Posts Tagged ‘Geopolitics’

Brzezinski in Canada, or how to keep the US number one in the world

Zbigniew Brzezinski is a long time foreign policy expert and advisor to the US government, former National Security Advisor to US president Jimmy Carter, and much listened to on the subject of maintaining the US as the leading global power, specifically by way of being the dominant player in key geographies of Asia and Europe.

He gave a talk on foreign policy in April. The talk was held in Canada, and touched on the subject of US geopolitical preeminence in the emerging multi-polar world.

In his famous book, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives, Brzezinski writes that “Unlike earlier empires, this vast and complex global system is not a hierarchical pyramid. Rather, America stands at the center of an interlocking universe, one in which power is exercised through continuous bargaining, dialogue, diffusion, and quest for formal consensus, even though that power originates ultimately from a single source, namely, Washington, D.C. And that is where the power game has to be played, and played according to America’s domestic rules.”

Also from the same book: “[…] how America ‘manages’ Eurasia is critical. Eurasia is the globe’s largest continent and is geopolitically axial. A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced  and economically productive regions[…] Eurasia is thus the chessboard on which the struggle for global primacy continues to be played.”

The video is made available by the Canadian International Council.

In his 30 minute April talk, Brzezinski discusses how the US can try to maintain global dominance in a changing power dynamic, and focuses on Israel and Palestine, Iran, and Afghanistan and Pakistan as pivotal issues.

Brzezinski says that a solution to the conflict between Palestine and Israel is critically important to the US if it wants to keep stable relations with its Middle Eastern allies and not have those same leaders become destabilized by domestic opposition to the continuing crisis that affects the entire region. He insists that it is urgent to establish the two-state solution, or there is a threat that, and here he paraphrases Israel’s existing defence minister Ehud Barak, the result will be one state, and it will be an apartheid state.

On Iran, Brzezinski promotes long term diplomacy with the possible use of sanctions. He says that threats will only make things worse. I assume by threats, he does not oppose economic ones such as sanctions, but rather military threats or threats of regime change. It is evident that he wishes to integrate Iran into the US centered international system, and believes that given real diplomacy there is a good chance of this integration taking place, something along the lines of Turkey perhaps.

Brzezinski states that Pakistan must me assured, by the US, that Afghanistan will remain under Pakistan’s zone of influence in order for it to have ‘strategic depth’ in relation to India. Otherwise, Brzezinski believes Pakistan’s support, which is crucial, will not be guaranteed during the US-NATO war in Afghanistan.

Europe is mentioned as a vital player, a key junior partner of the US necessary to present a multinational face aligned behind the US as world power becomes more dynamic and multi-polar.

The talk also touches on Russia, mentioning that the US (with the help of Europe, as detailed in some of his writings) must work to bring Russia into the West. He notes that Russia will not enter into the alliance of the West if it perceives itself as a potential empire which could then stand apart from and in contrast to the US imperial project. For this reason, he thinks it is imperative that Ukraine be encouraged to maximize its independence from Russia.

Lastly, he notes that China has become the clear dominant power on the Asian mainland. However, it has achieved this not in opposition to the existing international systems but rather from within them. This has created a great degree of interdependency between the US and China. Critically, we can see that China has not at this point directly contested the global system which has the US as its centre of power and base for operation.

Though he speaks in Canada, Brzezinski, only mentions the country in passing maybe twice. It seems assumed that Canada is a fully integrated entity and an extension of the US system of global operation.

In this vision of world power, a handful of the most powerful are detailed as key players, citizens of the global system if you will, and huge parts of the rest of the world designated as the “global Balkans”, a region where world leaders conduct their power plays and proxy wars.


Assumptions in the language of conflict management: US and Israeli war games against Iran

February 10, 2010 Leave a comment

A scene from the film 'Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb'

Three war games have recently reviewed the US and Israeli options and outcomes in the face of Iran’s nuclear program. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has very briefly analyzed these games and has presented its own conclusions.

I am here going to respond to Jeffrey White’s analysis of these games. I am most interested in his choice of language, and unfortunately only have the time to comment on two out of the three games.

White provides highlights of the Harvard war game, which had as its goal an investigation of the general evolution of events and international actions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program.

1) The US could not organize “meaningful support for sanctions.”

