Friday, 6 September 2013

This matter is rightfully not subject to imperialist meddling

In the late 1980s, I used to play a great little game on the Atari ST called 'Balance of Power'. It was as good a simulation as 128k of processing power allowed of a world of geopolitical manoeuvreing. You played as either the President of the United States or Premier of the Soviet Union, and got to intervene in a variety of foreign states, pushing your own agenda, sending financial aid, military aid, 'military advisors' or even just outright invading. All of this was fine unless the other side took exception to what you were doing, in which case a Crisis would result. This basically amounted to a poker game where both sides would escalate until either one side backed down (and lost Prestige - the game's victory points) or triggered a nuclear war (in which case both sides lost). For a largely text-based game with rudimentary graphics it could be very tense! The computer player had a degree of AI, but there was also a random factor, and you could never be quite sure which way they would react. One of the things I enjoyed was the diplomatic rebuffs that your computer opponent would give you. If you were up against the US, your actions as the USSR would be greeted with Pentagonese like "the United States considers this a key interest", but if you were the USA, up against the USSR your actions would generate some wonderful Cold War Soviet rhetoric like the title of this post; "this matter is rightfully not subject to imperialist meddling."

I was reminded of the game recently by the Syrian crisis. It feels like Obama effectively just got told: "this matter is rightfully not subject to imperialist meddling", and is backing down. Syria is still a Russian client state after all, complete with naval base, and for all of the rhetoric about "holding the Security Council to ransom", the Permanent Five get vetoes on the UNSC for this exact reason - so that nuclear-armed powers don't end up in military conflict over what they consider to be key strategic interests. The US has used it countless times to head off any criticism of, or international action over, Israel, including its long-standing flouting of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and really has no room for complaint here. But it also underscores the extent to which things have and haven't changed in the 25 years since the end of the Cold War. The world was once - by and large - a two-player, zero sum game; East vs West. Tito, Nasser, Nehru and Sukharno tried to create a third player - the Non-Aligned Movement - but they were only defined by being "none of the above", and had no real collective interest beyond making sure that nuclear armageddon didn't happen, nor did they have any ability to project power or enforce it. But things are changing.

The Balance of Power game unfortunately didn't really survive the end of the Cold War, but it did have a second edition, published in 1990 just on the cusp of the ending of the "old world order", which had a 'multipolar' mode. This simulated a world where not just the USA and USSR were taking action, but also a variety of regional and global players, from Britain, France, India and China to Israel, Iran, Cuba and South Africa. It made the game massively more complicated and enjoyable, but also much more frustrating, as supposed 'allies' could often mess things up for you or drag you into conflicts you didn't want to get involved in. But in fact the ending of the Cold War didn't turn the world into multipolar mode - it just removed one of the two main players. For two decades the world has been defined by a single superpower, and whether you were, in Dubya's memorable phrase "with us or against us". But now it feels like we're finally moving back into 'multipolar' mode. China's economic might is approaching that of the US, it is a major player in Africa, and its military capability is coming on by leaps and bounds. Russia went through a bad patch after the collapse of the USSR but has now re-emerged as an energy superpower in a world where oil prices are $100 per barrel. The EU still can't get its act together, but Britain and France have proved  - in our case over Syria, in France's over Iraq - that they are not just cheerleaders for the US. India and Brazil are up and coming, and a variety of regional players like Turkey, Israel and Iran are playing a chess game across the Middle East. I think the US has been stuck in 'single player mode' diplomatically for too long, and needs to start thinking about how it achieves its ends in a world that has grown more fragmented and complicated.

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