We must not be dismissive or cavalier about these dynamics and motivations. Similar ones drove Europeans to build mighty armies and navies, and fight wars with each other in every corner of the globe, in the global maritime centuries prior to WWI. Before the age of European colonial ascendancy, the empires of the Ottomans, of Rome, and of ancient Persia were cobbled together through just such motivations and dynamics. Even the expeditionary wars of Islam and the Crusades were largely provoked by these very motivations and dynamics, cloaked in religious justifications. They have a long pedigree, and are very real. Because they are so well suited to the nation-state organization, they are likely to be more important to concrete geopolitical developments, over the next decades, than radical Islam, which remains largely nihilistic and destabilizing, and hence poorly suited for power projection and regional maneuver.
I expect America will, as she always does, ultimately come up with a national posture and solution that confound the pragmatic cynicism of traditional geopolitics. If the Cold War is a guide, that may take us several decades. I have no certainty that there is the prospect of an American hyperpower at the other end of the period we are entering now. But our success in maintaining our security perimeter forward, as we do now – well away from our own shores, with our civil liberties and open society intact within them – will depend on how well we understand the importance of these dynamics of regional land power to our aspiring rivals in the Eastern hemisphere. The geography of the East will not change. We have been the de facto hegemon there for so long that we have forgotten that’s what we are – and the lesson we are about to relearn recurs, ironically, from our first national foray into the region to combat the Barbary pirates. We will either be, ourselves, the hegemon of the great crossroads of the Eastern hemisphere, where Europe and Asia and Africa both come together and diverge – or we will pay tribute to the one who is.