Gordon Gibson is a former columnist and served as executive assistant to Pierre Trudeau and as leader of the BC Liberal Party.
For most of the 19th century, the British and Russian Empires were involved in a continuing skirmish that was mostly diplomatic, but at times kinetic. That series of conflicts, which included the Crimean War, was fought over a sprawling territory from India to the Middle East, centred on Afghanistan. This was effectively ended by the diminution of the power of Russia in 1905 after a major naval defeat against Japan, but the conflict was long and brutal.
That was the Great Game, a description popularized by the British writer Rudyard Kipling. Playing on the one side were the Brits, who were deeply concerned about their colonial jewel of India; on the other side was Russia, a vigorously expansionist power. The Brits hung on.
The Western world is now deeply involved in a new Great Game, more important than the last.
The character of the 19th-century players was very different from today’s competitors. Briefly put, both sides back then were made up of hard men, for these purposes meaning ruthless and ready to absorb suffering for imperial ends. Both sides also made plans based on long time horizons: The then-czars enjoyed extended dictatorial spans, while the British system, though a democracy, was very different than what exists today. It was completely guided by the aristocracy, and while its members differed on many questions, they worked as one on all matters imperial.
The Cold War, closely following the Second World War, was something of a repeat of this Great Game dynamic, substituting the United States for Britain: The players remained strong, united and determined opponents. The nuclear balance of terror kept the world in tense stability until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
But then the western world relaxed, and became rich and soft. The extent of this change can hardly be overstated. But it now turns out the “games” did not end. And while the West largely thinks we are doing well, we are not – and that will change the world, if we don’t wake up. Simply put, we need either to toughen up, or shrink our claimed sphere of influence.
Today, there are still ultimately two sides. On one side is a western world led by the United States, accompanied by mostly free riders in terms of military power. The unity of this group is questionable if things start to get painful.
The other side is yet more complex. We have Russia dominating the news with its invasion of Ukraine, but we also have Iran, which has recently claimed to have the technical ability to build a nuclear bomb, and China, which intends to possess Taiwan. The unity of this group is clearly developing, and gradually enticing the world’s second and fourth most populous countries, India and Indonesia.
Whether formally allied or not, though, this drivers of this latter group share the characteristics of the players of the original Game: a ruthlessness and a willingness to absorb national suffering for national interests, buttressed by long time horizons not easily found in democracies.
In the West, our people now tend to be soft (and decent), not hard. We tend to be rules-ridden rather than ruthless. We don’t much like to contemplate suffering of any kind. And as functioning modern democracies with relatively frequent elections, our time horizons tend to be measured in years, rather than in decades.
So when U.S. President Joe Biden made his very first statement after Russia deployed troops into Ukraine, it included a vow that “we have no intention of fighting Russia.” Weapons provided to Ukraine have been carefully calibrated to minimize risk of Russian retaliation at NATO. Economic sanctions, tailored to avoid pain for voters, have turned out to be a one-shot weapon, failing to change any behaviour thus far.
Iran will soon have a bomb, unless the United States bombs Iran first, which is highly unlikely. (On this count, the Israelis, still a steely people, may surprise us with their capabilities.)
And if anyone thought that Ukraine was difficult to defend without boots on the ground, the island nation of Taiwan would be nearly impossible. China need be in no hurry to invade: A blockade of all trade (except via mainland China) would accomplish its interim ends and seriously damage the United States’ need for Taiwan’s advanced semiconductors for military and other purposes.
In the meantime, we will likely find ourselves with a bifurcated world in terms of trade and, especially, financial systems. Autocracies are never again going to put themselves at the mercy of the U.S. Federal Reserve. This is another “own goal” of U.S. policy to date.
Where will this go? Hopefully not to war, though no one can predict the future. Based on the present, however, the likelihood is that the hard people will considerably chip away at the geopolitical hegemony that the soft people have held, in one way or another. The soft people – that is to say, us – can either accept the new realities, or toughen up in ways many of us would find uncivilized or inconvenient.
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