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The Great Game Then and Now (Address to the Conference on Oil and Gas in the Caspian Sea Region: Geopolitical and Regional Security, sponsored by the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation)

Speaker: Michael Mandelbaum, Christian Herter Professor, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University
March 12,1998
Foreign Affairs


Note: Remarks as prepared for delivery

To refer to the politics and economics of Caspian Basin energy as “the new Great Game” is to deploy an historical analogy. It is to compare what is happening in the Caspian Basin now with the imperial rivalry between Russia and British India in the Caucasus and Central and Southwest Asia in the nineteenth century. The deployment of analogies in this way is familiar, useful, perhaps even necessary. After all, the past is our only real guide to the future, and historical analogies are instruments for distilling and organizing the past and converting it to a map by which we can navigate. During the Cold War, American diplomats were perpetually concerned to avoid “another Munich” and American military officials sought to prevent “another Pearl Harbor.” Lately, we are being warned about the need to avoid, in Kosovo, “another Bosnia.”

The appeal of this particular analogy, moreover. is plain. There are indeed parallels between the events to which it refers that were important in the last century and those to which it also refers that promise to be important in the next one. The region in queston is the same. In both cases, high stakes were involved—in the nineteenth century the control of territory and the security of what were then the two largest empires on the planet, in the twenty-first the enormous wealth that flows from the exploitation of energy resources. Conflict is a feature of both cases. Then, two great European powers were rivals. Now, although there are many players in this new Great Game, they often have different interests. And lurking beneath the surface of current events, at least in the eyes of some, is the specter of the revival of the great antagonism of global politics in the second half of the twentieth century, the one between the United States and the Soviet Union.

While analogies are useful, however, they can also be misleading. They smuggle in assumptions that can be wrong. That, I believe, is the case here. The differences between the Anglo-Russian rivalry in the 19th century and the politics and economics of Caspian Basin energy in the 21st are more important than the similarities.

The first difference is captured by the term itself “The Great Game” has a romantic overtone. The romanticism associated with this great imperial rivalry was typical of the 19th century, or at least of the 20th century’s retrospective view of it. This was a game played by brave, eccentric, often lone adventurers who journeyed into hostile, unknown territory, sometimes dying tragically, or heroically, or both. In Britain in the 19th century the names of the players of the Great Game were well-known: Conilly, beheaded by the Emir of Bokhara; Burnes, martyred in the first Afghan war; Younghusband, the last in the line of great explorers of Chinese Turkestan. There were also Russian equivalents who were known in Russia in the 19th century but whose names were blotted out by a Bolshevik regime that had no use for them.

These individuals played the same role in the culture as the great explorers of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth: Stanley, Sir Richard Burton, Lewis and Clark, the polar explorers Scott and Amundsen. They were especially appealing figures because their histories exalted the individual in an age that was already beginning to be dominated by machines and organizations.

But the exploitation of Caspian Basin energy is pre-eminently, quintessentially, the work of powerful machines and vast organizations. The participants are teams of executives, geologists, engineers and bankers. The contrast with the lone heroes of yesteryear could not be starker.

Where the metaphor of the game is concerned, the differences are also stark. The players of today are different than the players of the 19th century. Then there were two more or less equal contestants, both present in full force in the stretch of Asia that they contested. They were like prize fighters glowering at each other from opposite corners of the ring: Russia from the northwest, British India in the southeast. The players in the game of Caspian Basin energy are different. There are many sovereign states, not just two. There are many private interests. Russia, of course, is still important for reasons of geography, but the United States cannot substitute for British India because it is not and will not be physically present. There will be no American expeditionary force to Central Asia. If the politics and economics of the Caspian Basin turn into a military contest the United States will not wage it directly. But it is not a military contest. The rules are different.

The Great Game of the 19th century took place in the age of empire. It was a contest for direct control of territory and its inhabitants. Today, we live in the age of national, or at least local, sovereignty. Imperial control is difficult to impose and costly to sustain. Nineteenth century Britain found itself in direct control of distant territory in the Third World despite the fact that no one in London wanted this. Today, by contrast, while neo-imperial impulses may live on in Russia, the obstacles to acting on these impulses are formidable.

In fact, the stakes are different now then they were then. The 19th century Great Game was in essence a contest for power. Such contests are zero-sum games: one player’s gain is another’s loss. That is why the logic of international politics is the logic of conflict. Where Caspian Basin energy is concerned, the stake is economic gain; consequently, the logic is one of cooperation. There was, to be sure, some cooperation between the antagonists in the old Great Game. Afghanistan was tacitly left as a buffer state between the two; at the end of the 19th century Persia was divided into spheres of influence in anticipation of the larger conflict that began in 1914. And it is also true, of course, that conflicts—or at least disagreements—are involved in the division of energy resources of the Caspian, above all over how to apportion the riches of the Caspian Sea itself.

In the new Great Game relative gains do matter. But absolute gains are more important. Every player would like to have a larger share of the pie than the others, but above all every one of them wants to get something, which requires cooperation. So the essence of Caspian energy politics is cooperation, and of that there has been a great deal, in the form of multinational consortia, cooperation among governments, and cooperation between and among different firms from different countries for the sake of energy exploration and retrieval and the building and refurbishment of pipelines. And this cooperation includes Russia. The appropriate metaphor for the politics of Caspian energy is therefore not imperial rivalry; the illuminating comparison is not with the Anglo-Russian Great Game of the 19th century or the scramble for Africa at the end of that century. It bears a far closer resemblance to a large business deal put together by lawyers, executives and bankers. All wish to maximize their own individual shares, but all need a deal of some kind or nobody gets anything. And, in fact, the exploitation of Caspian Basin energy riches requires, and involves, a series of just such deals.

The business deal is one analogy that captures some features of Caspian energy that a comparison with the 19th century Great Game leaves out: three others are also instructive.

The first of these is with Bosnia. Bosnia stands for conflicts arising from the lack of fit between political borders and the geographic distribution of ethnic and national groups. It is relevant because both deposits of energy and actual and proposed pipeline routes are located in just such geopolitical seismic zones. The relevant place names are familiar: Karabakh, Chechnya, Georgia. These areas, with their ethnic and national conflicts, resemble Bosnia but with the complication that, unlike in the Balkans, tangible Western interests are at stake. Pipeline routes are potentially hostage to warring national and ethnic groups.

The second relevant analogy has to do with the danger not to outside powers but to the local countries. The analogy is to Nigeria, which stands for the danger that oil wealth will lead to corruption, political disintegration and, in the long term, even economic debilitation. The windfall of great riches can, if mismanaged, make things worse, not better, for the recipients.

The third and final analogy is to the position of Britain in the Arab Middle East after World War I. The British inherited responsibility for much of the Ottoman Arab provinces and for the Arabian peninsula after the defeat of the Turks in 1918. But that responsibility turned out to involve thankless and expensive tasks, which London attempted to shrug off almost from the beginning. Managing the Middle East competed with more important responsibilities, first in India then in Europe. The American relationship to the Caspian Basin is, I believe, relevant here. From the point of view of the United States, the Caspian Basin is considerably less important that the Persian Gulf, for the simple reason that it has considerably less energy. It is the Gulf that matters in economic and therefore in strategic terms. The Gulf is where the United States, willy-nilly, has serious responsibilities. It is not particularly illuminating to describe the task of shouldering those responsibilities as a game. That task is frustrating and dangerous. But it cannot be abandoned, except at great cost. The Persian Gulf is too important, because of its energy reserves, and too unstable, because of its culture, and politics, to be left to local forces. Happily, that is not true of the Caspian Basin.


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