The Great Game and the End of the Cold War
It has been known as the "Great Game" since Rudyard Kipling introduced the term in 1901, in his novel Kim. For some, the "Great Game" refers simply to the British and Russian empires' nearly century-long joust for supremacy in Central Asia . Both considered the region critical for their goals elsewhere.
For others, though (and I count myself among them), the Great Game in Central Asia never ended. The build-out of the Soviet Union was another round in the contest, which continued into the Cold War. Today it is central to the Colder War, which is only now coming to be recognized for what it is.
A player has been replaced, with the United States taking over Britain's role. But what hasn't changed in two centuries is that Russia remains a pivotal figure in geopolitical maneuvering in a grand arc from Europe through the Middle East to Central Asia.
Back in the old days, while the United States was busy expanding from sea to shining sea, the British were wrestling to maintain their position as the dominant global power—and, more important, to preserve the pound sterling as the world's reserve currency.
Control of international commerce wields enormous power. So does control of the world's reserve currency. It can dictate terms of trade; it can move the price of commodities in distant markets; it can extract a fee when money passes from one hand to another. For a long time, the country holding that control was Britain, which prospered enormously. Then, after the devastation of World War II, the baton passed to the United States, where it has resided ever since.
The British Empire was always a shaky proposition. Its very implausibility added to the celebration of every victory. That such a small country should hold sway over such a large part of the planet seems all but inexplicable today. The British did manage it, of course, but building an empire is one thing; holding on to it is another project entirely. To succeed, you have to deal with the discontent of the people you rule while continually facing down countries that covet what you have.
India was called "the jewel in Britain's crown," and British policy in Asia during the nineteenth century was concerned chiefly with expanding and strengthening Britain's hold on the subcontinent. The chief threat to that goal, from the British point of view, was Russia.
Russia had been expanding for centuries, even before Czar Peter the Great—the historical figure with whom Vladimir Putin most closely identifies—proclaimed Russia an empire in 1721. The expansion proceeded southward and eastward during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and by the nineteenth century Russia had swallowed up most of present-day Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Britain feared that Russia was knocking at India's door and would try to grab the territory and its wealth. The British invaded Tibet and fought two tribal wars in Afghanistan solely to establish buffer zones against the advancing Russian bear.
The Great Game was afoot. Though usually thought of in terms of territory, it also was about money and the ways in which it could be manipulated. The twentieth century added what proved to be the most important of those ways by far: access to and control of the energy sources upon which the world now depends.
Those sources include natural gas and uranium. But the one that matters most is oil. Oil has become the primary expression of wealth in the world. It finances economies and funds political regimes. It props up the standard of living wherever it is plentiful.
Once used primarily as a cheap substitute for whale oil in street lamps, it now is the fuel for most transportation and much electricity generation, and is the feedstock for plastics and most other organic chemicals. There is little in modern life that does not depend on oil for either its production or its delivery. Crayons, heart valves, heart medicine, pesticides, toy airplanes, and real airplanes all come to you from an oil well.
And it's not just tangible goods. Oil is the underpinning of the global financial structure. It separates the rich from the poor. That—not just its use in cars and jet engines—is why it is the planet's most sought-after commodity.
Control oil and you control money. That's how you become a dominant player in the new Great Game—the one that Putin has been playing so masterfully in his effort to engineer the demise of the dollar.