2) Russia and China engaged in their own “secret negotiations with Iran.”

3) Iran ‘won’ the game by increasing its supply of uranium and “was proceeding to weaponization.”

My response:

1) The game is conducted by an American institution and focuses on the central role of the US as the catalyst or primary actor, seemingly subordinating other state actors as responders to US policy on the issue. That the US could not coordinate sanctions may well be rewritten as any number of other states having varying levels of ‘success’ in rolling out their own plans. I don’t here mean to say that the agency of other states is not recognized by individual players who represent state actors, but rather that we should be aware that the game assumes the central motive of investigating US interests in degrees related to a binary dimension, success/failure. This game assumes then that the dominant articulation of US interest in regards to Iran, the Middle East, and Asia, is an inviolate constant. It does not investigate international interest, simply US interest. I would argue that it investigates this the issue not simply from the point of view of war games conducted by the interested nation’s institution but also assumes the given that US power is hegemonic, if not implying that US hegemony is good then at least ignoring the question entirely. I argue that ignoring the question of articulating power can lead to or facilitate a quest to maximize power for power’s sake and forgetting why an exertion of national will is necessary in the first place. The danger inherent in accepting dominant paradigms of trans-regional power is that actors may forget that it may well be desirable to seek political action for something other than the accumulation of power but may be the means to a multitude of goals.

2) That it would be stated that Russia and China would seek “secret” negotiations with Iran relates to my first point. It suggests that any negotiation with Iran outside the schema presented by US arbitration or national interest is a breach of some unvoiced law. What is here meant by secret? That the US or those of its allies in full compliance with its national interest were not invited to bilateral talks between Russia or China and Iran? Just as the US and European nations have the right, as independent state actors, to enter into private negotiations with a second party, I would think that China or Russia would also enter into dialogue with those they see fit without necessarily seeking outside approval. If the full transcript of bilateral talks are not made available in the case of the US and some second party, this might be for the reason of its national interest, such as the mutable outcome of sensitive negotiations not yet concluding in formal agreement. That the bilateral talks of non-US actors working independently of this forcibly centralized player are articulated as “secret” suggests a displeasure with independent action that may be counter to US interest, but disguises this self-interest as a form of breach that requires secrecy.

3) Here is revealed another assumption made by the game, that Iran, without question, seeks to have nuclear weapons. The nature of Iran’s nuclear program is not questioned, it is presented as a weapons program. Within this assumption is inscribed the message that the program is an act of aggression against the US, meaning that it is contrary to US interest. Here is assumed that the US has a right, perhaps it would be worded as a responsibility in some journals, to exert its political, economic, and military power within the Asian continent, far from its shores and that local actors must not have the power to threaten US monopoly on violence. This relates very much to the symbolic reduction of US wars of aggression within the region, such as in the case of Iraq, to police action in which the police/US has the right to violence while other states must be presented as subjects — international citizens — in a necessarily undefined global system in which their actions could well be regarded as criminal if it falls outside US interest. Such a schema is perhaps best articulated in a paper written for the US military, Joint Vision 2020, in which the idea of American full spectrum dominance is explained as:

The label full spectrum dominance implies that US forces are able to conduct prompt, sustained, and synchronized operations with combinations of forces tailored to specific situations and with access to and freedom to operate in all domains – space, sea, land, air, and information.  Additionally, given the global nature of our interests and obligations, the United States must maintain its overseas presence forces and the ability to rapidly project power worldwide in order to achieve full spectrum dominance.

Next, White discusses the highlights of a related war game that was conducted by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. This game investigates US-Israel relation along with potential for Israeli responses to Iran’s nuclear program. White outlines the following highlights from the Tel Aviv war game:

1) The game assumes a clear objective for Iran: “obtaining nuclear weapons.”

2) Israel and the US did not have clear strategies nor clear goals in confronting Iran.

3) Iran ‘wins’, and continues its nuclear program.

My responses:

1) This war game also assumes that Iran seeks to have nuclear weapons, generating a scenario on the very basis of an intractable conflict. There is no deviation from weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program and therefore diplomatic negotiations could not possibly succeed. In order to have Iran refrain from building nuclear bombs, you must force it to do so, through economic, political, or military threats or actions. Beyond the assumption that Iran must want nuclear weapons is the treatment of the nuclear program in isolation from the very state actors who are here presented as the side (though a fractured side) facing a common foe in Iran. Israel and US, it is assumed, have a right to nuclear weapons. The impact of Israeli nuclear weapons on politics, and military programs within the region are entirely ignored in this particular scenario. To explore it would mean questioning it. Anyway, Israel does not publicly acknowledge that it has nuclear weapons. To do so, or to discuss this topic might result in the question of how it developed them in the first place, which of course included European and US aid. Israel has not signed on to the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The US and all nuclear capable European countries have. Under the NPT, it is not allowed that signatories help non-signatories develop a nuclear program, let alone a weaponized one. So, the NATO countries involved in this affair are in breach of what is supposed to be a binding international treaty that they helped create. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is meant to help police the accountability of signatories that may be implicated in a breach of the NPT, which permits the development of a civilian nuclear program but limits weaponization. The IAEA is thus involved in the case of Iran yet it is not involved in the case of the open secret of Israel nor of Western involvement in Israel’s nuclear development. This might bring into question the objectivity of the NPT, or rather of its application. It suggests, then, that it is OK for some countries to have nuclear programs, even nuclear weapons, but not OK for others to have them. If the application of the NPT is not universal, and in fact we witness a clear miss on its application in the case of the only nuclear weapons holder in the Middle East, then we must conclude that the NPT is at the very least flawed. Whether by flaw or purpose, it has in this case served to help maintain a power dynamic and problematic articulation of international law in which one side — Iran — is investigated because of accusation by the US, while another side — Israel — who happens to be an integrated ally of the US does not have to even worry about investigation. So, here we see that the application of an international treaty moves according to the existing dynamic of global power which favours the dominant player and its close allies.

2) The lack of clarity in terms of goals and strategies does not immediately seem clear to me when reading White’s review of the Tel Aviv war game. In reading further sections of the short report, I wonder if it simply means that they did not have common goals, or that goals and strategies were not clear enough because the US did not come forward with preconditions and ultimatums then seek these out through any means possible including military aggression.

3) That Iran wins the war game fits into the binary world we are presented throughout the report, with Iran on one side and US-Israel on the other. One is bad, the other is good, implicitly. Therefore, there is no need to critically examine the impact of each state action within the context of a multitude of national and sub-national needs or interests; it is assumed here that good and bad are inherent to each party. Perhaps the confusion lies in that the dimension of national interest embedded in power politics is taken as the judge of good and bad. In this case, if a situation or action contrasts with Israeli or US national interest reduced to a game of power politics then the need to examine its effect on the many peoples of the world is diminished. Inversely, what is good for the interested parties must be good for everyone, or is for the good of everyone.

Sri Lanka sits atop a strategic nexus

December 8, 2009 Leave a comment

Indian Ocean

Indian Ocean

The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has recently released a report on the need for a policy in regards to Sri Lanka. The report, “Sri Lanka: Recharting US Strategy After the War,” indicates that the island nation is key to US strategic interests in the region.

“As Western countries became increasingly critical of the Sri Lankan Government’s handling of the war and human rights record, the Rajapaksa leadership cultivated ties with such countries as Burma, China, Iran, and Libya. The Chinese have invested billions of dollars in Sri Lanka through military loans, infrastructure loans, and port development, with none of the strings attached by Western nations. While the United States shares with the Indians and the Chinese a common interest in securing maritime trade routes through the Indian Ocean, the U.S. Government has invested relatively little in the economy or the security sector in Sri Lanka, instead focusing more on IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] and civil society. As a result, Sri Lanka has grown politically and economically isolated from the West,” states the US Senate report.

The report’s writers make a case for a shift in US policy by emphasizing the geostrategic importance of the island: “Sri Lanka is located at the nexus of crucial maritime trading routes in the Indian Ocean connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia.

“[…]A more multifaceted U.S. strategy would capitalize on the economic, trade, and security aspects of the relationship. This approach in turn could catalyze much-needed political reforms that will ultimately help secure longer term U.S. strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. U.S. strategy should also invest in Sinhalese parts of the country, instead of just focusing aid on the Tamil-dominated North and East.”

