The (Not So) Great Game

The (Not So) Great Game

Mini Teaser: Central Asia and the Caucasus, we are often told, are vital political and economic interests for the United States. This is, to put it mildly, a gross exaggeration.

by Author(s): Anatol Lieven

The importance of the Caspian region to American foreign policy is
grossly exaggerated. Until the demise of the Soviet Union, not even
Antarctica was more remote from the American mind than were the lands
around the Caspian Sea, and this for good reasons. Of all the new
states in the area, only the Christian ones of Georgia and Armenia in
the southern Caucasus had ever existed as nations before the conquest
of the region by the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century. The
Muslim areas were previously ruled by a variety of princes (including
in some cases and for certain periods the Shah of Iran), and most of
what are now Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan were inhabited
by tribal confederations that acknowledged the rule of no state.
"National identities" in the modern sense only took shape under
Russian and Soviet rule.

With the Soviet collapse, the nine "union republics" of the region
became internationally recognized independent states: Georgia,
Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan,
Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia itself. At around the same time,
several of the autonomous regions incorporated into these republics
by Soviet fiat revolted and tried to assert their own independence:
Karabakh from Azerbaijan, Abkhazia and Ossetia from Georgia, and
Chechnya from Russia itself. Georgia also experienced a civil war
between forces loyal to the nationalist president, Zviad
Gamsakhurdia, and supporters of the former local communist boss,
Eduard Shevardnadze. In Tajikistan, a bloody civil war between
Islamist and tribal forces and the former communists was won by the
latter, with strong support from Russia and Uzbekistan.

In the early 1990s, America's very limited interest in this region
mostly expressed itself through support for the Christian Armenians
in their conflict with Azerbaijan. There was also some concern about
the threat of increased Iranian influence. In the mid-1990s, however,
four factors combined to alter this picture: the prospect (vastly
exaggerated) that the oil and gas reserves of the region would rival
those of the Persian Gulf; the rapid deterioration in relations
between the United States and Russia; the growing instability within
Russia itself; and strengthened U.S. ties to Turkey. With a strong
admixture of the personal interests of some State Department
officials and academics, the result was an ambitious strategy of
attempting to "roll back" Russian influence in the region and to
replace it with a new, more benign American hegemony. This strategy
was always naive, and now appears thoroughly inappropriate. But as so
often is the case, the policy itself continues to trundle along under
its own momentum, and is likely to carry on doing so until the road
ahead curves and the cart ends up in the ditch.

The past importance of Central Asia came from only two sources, both
now long vanished. The first was the fact that the region lay athwart
the world's greatest trade route, between China, the Middle East and
Europe. This state of affairs disappeared at the end of the fifteenth
century, with the opening by Europeans of the sea route to Asia round
Africa, and later via the Suez Canal. It will never return as a
factor of global importance, given the capacity of modern shipping
and the enormous distances, appalling roads and high insecurity of
the land route. Economically, there has never been anything in
Central Asia itself to make it a place deserving of the world's

The second source of importance was Central Asia's capacity to
produce repeated waves of warrior nomads, at a time when the mounted
bowman was the most effective soldier in the world. This too ceased
to be relevant more than four hundred years ago, with the rise of the
musket and the cannon. In fact, the last time that developments in
Central Asia were of truly great importance for the wider world was
during the early sixteenth century, when Babur's hordes swept into
India to found the Moghul Empire. In the twentieth century, Central
Asia has at no stage played an important role in deciding the fate of the world.

Much copy has been written about the parallels between pre
sent geopolitical rivalry in Central Asia and Kipling's "Great Game"
between Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century. But it is vital
to remember that Britain was interested in the region not for reasons
of world hegemony but only because it was ruler of India. Britain's
concern was purely defensive, motivated not by a desire to conquer
Central Asia but by the fear that Russia would employ the region as a
base from which to attack India or to march through Persia to the
Gulf and threaten British lines of communication. The same fear lay
behind Britain's support for Turkey against Russia, which led to its
participation in the Crimean War. No Russian attack on the
subcontinent is currently in prospect.

Even in the nineteenth century, the rivalry between Britain and
Russia in the region was a great deal less important than
propagandists on both sides cracked it up to be. In 1907 all the
outstanding issues of respective influence and control in the region
were solved relatively easily in the negotiations leading up to the
Anglo-Russian Convention of that year. For this, two developments
were responsible: the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 had revealed the
Russian armed forces to be far less formidable than had been thought;
and, much more important, the rise of Germany threatened the
interests of both powers--not in some peripheral Asian desert, but
where they really mattered: in Europe.

Seven years later, on October 28, 1914, Turkish and German warships
dealt the death blow to more than eighty years of British
anti-Russian strategy when they attacked the Russian Black Sea ports
and heralded Turkey's entry into the First World War. Seven months
after that, British, Indian and Australian troops were dying in their
tens of thousands at Gallipoli as they struggled to smash their way
through to Constantinople and serve Britain's vital interest of
opening a supply route to the Russian armies fighting Germany on the
Eastern Front. The consequences for humanity of their failure are
almost too painful to contemplate.

An Inflated Importance

Almost a century later, the rhetoric of U.S. engagement in Central
Asia has moved far ahead of America's interests in the region, and
the resources it is willing to commit there. Present U.S. strategy in
the region is not, as is frequently stated, "dual containment" of
Iraq and Iran. It is quadruple containment, of these two states as
well as Russia and now Afghanistan (and one might even consider
adding Pakistan to that list). This is not diplomacy, it is strategy
by autopilot, with the course set a generation ago. It also commits
the cardinal sin of badly overstating the real power that the United
States is willing to commit to achieve its aims in the region.
Indeed, by providing Russia and Iran with a reason to undermine local
U.S. allies who will not be supported in a crisis, American policy
may in fact end up helping to destabilize the Caspian Basin.

While the U.S. approach to the former Soviet south has been
accompanied by a lot of pseudo-historical nonsense about the area's
putative geopolitical importance, the truth of the matter is that the
United States has always assumed it would not have to pay or fight to
secure its interests there. Instead, the boom in oil and gas
production would be the engine of local growth, of independence from
Russia, and of the extension of American and Turkish influence.
Moreover, it was believed that if the United States could help secure
their protection from Russian "meddling", the region's newly
independent states would be freed to strengthen themselves through
economic reform and democratization.

None of this has proved true. At barely 2 percent of the world's
proven oil reserves (around a thirtieth of the Gulf's reserves), it
should be blindingly obvious that Caspian energy does not constitute
a "vital U.S. interest." Nor are there any signs that this picture
will change radically in the future. Moreover, to the presently low
price of oil must be added the immense costs of poor communications,
state corruption and incompetence in the region, which raise the cost
of extracting and exporting to more than three times the world
average. Not surprisingly, such costs discourage investment by
multinational oil companies. Oil, gas and other raw materials may be
sufficient to stabilize Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, but they will not
lead to prosperity and progress for the region as a whole.

Indeed, as Neil MacFarlane has written, commenting on a statement by
the special counselor to the Department of Commerce on Caspian Energy:

"Given the amounts of oil and gas at stake [in the Caspian region],
and the current state of world energy markets, one must wonder
whether statements of vital interest are overstated and are intended
to serve as justifications for policies adopted with other objectives
in mind (such as containment of Iran and weakening Russian

For more than a year now, several things have been clear to Western
oil companies. First, the oil reserves so far established, and likely
to be established, in the Caspian do not justify massive investment
in a new main oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Turkish
Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. In fact, for the foreseeable future,
what Azeri oil there is can be accommodated easily enough by the
existing pipeline to the Georgian port of Poti, and then shipped to
various destinations around the Black Sea.

Essay Types: Essay