Washington’s Challenge in the Great Game
By William Tucker
The last few months have presented quite a challenge to the Obama administration. The domestic uptick in terrorism plots, the Korean crisis, Iranian sanctions, the Afghan war, the Iraq drawdown, and now the Israeli-Turkish spat are all consuming the foreign affairs agenda of the administration not to mention the BP oil incident and the Sestak issue in domestic affairs. Any Presidential administration will be presented with many challenges and it is unlikely that each one can be addressed with the time and effort that is needed. Typically this is where administrations either shine or fade depending on the leadership provided. If the administration is overwhelmed, and fades as a result, political uncertainty follows. Political uncertainty in the U.S. would not be confined to American borders, but would be felt globally.
The aforementioned challenges do not belong to the U.S. alone, however. Many other powers are struggling to address these issues because of pressing domestic matters. This will inevitably create a leadership vacuum on the world stage, and, as we know, power abhors a vacuum. Regional powers looking to assert themselves may fill this void not by offering global leadership, but by stepping in locally and replacing the global power – even if temporarily.
In June 2009, I wrote a short article entitled The Great Unraveling: Rise of the Rogues that discussed this very situation. The subject of The Great Unraveling is based upon the historical concept of the Great Game which was a title given to the competition that took place between the Russian and British Empires in the 19th and 20th centuries over control of Central Asia. This period resulted in a successive string of puppet regimes controlling territory with boundaries that were often arbitrary. The Great Unraveling, however, is a concept that discusses changes within the great powers themselves, thus opening the door for lesser powers to pursue their regional designs.
The uniquity of the Great Game period is merely the title. It is no secret that world powers try to shape other nations or a region in a way that suits their needs and protects their interests. As such, it is no surprise that Russia has been moving back into Central Asia and Ukraine not by territorial conquest, but rather by using influence to shape these former Soviet states behavior. Russia isn’t the only regional actor using the U.S. preoccupation for its own ends. Nations such as Iran, China, Brazil and Turkey are also using the global situation to further their ambitions. As I discussed in China and the Korean Crisis, China will use North Korea to alleviate pressure applied by the United States. China may not have sparked the most recent Korean crisis, but they do stand to benefit from it.
When the Korean crisis began to dominate the headlines the discussion over Iranian sanctions began to take a backseat. The same can be said of the recent crisis between Turkey and Israel replacing the discussion of the Korean issues. The global situation is certainly fluid and just because a new crisis emerges does not mean the other issues will go away by virtue of a lack of media coverage. In fact, intelligence operations designed to deflect attention are a standard means of removing attention from one area while focusing interest on another. Currently, the U.S. is being forced to deal with a confrontation between two U.S. allies – Israel and Turkey. This type crisis may be too much for the U.S. to handle effectively at the moment and a deflective move may be made by Washington. One such way is way is bring the issues of the Caucasus to the fore which happens to be a region that is very sensitive to Turkish and Russian interests. That is if the U.S. can find the time and space to maneuver at all.
It is in this type of environment that non-state actors tend to thrive in. With the U.S. distracted by domestic and foreign issues of a high magnitude, non-state actors, such as terrorists, will make bold moves because of the perceived lack of attention. It is of no coincidence that the amount of terrorist plots directed against the U.S. homeland is at an all time high. Both the political and security establishments have been functioning at a high operational tempo for some time now and are finding it hard to respond to every challenge on the domestic front let alone internationally.
At this point in the global cycle it appears as if the most recent Great Game is being reset. From this macro perspective we can see that small issues such as the numerous terror plots are complicating other, larger issues, at least geopolitically speaking. The U.S. is not in danger of falling from the position as the world’s sole superpower, but it does mean that the U.S. can be overwhelmed when carefully constructed balances between nations are disrupted. When this happens the U.S. will respond because it must and it may do so clumsily. But in the meantime voids will be created and they will be filled by other nations leaving Washington to decide what it must deal with now and what it must put off until later.
photo: White House