About 80 percent of China’s oil passes through the waterways near Sri Lanka, most of India’s imports of oil pass through the Indian Ocean, and “three-quarters of all Japan’s oil needs pass through [the Straight of Hormuz],” one of the chokepoints into the region’s open seas.

Robert D. Kaplan has written a noted article in the Foreign Affairs journal indicating that “India’s and China’s great-power aspirations, as well as their quests for energy security, have compelled the two countries ‘to redirect their gazes from land to the seas,’ according to James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, associate professors of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. And the very fact that they are focusing on their sea power indicates how much more self-confident they feel on land. And so a map of the Indian Ocean exposes the contours of power politics in the twenty-first century.” Furthermore, “Already the world’s preeminent energy and trade interstate seaway, the Indian Ocean will matter even more in the future. One reason is that India and China, major trading partners locked in an uncomfortable embrace, are entering into a dynamic great-power rivalry in these waters—a competition that the United States, although now a declining hegemon, can keep in check by using its navy to act as a sea-based balancer.”

India continues to secure its naval presence by increasing its surveillance capability. A new listening post has reportedly begun to operate in Madagascar, linked with two other similar listening posts off of India’s west coast. The system will allow for surveillance of navies in large swaths of ocean from Africa’s east coast to India’s west coast. New Delhi considers the security of these lanes as vital to its economic health. Asia Times reports that “most of India’s trade is by sea,” and that, “nearly 89% of India’s oil imports arrive by sea.”

Another report released by the US, this one by Naval Intelligence, reviews Iran’s naval history and strategy: “Iran uses its naval forces for political ends such as naval diplomacy and strategic messaging. Most of all, Iranian naval forces are equipped to defend against perceived external threats. Public statements by Iranian leaders indicate that they would consider closing or controlling the Strait of Hormuz if provoked, thereby cutting off almost 30 percent of the world’s oil supply.” The document is titled ‘Iran’s Naval Forces‘.

Turkey’s role in the project for a transformation of US global power

June 8, 2009 2 comments

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US president Obama’s most recent statement on his support of Turkey’s accession into the European Union is a clear enunciation of the value of Turkey in the medium and long term schema of US foreign policy.

“I’ve said publicly that I think Turkish membership in the EU would be important,” said Obama during a joint press conference with French president Sarkozy prior to their attending ceremonies for the 65h anniversary of World War II’s D-Day landings.

Sarkozy downplayed the difference between the two leaders, insisting that he would continue to resist Turkish membership yet was supportive of a partnership or friendship, understanding the importance of Turkey as a conduit for influence reaching beyond the European continent. “We want Turkey to be a bridge between the East and West.” Sarkozy said. “I told President Obama that it is very important for Europe to have borders. For me, Europe is a force of stability in the world and I cannot allow that force for stabilization to be destroyed.”

It’s quite plain, the US is currently a global hegemon, the first of this kind. It’s also clear that the global dynamic of power is, just that, dynamic and shifting. Some key countries are gaining increased regional influence: China, India, and a Russia that is still reeling from the Soviet breakup but not as quiescent as in the 1990s. A number of US intelligence, military, and policy reports by influential intellectuals indicate a realization of this unique opportunity of climactic power coupled with subordinated partnerships from some of the world’s top leading economic powers: Europe, Japan, Korea, etc. This period of global dominance can prove to be an opportunity for the US to help establish a multi-layered and interrelated series of regional and international networks that together promote longer term US influence even in regions where its military, economic, and political supremacy may be increasingly diluted – essentially the goal being that the US would maintain a voice in every regional affair no matter how distant from its shores.

Some might call this a soft landing, from clear hegemon to the prime power or voice in a multipolar world.

Here are some basic contemporary examples of this framework: US influence over and military presence within Japan, Korea, and the Philippines gives it a seat at the table at most significant regional decisions. Another example, the US has openly lobbied in favour of this or that country’s entry into the European Union; the deep engagement of an outside country into the internal affairs of states that are constituting the fundamentals of their very existence would normally be seen as interference, but it is quite natural and expected in this case.

The EU is tied to NATO. The NATO membership of the major nations that constitute the EU is a significant factor of American influence in that continent. The expansion of the EU organically enters new states into consideration for membership into the military alliance, and in the case of Turkey, NATO membership and its geographic position on the margins of Europe promotes its being considered as an EU member.

