The Great Game lives on in the waning days of Western supremacy
Jean-Pierre Lehmann says with Pax Americana unravelling and Europe fading into irrelevance, Central Asia has become the key stage for major powers tussling for a place in the new global order
I was in Astana recently, invited by the Astana Club, a think tank with global perspectives, to a roundtable meeting on “Eurasia at a Crossroads”. There was a very rich discussion – animated, as can be imagined, by the fact that Donald Trump’s electoral victory had occurred only a few days before – with some 60 participants from 22 countries.
Here, I aim to highlight a few key points that illuminate what I have termed “the great game in the new global disorder”.
The Great Game was a term coined in the 19th century, popularised in the 1901 novel Kim by Rudyard Kipling, to describe the rivalry between the British and Russian empires over Afghanistan that extended out to neighbouring states in Central and South Asia. It involved constant tensions with Russia and Britain playing on the Central Asian chessboard; a number of wars erupted.
The Great Game was believed to have ended in 1895; in light of the many tectonically disruptive developments of the 20th century, notably the rise and conquests of the Soviet Union, it seemed to have been relegated to the annals of history. But today, Central Asia has clearly become, and will increasingly be, a key global geopolitical arena; the Great Game is back, albeit with a different set of players.
In a sense, it made its reappearance with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In retaliation, the Americans boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, with the Russians responding in similar fashion four years later in Los Angeles. In 1989, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the war having been a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet empire two years later, as it had been a factor ultimately in the collapse of the British empire in the 19th century.
Will it also prove a factor in the coming collapse of the American empire, or what pundits call Pax Americana, in the 21st century?
The US-USSR conflict over Afghanistan was clearly a phenomenon that belonged to the 20th century cold-war paradigm. Just over 10 years after the Russians left Afghanistan with their tails between their legs, the Americans invaded Afghanistan (in 2001), making it the longest war in American history. Experiencing similar frustrating stalemates to those experienced by the British and the Russians, the US has been bogged down in Afghanistan, counting well over 2,000 soldiers killed and 25,000 wounded in action.
President-elect Trump has said he would bring about the total withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Though there was considerable discussion at the Astana Club meeting regarding which election pledges Trump would be likely, or indeed able, to keep, there was a general consensus that this is one he would be likely to uphold.
While the old order has clearly collapsed, there is as yet no new order discernible on the horizon – thus the “new disorder”. This applies not only to geopolitics and international relations, but also the world of international trade and investment. Though the World Trade Organisation, for example, was established at the very end of the 20th century (1995), it has been mired in a 20th-century framework, failing to adjust to the new forces and dynamics of the 21st century.
One participant at the Astana Club observed that multilateralism is not consistent with multipolarity. There is a need for a leader. The US has failed to exert its leadership role since the beginning of this century – and especially following the 2003 invasion of Iraq – hence the vacuum. As a participant put it: Western global governance and its institutions are no longer operational.
Thus, while throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the world was perceived essentially from a Western prism, there is an imperative to adjust lenses to far more diverse and complex global realities. As the major cultural, economic, political and geopolitical Eurasian crossroads – with borders extending to the Muslim world, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Russia, China and India – Central Asia is clearly a most relevant vantage point from which to look at world. One of the excellent dimensions of the Astana Club was that, unlike so many conferences, not only was it not dominated by Westerners, they were in a minority. The point was emphasised that there is a definite global trend towards “non-Western values”.
One might add that following Britain’s impending withdrawal from the EU and the Trump victory, the West, too, may be abandoning contemporary Western values.
It may be noted that the so-called Western values of liberalism, democracy, openness, and so on, were hardly prominent throughout much of Western history and apply mainly to developments in the second half of the 20th century.
Certainly, not only are we witnessing a decline in Western hard power, but also in soft power. There were a number of Americans present at the Astana Club meeting, many of whom expressed embarrassment in respect to Trump’s election, while there were only a handful of Western Europeans. In fact, the European Union as such was hardly referred to in the meeting, except for noting its growing irrelevance. Though there are many uncertainties in this new global disorder, the increasing marginalisation of Europe on the global stage would appear a near certainty.
Indeed, as there was considerable discussion on the New Silk Road and Maritime Route, just as the European “Union” might be unravelling, Asia may be reconnecting – or what has been termed the re-Asianisation of Asia. In contrast to the waning presence and influence of the EU, frequent reference was made to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, of which Kazakhstan was a founding member in 1996 (along with China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). In a similar vein, with the WTO likely to remain moribund and the deaths of the US-driven Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, probably much more attention should be directed at the Regional Economic Cooperation Partnership.
Whatever form the emerging new global “order” will take remains to be seen, but in the process, Kazakhstan and Central Asia generally will be a key space to watch and from which to watch.
One final world on Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth-largest country in landmass, landlocked, with over 100 diverse ethnicities, predominantly Muslim, but with numerous religious minorities – it is in every respect a real Eurasian melting pot, hence a microcosm of the planet.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor at IMD, founder of The Evian Group, and visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong