The world has been witness this month to a mini-war in the Caucasus, and the rhetoric has been passionate, if largely irrelevant. Geopolitics is a gigantic series of two-player chess games, in which the players seek positional advantage. In these games, it is crucial to know the current rules that govern the moves. Knights are not allowed to move diagonally.
From 1945 to 1989, the principal chess game was that between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was called the Cold War, and the basic rules were called metaphorically “Yalta.” The most important rule concerned a line that divided Europe into two zones of influence. It was called by Winston Churchill the “Iron Curtain” and ran from Stettin to Trieste. The rule was that, no matter how much turmoil was instigated in Europe by the pawns, there was to be no actual warfare between the United States and the Soviet Union. And at the end of each instance of turmoil, the pieces were to be returned to where they were at the outset. This rule was observed meticulously right up to the collapse of the Communisms in 1989, which was most notably marked by the destruction of the Berlin wall.
It is perfectly true, as everyone observed at the time, that the Yalta rules were abrogated in 1989 and that the game between the United States and (as of 1991) Russia had changed radically. The major problem since then is that the United States misunderstood the new rules of the game. It proclaimed itself, and was proclaimed by many others, the lone superpower. In terms of chess rules, this was interpreted to mean that the United States was free to move about the chessboard as it saw fit, and in particular to transfer former Soviet pawns to its sphere of influence. Under Clinton, and even more spectacularly under George W. Bush, the United States proceeded to play the game this way.
There was only one problem with this: The United States was not the lone superpower; it was no longer even a superpower at all. The end of the Cold War meant that the United States had been demoted from being one of two superpowers to being one strong state in a truly multilateral distribution of real power in the interstate system. Many large countries were now able to play their own chess games without clearing their moves with one of the two erstwhile superpowers. And they began to do so.
Two major geopolitical decisions were made in the Clinton years. First, the United States pushed hard, and more or less successfully, for the incorporation of erstwhile Soviet satellites into NATO membership. These countries were themselves anxious to join, even though the key western European countries — Germany and France — were somewhat reluctant to go down this path. They saw the U.S. maneuver as one aimed in part at them, seeking to limit their newly-acquired freedom of geopolitical action.
The second key U.S. decision was to become an active player in the boundary realignments within the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This culminated in a decision to sanction, and enforce with their troops, the de facto secession of Kosovo from Serbia.
Russia, even under Yeltsin, was quite unhappy about both these U.S. actions. However, the political and economic disarray of Russia during the Yeltsin years was such that the most it could do was complain, somewhat feebly it should be added.
The coming to power of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin was more or less simultaneous. Bush decided to push the lone superpower tactics (the United States can move its pieces as it alone decides) much further than had Clinton. First, Bush in 2001 withdrew from the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Then he announced that the United States would not move to ratify two new treaties signed in the Clinton years: the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the agreed changes in the SALT II nuclear disarmament treaty. Then Bush announced that the United States would move forward with its National Missile Defense system.
And of course, Bush invaded Iraq in 2003. As part of this engagement, the United States sought and obtained rights to military bases and overflight rights in the Central Asian republics that formerly were part of the Soviet Union. In addition, the United States promoted the construction of pipelines for Central Asian and Caucasian oil and natural gas that would bypass Russia. And finally, the United States entered into an agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic to establish missile defense sites, ostensibly to guard against Iranian missiles. Russia, however, regarded them as aimed at her.
Putin decided to push back much more effectually than Yeltsin. As a prudent player, however, he moved first to strengthen his home base — restoring effective central authority and reinvigorating the Russian military. At this point, the tides in the world-economy changed, and Russia suddenly became a wealthy and powerful controller not only of oil production but of the natural gas so needed by western European countries.
Putin thereupon began to act. He entered into treaty relationships with China. He maintained close relations with Iran. He began to push the United States out of its Central Asian bases. And he took a very firm stand on the further extension of NATO to two key zones — Ukraine and Georgia.
The breakup of the Soviet Union had led to ethnic secessionist movements in many former republics, including Georgia. When Georgia in 1990 sought to end the autonomous status of its non-Georgian ethnic zones, they promptly proclaimed themselves independent states. They were recognized by no one but Russia guaranteed their de facto autonomy.
The immediate spurs to the current mini-war were twofold. In February, Kosovo formally transformed its de facto autonomy to de jure independence. Its move was supported by and recognized by the United States and many western European countries. Russia warned at the time that the logic of this move applied equally to the de facto secessions in the former Soviet republics. In Georgia, Russia moved immediately, for the first time, to recognize South Ossetian de jure independence in direct response to that of Kosovo.
And in April this year, the United States proposed at the NATO meeting that Georgia and Ukraine be welcomed into a so-called Membership Action Plan. Germany, France, and the United Kingdom all opposed this action, saying it would provoke Russia.
Georgia’s neoliberal and strongly pro-American president, Mikhail Saakashvili, was now desperate. He saw the reassertion of Georgian authority in South Ossetia (and Abkhazia) receding forever. So, he chose a moment of Russian inattention (Putin at the Olympics, Medvedev on vacation) to invade South Ossetia. Of course, the puny South Ossetian military collapsed completely. Saakashvili expected that he would be forcing the hand of the United States (and indeed of Germany and France as well).
Instead, he got an immediate Russian military response, overwhelming the small Georgian army. What he got from George W. Bush was rhetoric. What, after all, could Bush do? The United States was not a superpower. Its armed forces were tied down in two losing wars in the Middle East. And, most important of all, the United States needed Russia far more than Russia needed the United States. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, pointedly noted in an op-ed in the Financial Times that Russia was a “partner with the west on . . . the Middle East, Iran and North Korea.”
As for western Europe, Russia essentially controls its gas supplies. It is no accident that it was President Sarkozy of France, not Condoleezza Rice, who negotiated the truce between Georgia and Russia. The truce contained two essential concessions by Georgia. Georgia committed itself to no further use of force in South Ossetia, and the agreement contained no reference to Georgian territorial integrity.
So, Russia emerged far stronger than before. Saakashvili had bet everything he has and was now geopolitically bankrupt. And, as an ironic footnote, Georgia, one of the last U.S. allies in the coalition in Iraq, withdrew all its 2,000 troops from Iraq. These troops had been playing a crucial role in Shi’a areas, and would now have to be replaced by U.S. troops, which will have to be withdrawn from other areas.
If one plays geopolitical chess, it is best to know the rules, or one gets out-maneuvered.
Immanuel Wallerstein is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Sociology, State University of New York at Binghamton. Among his numerous books are The Modern World-System (1974, 1980, 1989), Unthinking Social Science (1991), After Liberalism (1995), The End of the World As We Know It (1999), and The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (2003). This commentary was published on 15 August 2008. © Immanuel Wallerstein, distributed by Agence Global. For rights and permissions, including translations and posting to non-commercial sites, contact: email@example.com, 1.336.686.9002 or 1.336.286.6606. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically, or e-mail to others, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To contact author, write: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the archive of Wallerstein’s previous commentaries at <www.binghamton.edu/fbc/cmpg.htm>. These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.