Another “Great Game”

Posted in Europe | 13-Oct-03 | Author: Dieter Farwick

In his famous novel “The Great Game” the British journalist Peter Hopkins describes the 19th century power struggle between “Victorian Britain” and “Tsarist Russia” in Central Asia.

Nowadays the competitors have changed, but not the region, where today there is another power struggle underway in Central Asia and the Greater Middle East.

It is the power struggle between United States and Great Britain on one side, and France, Germany and Russia on the other side, forming a war-coalition and an anti-war-coalition, at least from 2002 onwards.

There is the superpower USA – France calls it “hyperpuissance” – with the vision of a “Pax Americana” in which the United States is willing and capable of designing vast parts of the world according to its interests, aims and objectives. The minimum target is to be regarded as the “indispensable power” (Madeleine Albright). This superpower has the political resolve and resources to act as “hard power”, if possible with a coalition, if necessary unilaterally.

On the other side there is the ”axis” of France, Germany and Russia, who feel uncomfortable with this superpower in a unipolar world. There are at least two options to close the gap between the superpower and inferior states. You can close the gap with own efforts and capabilities. With weak economies in France and Germany or different national priorities in Russia, however, you do not possess the resources to compete with the superpower. Therefore this option is not realistic.

As a second option, there remains a chance to bring the superpower down to a lower level. Not by war and economic competition but as “soft powers” sitting on the moral high ground. (That Russia is a very hard power in its own sphere of interest is an entirely different topic).

In this respect, the phase leading up to the war against Iraq was a perfect stage to play the game against the superpower. It was not a fight for more influence and power for the UN or the fight in Germany’s federal elections in Germany or the fear of human casualties in a war. It was the chance to show the superpower its limitations. It was not that difficult to win the majority of worldwide public opinion against the war in Iraq.

Against this public opinion the US-led coalition waged the war to change the regime in Iraq. The arguments to defend this decision were not always very convincing.

Within 20 days the Great War was over. Regime change was brought about without a high number of casualties, without uproar in the Arabic world, without thousands of refugees destabilising neighbouring countries, without thousands of suicide attacks around the globe. In sum, the superpower did not lose even a minor part of its clout. On the contrary, the superpower demonstrated military superiority never before seen in history.

As a result of the war Northern Korea accepted six-nation talks – not without political pressure and arm twisting from China - and the “road map” was created for Israel/Palestine.

That could have been the time to bury the pre-war tensions and to use the momentum to stabilise Iraq and the region by working together towards “nation building”. The fact that the world had begun to fathom the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime with thousands tortured and murdered could have bridged the rift. But, the still missing “smoking gun” and the struggle about a “vital” or “substantial” role for UN were taken as pretext not to lend substantive support to the war coalition.

The Great War was over and a kind of guerrilla warfare started. The almost daily casualties – which were given high visibility in the media – were taken as proof of the superpower’s inability to come to grips with the problems.
The anti-war-coalition mixed face-saving activities with the strategic aim and objective to damage the superpower.
More and more observers have come to realise the “Great Game” behind the stage setting of Iraq.

It comes as no surprise to me that a rising number of publications point out this fact. It started with Thomas Friedman’s provocative article “France and the United States are at war” (New York Times, Sep 19) followed by John Vinocur’s ”For its intellectuals, France falters” (International Herald Tribune, Oct 2). In this piece he mentions various French publications pointing out the risks of anti-American politics. In addition, the German magazine ”Der Spiegel“ (issue 41/2003 from Oct. 6) published an article which could be translated as “Cruisade of ideals” in which Chirac is described as a “terminator”, championing the legacy of de Gaulle, who waged a life-long fight against American supremacy and even left NATO’s military organisation for this very reason.

It sounds cynical, but it is true: The anti-war-coalition is not interested in glorious success for the United States in Iraq, because it would strengthen the hegemon and cement a unipolar world for decades.
A failure of the US-led coalition in Iraq will make things very explosive in the whole region of Central Asia and the Greater Middle East, with political, cultural and economic repercussions around the globe. Europe will suffer heavily in the energy and export industry. A recovery of the present weak economies will be postponed, because the money the United States has to pour into Iraq is not available to push the American economy forward. This will delay the reconstitution of weak economies in Europe and Japan.

USA will survive as a damaged superpower – in a multipolar world on a low level with China as the winner of this outcome.

It could be that the anti-war-coalition does not want to go that far – because of its own vital interests. There may be a line in the sand they do not want to cross.
A prerequisite of their involvement in Iraq is obviously the public confession of the USA that it has failed and it needs support. They want to force United States down onto its knees.
This would mean the “hard power” would have been outflanked by tricky “soft powers”.
Then, the world would look totally different from today – to the detriment of worldwide stability and the fight against worldwide terrorism.
Obviously, that is a price the “axis” of France – as lead nation -, Germany and Russia are willing to pay.

We should not underestimate the already existing rift between USA and "Old Europe" plus Russia. Russia is very interested in a strategic partnership with the United States. But Russia cannot have it both ways; it has to choose which side it will take.

The 'silver bullet' for this dilemma lies within NATO and the NATO-Russia Council. NATO could be an umbrella to bring at least "Old Europe" and USA together again. NATO member states should start an initiative to take over responsibility in Iraq as they did reluctantly in Afghanistan.
NATO as the most successful alliance in history has lots of experience and inner resources for handling an emerging crisis.