End of “the great game”

The old game is dead. Keep playing it and our civilization is over. Try winning that one.


Russia’s Ukraine invasion has raised the specter of World War “Final” as Vladimir Putin, sinking into a colossal military blunder, has threatened using nuclear weapons to subdue Ukraine. It was bound to happen as the world’s major powers have never let up maneuvering against one another. In the 19th century this dance was known as “The Great Game”, a rivalry among Russia, Britain, France, and Germany. When the Soviet Union and U.S. were at loggerheads, we called it the Cold War. 

It’s always the same game, of course—no matter how it’s called everyone’s still hard at it, jockeying for position. But they are wrong. They’re all wrong.

There is no more “winning” this game. The game is over. To play to win is to lose. To think you can win is to lose. Conditions are far more absolute and dire than the nuclear threat was back in the early days of the nuclear era. The Great Game could lurch along on the basis of “mutually assured destruction”. It cannot hold up under ever more frequent environmental disasters; sheer density of non-nuclear hyper-destructive weaponry; a more lethal pandemic; resurgence of authoritarian regimes world-wide; debased social-media driven public discourse; and political leadership devoid of life-affirming ideas for the future. Today, every policy decision that reflects Great Game thinking undermines political, economic, military, and moral stability.

The Cold War’s end in 1991 was supposed to inaugurate the American Century. Or so went the triumphant crowing at the time. We blew that one. In 1994 Paul Wolfowitz, who haunts American politics like a leftover Dracula forced to live in public housing, wrote a report that was scathingly criticized for its bellicose stance towards the rest of the world. It was toned down somewhat at first, but George W. Bush revived it after 9/11. It is known now as the Wolfowitz or Bush Doctrine and it claims that once the Soviet Union fell, the way was clear for U.S. global dominance enforced by our unchallenged military power.

Instead of working with Russia to establish an overarching collaboration to create a peaceful world—Putin actually inquired about joining NATO in 2000we stuck to that damned Doctrine no matter the cost. Our adherence to it after 9/11 undermined global stability and provided terrorist groups with enough recruiting videos to last another century. Our own country has torn itself apart over the fall-out and blown trillions of dollars better spent on health care, infrastructure, schools, the environment, and poverty relief. Nor can we forget the tens of thousands of American lives lost, shattered, and disrupted. Or the milllions of people killed, maimed, and displaced by our invasions.

The Chinese gave Putin a go-ahead to invade Ukraine and they figured they’d made the smart play in the updated Great Game. Disrupt the U.S. electorate while Biden fumbles. Damage the Western alliance. Distract from their own aggressive maneuvering in the western Pacific and suppression of liberties in Hong Kong. Play the economic card against the U.S. when appropriate. Accelerate the Russo-Sino cyber-war against the U.S. The U.S. is in debt up to its Rocky Mountain summits. A 2008-level financial convulsion will probably trigger civil war or authoritarian overthrow of the Constitution by the Republican Party waving a banner of orange fur snatched from Trump’s scalp. And China becomes the new adjudicator of international affairs. Welcome to the Chinese Century.

So they may have calculated. But now the western alliance has been rejuvenated. This is not necessarily a good thing. If it leads to another arms race and more inflammatory rhetoric against Russia and China (once the war ends), it will end in disaster. But today, in these conditions, a strong stand against Putin is necessary. And Biden hasn’t fumbled, not in regard to Russia. If anything, he has responded with effective diplomacy, making clear the limits of our military response while providing military aid to Ukraine without which the horrors of Russian victory and occupation would outstrip anything seen thus far. 

Despite the history of U.S. provocation, nothing comes close to justifying or rationalizing the invasion or horrors Russia has inflicted on Ukraine. The invasion never made sense, even from a Russian perspective. Putin was scoring diplomatic wins against the U.S.: Georgia and the Crimea; the alliance with China; the pipeline to Germany; pro-Russian leaders in several former Soviet republics. Now he has severely damaged Russia’s international position and turned a region (eastern Ukraine) where Russsia claimed significant support into a devout enemy. If Russia seizes any Ukrainian territory, armed resistance will bleed Russia dry.