Turkey has a particularly important position in the geostrategic consideration of international or global power. The transit pipelines of energy from the Middle East and Central Asia to the voracious European markets must generally pass through either Russia or Turkey. This makes Turkey a vital ally in the contest for a Western-backed oil and gas corridor from energy suppliers.

A Turkey that is rejected by Europe on the basis of being too different will signal the conception of an unbridgeable gap: that Turkey’s ties to the West can only go so far. This could result in a Turkish disenchantment with Europe, as well as promote resentment. Such a clear identification of Turkey’s unbridgeable Eastern culture and ethnicity would leave that country little choice but to focus more to the south (the Middle East) and east (the Caucasus and Central Asia). Arguably, this process has already begun, with Turkey being asked to jump through a long series of hoops in a particularly long EU accession process, and the increasing realignment of national identity away from Western to a revival of Middle Eastern and Central Asian consciousness.

For the US, this is not an ideal situation. It could well cause Turkey to become an increasingly disgruntled NATO member, hobbling the transatlantic alliance. Furthermore, if Turkey was to become an EU member, then the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) would fall within the immediate sphere of EU/NATO influence.

Azerbaijan and Georgia are currently the two key countries of that region hosting the only Western-backed (non-Russian) energy pipeline leading to Europe. If the EU was to include Turkey, the Caucasus would automatically feel the immense gravity of a combined EU-NATO body pull at them, and the situation would legitimate more direct intervention by these bodies, under the leadership of the US.

Azerbaijan is especially important. Just look at a map, any energy from Central Asia to Europe would have to pass through Russia, Iran, or Azerbaijan. The first two are off the books, which leaves Azerbaijan as the desired passage of a new pro-West energy highway crossing the Caspian sea.

Europe-Asia Map

Considering these circumstances, it is therefore not so surprising that successive US presidents would choose to promote the inclusion of Turkey into an enlarged EU.

In 2004 US president Bush opposed French president Chirac on the same issue now expressed by Obama, and said to the Turks that “I will remind the people of this good country that you ought to be given a date by the EU for your eventual acceptance into the EU.”

(First published at

Afghanistan and the contest for power

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The US-NATO war in Afghanistan has dragged on for nearly eight long years. It has failed to bring sustainability or security from violence, and Afghans continue to suffer from an economy that has fallen on its knees after three decades of continuous warfare.

The national government cannot far project its authority past the capital city, Kabul. Beyond this area, the seal of state power must be delivered at gun point, not by the Afghan National Army or Police, but by foreign forces. A 2008 US government report concluded that, out of a total force of 80,000, not a single national police unit is “fully capable of performing its mission and over three-fourths of units… are assessed at the lowest capability rating.” The Afghan National Army is not much better.

So you have an Afghan security force that is embedded with handlers, and trainers from NATO countries, dependent on the military power and the logistical capacity of Western troops. Not exactly the perfect picture of self-sufficiency.

The local government is also permeated by foreign observers and advisers, through foreign government experts, and the UN. These informal power blocs dole out money to an otherwise financially unsustainable Afghan state. The total cost of the national army and police, an estimated US$3.5 billion annually, is many times greater than the entire revenue of the government, even before the planned expansion of an already bloated local security forces.

The continued spiral of violence and chaos has justified the long presence of foreign troops in an already war ravaged country that sits between three of the US’s geopolitical rivals: Russia, China, and Iran.

The irony of the failure to bring peace to the region by waging a US-led war in the pursuit of justice against Al Qaeda and in the name of a feckless militarized humanitarian mission has given the US and NATO justification to seek out military bases and maintain a military presence in Central Asia. The war can justify the appropriation of large sums of government budgets to reshape not just Afghanistan, but the region, through military action as well as by vigorous diplomatic maneuvering.

“It is imperative that no Eurasian challenger emerges, capable of dominating Eurasia and thus of also challenging America,” writes Zbigniew Brzezinski in his book, the ‘Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives.’ Brzezinski was the national security adviser to former US president Jimmy Carter.

Brzezinski adds that, “in that context, how America ‘manages’ Eurasia is critical… A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over Eurasia would almost automatically entail Africa’s subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world’s central continent. About 75 percent of the world’s people live in Eurasia, and most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. Eurasia accounts for about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources.”

