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Robert Kaplan on the New New Great Game

February 26, 2011

The U.S. can maintain its global primacy if it (among other things) plays Russia off China, India, Iran and Turkey off Russia and Turkey off Iran. That’s the analysis of globe-spinner extraordinaire Robert Kaplan, along with his brother Stephen (apparently recently retired as a top CIA official).

The essay, America Primed, is in the new edition of The National Interest and doesn’t deal too explicitly with the Caucasus or Central Asia. But it’s all about how the U.S. (assisted by the “Anglosphere,” other English-speaking countries like Canada, the U.K. and Australia) can maintain dominance on the Eurasian continent. And that requires American leadership to make sure that no other country — in particular China, Russia or Iran — gets too powerful. What does that entail, specifically?

For one, playing India off Russia (and “punishing” Pakistan):

Out of national pride, and because of its own tense relationships with China and Pakistan, India needs to remain officially nonaligned. But that will not stop New Delhi from accepting more help from the United States, especially as India now wants to wean itself off Russian arms and replace them with better quality American equipment. Washington should require no quid pro quo from India to make it even more powerful in the region; this is about more than public pronouncements and diplomatic atmospherics, this is about quietly delivering arms, transferring technology and supplying intelligence data to one nation to punish another for taking billions of American dollars without providing the crucial help we require in return.

Also, encouraging Turkey, even with an apparently growing Islamist orientation, to counterbalance Iran:

And Turkey, whose Islamic democracy makes the United States uncomfortable, still has an appeal to the Arab masses on the basis of religion rather than ethnicity which serves a useful purpose: it implicitly checks Iran.

And this juggling act with Russia:

China checks Russia in Central Asia, as do Turkey, Iran and the West in the Caucasus….

Any new Russian empire will be a weak reincarnation of previous ones, limited not only by Chinese influence in the Russian Far East but by Chinese political and economic influence in Muslim Central Asia as well. Newly vibrant states like China, India, Turkey, Poland and Kazakhstan are already containing Russia after a fashion. America’s goal must be to support Russia’s consolidation of its own Far East, so that China will feel less secure on land and consequently be unable to so completely devote its energies to sea power. Balancing against Russia in Europe and yet helping it abroad is the kind of subtle strategy that would help guard against any one nation achieving the level of dominance elsewhere that America already enjoys in the Western Hemisphere.

(Emphasis added.) To those of you not familiar with Kaplan: he has written many books about all sorts of parts of the world, and has a somewhat, to put it mildly, polarizing reputation. But he’s pretty influential, especially in the Pentagon, so his ideas have weight.

I’ll leave aside the merits of his argument, and indeed it’s tough to quibble with any of the factual points he makes in the paragraphs I quote. But what struck me most about the piece is how out of date it sounds. Over the last few years, it seems like Washington has been moving away from this sort of geopolitical balance-of-power, “new Great Game” strategy*. It’s now a boilerplate for U.S. policymakers to publicly criticize zero-sum thinking in Eurasia, and think tank thinking on Central Asia and the Caucasus has lately been emphasizing how the U.S. needs to treat the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia as their own entities, rather than as an extension of the U.S.’s policy on Russia or any other power. There are obviously still vestiges of zero-sum thinking, the U.S.’s support for Georgia being one obvious one. But even that has waned significantly since 2008 (both as a result of the Russia-Georgia war and the Russia “reset” of the Obama administration). If the U.S. puts a military base in Tajikistan or Azerbaijan or anywhere else now, it’s going to be in spite of, not because of, Russia.

Of course, Robert Kaplan takes sounding out of date as a point of pride; he is perhaps the only person still plugging Mackinder. And everything is cyclical, so he maybe he’s ahead of the curve rather than behind it., But either way, it makes me curious what sort of purchase this thinking will find in D.C. today.

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