The Return of the Great Game in Asia

In Diplomacy on February 15, 2009 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

The recent announcement by Kyrgyzstan that it will terminate the agreement with the United States for the use of Manas airbase marks a return to a sort of regional political maneuvering not seen in Central Asia since the Great Game of the 19th Century, when Russia and Britain competed for influence there. While the base closure has immediate implications for the American-led mission in Afghanistan, the much more important point is the willingness of Russia to actively assert itself by leveraging its geographical proximity and sheer size to weaken American influence in Central Asia and American power in general.

Russia recognizes that the U.S. is not in a position to offer the sort of financial incentives to foreign governments that might have been possible when the economy was strong and terrorism seemed a more compelling and immediate danger. Faced with pressure to focus on domestic problems and waning public interest in security issues, the Obama administration will likely have a hard time selling any significant foreign aid package to Congress or the public. Further, the new president is not likely to be willing to confront Russia this early in his administration over an issue that seems more an inconvenience (albeit a large one) than a crisis.

Seizing on this favorable combination of circumstances, Russia has moved to present the U.S. with a fait accompli, providing Kyrgyzstan with substantial financial aid and loan guarantees in what clearly appears to be a direct exchange for the closure of Manas airbase to American forces (claims to the contrary notwithstanding). While its own currency has been weakened by the global economic slump and the fall in oil prices, the Russians recognize that in relative terms they are more capable of making such an investment than the Americans are right now.

The short-term implications are troubling: without a secure line of communication through Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. may be forced to rely upon risky routes through Pakistan to transport military supplies to forces in Afghanistan (Russia has offered to allow non-military supplies to transit on a case-by-case basis, certainly not an adequate substitute for Manas). With the number of troops committed in Afghanistan intended to rise as the force in Iraq is drawn down, supply requirements will only increase.

In the bigger picture, however, things become considerably more difficult. If the U.S. must rely on Pakistani routes, the probability of more cross-border strikes from Afghanistan into Pakistan increases. This, along with any increased U.S. presence in the country, will almost certainly inflame local anti-American opinion further, creating a degree of instability in Pakistan that could lead to a variety of outcomes, none of them good for American interests. In a region with few American allies, any such situation could have dire consequences for the U.S. ability to act effectively.

At the same time, Russia’s recent willingness to play hardball with the United States and Europe (witness the gas dispute that cut off supplies to much of Europe for several days) does not bode well for a rise in international cooperation of the sort envisioned by many with the end of the Bush presidency. For its part, Russia appears far less interested in promoting any sort of broad-based multilateral cooperation, and with good reason; it is much easier and more effective for Russia to work toward fragmenting America’s diplomatic network of allies, and then keeping those countries divided from each other. Russia need not find allies of her own in order to increase her standing in the world and her leverage among the other Great Powers; it is sufficient at this point to simply divide the most dominant competing powers – the United States and the European Union – from their allies and otherwise undermine their security indirectly.

While counter to American stated policy and diplomatic tradition (at least as popularly perceived), Russian efforts must be countered with similarly hard-minded policies. While it may be challenging to find ways to undermine Russian interests and thus weaken its ability to project power into areas important to America, it is something the U.S. must do if it wishes to continue to maintain the diplomatic capability to influence countries in these regions in a sustained and meaningful way. The alternatives are having to resort to unilateral military force or acquiescence to Russian policy, neither of which should be considered desirable, as they will only serve to further the weakening of American power and global standing at this time.

This is likely to be the first of many such situations confronting the new administration. Beyond Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and others will be watching to see how the U.S. reacts. The rhetoric of cooperation and rebuilding American relations abroad suggest a degree of optimism in the administration is events thus far do not appear to warrant. As things stand, many countries have less to gain by cooperating with the U.S. than they do by reducing its power and influence. International cooperation only works when there are compelling reasons for other countries to cooperate; when these do not exist, other methods must be employed to protect American interests. Let’s hope the White House reading list includes some titles about Bismarck and Metternich, and perhaps even Machiavelli.

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