Perhaps, as some charge, the U.S. is using Putin’s invasion to wage a proxy war against Russia. But no one forced Putin to invade. He could, for instance, have occupied Donbas and hoped for the best, articulating a semi-rational, if unjust, defense. Or continued applying diplomatic pressure against the U.S. to counter our attempts to expand NATO. But he initiated a full-scale, no-holds-barred invasion targeting civilians. He needs to be defeated.

The world is changed; a terrible pragmatism is born, to paraphrase Yeats. Our past sins do not mean we have to stand by and allow Putin to invade the heart of Europe. Conversely, Putin’s invasion does not absolve us of our bad faith in dealing with Russia or the ways in which we’ve normalized invasion over the past seventy years.

Despite there being no real winners here, strategists and pundits are busily forecasting the invasion’s impact on the Great Game. Is it the end of the “American era”? The shift of the world center to Asia? Fascism reborn? A battle between globalism and national hegemony?

A case can be made for any or all of those choices but the real answer is “None of the above.” The Game is unplayable. Strategy and tactics are illusions. The military clock is ticking. The demographic and economic clocks are ticking. Above all, the environmental clock is not just ticking, its alarm has been blaring for years. The chaos unleashed by Putin and smugly watched over by the Chinese will eventually prove as destructive for them as for Ukraine. And for us. There is only one game left: the survival of human civilization. We all win or lose together.

In a Pentagon-sponsored think-tank I took part in a decade ago, one China expert stated that while China was content with the (then) current global dynamics, their strategy was geared for global supremacy 30 or 40 years down the road. Ten years later, China might well view the timeline as accelerated. Between the Trump presidency, the viral outbreak of mindless rage and racism, ten more years depleting ourselves at war, and a disintegrating infrastructure, China and Russia can hardly be blamed for figuring the time was ripe to nudge us towards the precipice.

Initial Republican support for Russia’s invasion was less a political position than a thrashing around in the grips of a weird brain pathology. It’s what happens when a population is softened up by decades of Cold War and Fox-Limbaugh-Carlson brainwashing. Our own invasions have made war a media spectacle we don’t take seriously enough. The Republicans’ racism, greed, and attempts to overthrow the Constitution by fixing elections in perpetuity go hand in hand with the theocratic, mindless religious fanaticism that animates the GOP. That they now offer muted, limited support for Ukraine is due only to public revulsion against the invasion. As for Trump, he is still, as they say, Putin’s punk as he has been for decades. Follow the money: the Russians own him.

The more rational Democratic wing of the U.S. government is correct to use sanctions and diplomacy to thwart Putin. However, if this comes with the militaristic poison that both Democrats and Republicans, and much of the American public, have bought into since 1945, it will be disastrous. This war is not an opportunity to drive defense budgets higher than their already over-inflated levels. It is not an opportunity to reinvigorate NATO with an anti-Russian mission or mortally wound Russia as a major power. Russia isa major power and we have to live with it. Nor is it a time for idiotic patriotic jingoism. It is an opportunity to reassess the basic assumptions that have driven the U.S. into countless wars under a corrupt, paranoid, power-hungry leadership culture. 

There is a Catch for any leader or nation thinking it can emerge from this with an advantage. Call it Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or history’s Catch-2022, it is woven of an iron web and it applies to every nation in the world, especially the most powerful. The Catch is this:

The old great game is dead. Our world is so close to disintegration, its way of maintaining itself so untenable, that every step taken to assert dominance shatters another foundation stone of human society. There is a chess term—zugzwang—used when any move a player makes can only wreck their position. Whether there are three empires in the Great Game, 200 nations, or 8 billion individuals, we are all in zugzwang. Unless we recognize that there can be no more “sides”, unless we strive together to salvage the air, climate, water, democratic ideals, and the health of the human species, we lose.

The old game is dead. Keep playing it and our civilization is over. Try winning that one.


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