This continent-spanning contest, termed the Great Game, pivots around Central Asia, a region that happens to be instrumental to the emergence of the New Silk Road: an energy superhighway of oil and gas pipelines that is growing increasingly important.

Meanwhile, the UN estimates that the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan has risen sharply, 40% higher in 2008 than in the previous year. The number of civilian dead rose to 2,118 last year. The report claims that 39% of these deaths were caused by coalition and Afghan forces, in great part as a result of air strikes.

The commitment of more US troops, trainers, and resources as well as the policy to expand the war into north western Pakistan implies that we should not expect a turn away from war in the short term. The emphasis has shifted within Eurasia, from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

(First published at

Fresh U.S. efforts on a natural gas pipeline in Eurasia

April 28, 2009 Leave a comment

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The US is making concerted effort to revive plans for a 3,300 km long natural gas pipeline that stretches from the Caspian sea through Turkey to Austria. This Nabucco pipeline is still very much in its infancy, lacking adequate supply of natural gas as well as lacking transit rites through intermediary countries in order to become viable enough to start building. This pipeline could potentially provide energy from Central Asia, and the Caucasus to Europe, diversifying Europe’s supplies of natural gas.

Russia has so far successfully maintained its dominance over Europe’s energy markets. It has done this by outplaying the US under president Bush with the important energy producers of Central Asia, by sewing insecurity into existing Western energy routes through the region by strafing yet leaving undamaged the Baku-Tbilishi-Ceyhan pipeline during the short Russia-Georgia war, and by promising an alternative to Nabucco: South Stream.

South Stream is a proposed 900 km pipeline that would cross the Black Sea into Bulgaria and branch into Austria and Italy. It is still uncertain whether South Stream, Nabucco, or both might realize expectations of providing increased natural gas supply through to south eastern Europe.

US president Barack Obama last week appointed Richard Morningstar to head up Eurasian energy policy. MK Bhadrakumar writes in Asia Times that Morningstar, under president Clinton, successfully championed the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.

In 1998, Morningstar was quoted as saying that, “the fundamental objective of the US policy in the Caspian is not simply to build oil and gas pipelines. Rather it is to use those pipelines, which must be commercially viable, as tools for establishing a political and economic framework that will strengthen regional cooperation and stability and encourage reform for the next several decades.”

Bhadrakumar states that Morningstar has been very busy and pragmatic in his first week in office under president Obama. He has been trying to win a supply deal from gas rich Turkmenistan in order to transit that energy across the Caspian sea and through to Europe. He has also stated that the US would consider striking a deal with Iran for natural gas. It has even been suggested that some Western technology may be made available to Iran’s energy sector if a natural gas deal was concluded.

Talk of purchasing natural gas from Iran can well be a carrot in negotiations between the US and Iran on the latter country’s nuclear program. Also, the US has been seeking some degree of increased cooperation from Iran in order to stabalize Afghanistan. It was today announced that Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan officials plan to meet monthly in order to cooperate on security and stability in the region.

Having Iran join the proposed Nabucco pipeline would have that energy rich country enter into what would become an increasingly competitive market for European consumers, eroding Russia’s dominance.

The likelihood of Iran joining the Nabucco project is slim in the short-term. Tensions are still high between the US and Iran, and this proposal is likely to serve both as an incentive to Iran and as a display of how serious the US is about making the proposed pipeline a reality, thus bolstering the confidence of currently lackluster potential investors.

(First published at

The New Great Game or the Long War Across Europe and Asia

March 25, 2009 Leave a comment

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A growing network of energy pipelines are criss-crossing Eurasia, giving form to the political instability, military tension, and wars erupting in the large expanse of territory touching eastern Europe to eastern regions of Asia. The war in Afghanistan, the brewing civil war in Pakistan, and international intervention in these and neighbouring countries are increasingly being viewed as outbursts and maneuvers in what is called the New Great Game over the existing and developing arteries — oil and natural gas pipelines — that will transit much of the world’s energy.

The largest players in this battle have been the USA, with its Western allies increasingly under the instrument of NATO, and a China-Russia entente primarily under the auspice of an economic and increasingly security cooperative called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Iran and India are also emerging as significant players in this Great Game that has very concrete material, economic, and security implications for Eurasia and for the globe in terms of the alignment of political powers and destination of economic wealth determined by the flow of the great part of the world’s energy reserves.

The existing and proposed pipelines will tap into the vast energy reserves in Central Asia, Iran, and Iraq. Their destination will be the major consumers and distributors in India, Europe, Turkey, China, Russia, and Pakistan. The cheapest pipelines cost billions of US dollars to construct, the sometimes ad-hoc network as a whole costs hundreds of billions simply to construct along sometimes competing pipelines and short sea routes with varying capacity, each tied to a general NATO or SCO alliance of interests.

The point is not simply to deliver energy to an end point, but rather by a dominant political alliance to directly control or at least overwhelming influence the access to energy. This determination will provide economic advantage to the carriers, permit them to exert political pressure by controlling access to energy and even threatening to or actually cutting off supply.

Prior to the late 1990s, the US had become supportive of cooperation with the Taliban because Afghanistan had almost entirely been united under that group’s rule, bringing harsh rule and some level of security stability to the country. In that period, those regions of Afghanistan under Taliban control were under a unified control that made it possible for the US to examine the potential for an energy pipeline running through Afghanistan into Pakistan. The US actively negotiated with the Taliban in order to make this a reality and was keen to apply political players to push out other countries’ corporate energy conglomerates. Of course, the plan did not succeed, the Taliban did not deliver a pipeline to the US energy interest, the civil war in Afghanistan kept re-erupting, and hostilities between the US and the Taliban grew until full war broke out between them.

Recently, there has been increasing talk of the possibility that the US may bomb the Baluchistan region of Pakistan in the south west. Attacks of this sort are conducted by drone planes within Pakistan. This is presented as an extension of the War on Terror, aka the Long War, aka the AfPak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) war conducted by the US and its NATO allies.

Pakistani Baluchistan is mainly cooperating with Pakistan’s central government and has not been the hotbed of Islamist militancy that has swept across much of that country’s north west. True, Baluchistan has at various points in Pakistan’s history revolted, but their resistance has nothing to do with a pan-national Islamic movement. They seek better economic conditions, and are pressing for a nationalist movement that articulates their region’s ethnic and cultural difference and marginalisation from the dominant people within the Pakistani state. So, it doesn’t seem to make sense for the US to bomb this region.

A bombing campaign would almost certainly add to long-standing tensions between Baluchistan and the central government, may lead to political instability in the region, and calls for non-cooperation with the government. The worst case would be for the nationalist movement to be reinvigorated and for Pakistan to lose control of yet another province. Instability in Baluchistan would essentially result in all of Pakistan’s western wing breaking away from direct control and turning to open rebellion.

So why would the US consider bombing Baluchistan when there are little to no major Islamist assets in the region and risk further disempowering Pakistan’s government?

Baluchistan is a necessary passage for a proposed pipeline running from Iran, through Pakistan, to India, with a possible splinter carrying oil to China. This Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline has already seen much difficulty. With the deepening strategic alliance between India and the US, India has been pressured to disinvest from the project. Despite this, the project keeps rearing its head. India depends on energy imports, and will become increasingly vulnerable to energy supplies as it industrialises at a rapid pace. Furthermore, nearly all of India’s energy supplies are delivered via sea lanes, leaving it open to disruption, explaining much of India’s interest in heading off pirate attacks in north east Africa as well as its increasing monitoring operations there. India feels it needs not only a greater supply of oil but also to diversify points of access.

The permanent infrastructure of an IPI pipelines would require cooperation between Iran, Pakistan, and India. This may well demand some rapprochement between India and Iran, and would offset some of the US ability to isolate the Islamic Republic of Iran. Furthermore, a splinter into China would extend China’s reach and influence into the intensifying New Great Game over energy supplies.

Just as the Russia-Georgia war disrupted the only pro-Western energy supply line from Central Asia to Europe for a short period and risks to undermine its development by scaring investors and government away, the bombing of Baluchistan could well bury the IPI pipeline before it can become a reality.

For more information on the New Great Game read the following:

Liquid war: Welcome to Pipelineistan, by Pepe Escobar.

From Great Game to Grand Bargain, by Barnett R. Rubin and Ahmed Rashid.

Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid.

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