Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pawns in a Global Game of Chess

A major realization that has occurred as a result of this Russo-Georgian conflict/war is that regardless of which side one takes in support of one entity and condemnation of the other, one thing that becomes very clear is that a small nation stands virtually no chance of success without using larger allies as a crutch. We don't have to strain at the modern political landscape on our planet to understand just how empires and large states can use smaller sovereign nations to become pawns in the global game of chess. Throughout history, large empires such as the Greeks, Persians, Romans, Mongols, Arabs, Turks, and those existing in recent years like the Axis Powers of the Third Reich, or even the Soviet Union, all use small vassal states as either buffers to retain regional control and isolation, or as expansionist entities meant to increase global control of resources and assets. During the expansion phase of the Roman Empire, Rome found itself at odds with another regional power in the Mediterranean, known as Carthage. The entity that retained control over the shipping routes and ports of the Mediterranean would become the most powerful empire in the world. After numerous conflicts, and three bitter wars, Rome gained control over all the former Carthaginian territory in the South and East Mediterranean. What was once a region of competing states became an entity that controlled the destiny of the whole Mediterranean. The eventual success of the Romans, however, at the start of the First Century, would not have been possible had the Romans not sought allies in the Mediterranean who were tired of the tax policies and limited protection of Carthage. Having retained these allies, Rome found it easier to control the region once Carthage was out of the picture. As the Roman Empire expanded to its greatest extent (around 115 CE), they found their expansion checked by the arguably equally powerful Persian Empire. The Persians were much more powerful than the Carthaginians, and Rome was forced to acknowledge that there was no way the Empire could extend any further East. In order to protect itself against the Persian menace, and insure that territorial integrity of the Eastern region, Rome signed a treaty with Persia to retain Armenia, and the Mesopotamian regions as buffer states. These countries were given Persian rulers, who happened to pay tribute to Rome. Yet, the situation was not ideal, and the extent that Rome and Persia tried to underhandedly exploit the Buffer States was frequent and increasingly more meddlesome. The states in question also recognized the power they possessed in having both Empires vying for control, even though officially speaking of truce. Armenia, as an example, constantly attempted to use its power to control its own destiny, often trying to instigate the Persians or Romans, depending on the entity they felt was more capable of defending its interests. Often times, different princes, in what amounted to feudal-like regions, would take opposite sides in support of a given empire. Sometimes, this strategy would work, and Armenia would be rewarded by a reduction in taxes, or even autonomy. Other times, this would result in a bitter war between the Empires with Armenia becoming a battlefield.

With just one example from global history in mind, we can now look at the current Russo-Georgian conflict with an enlightened perspective and a window into understanding the perpetuation of history due to the human condition. The current expansionist policies of Russia can be likened to the growing power of the Roman Empire. In Russia's case, its influence was far greater and extended to a larger area during the height of the Soviet Union. Under the guise of Communism/Socialism, the Soviets had extended their control from East Germany to China and most of South-East Asia. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's influence was considerably reduced on the world stage. Yet, the last 15 years have seen Russia making a resounding comeback, partly due to the price of oil providing rapid economic growth, and also to the strengthening partnership with Europe and Asia. As Russia's economic situation has improved, they have realized that as they were going through countless hardships and post-communist changes, NATO, with a significant United States control was slowly marching towards Russia's back door. Ultimately, the need for oil and regional control of the Middle East by the West eventually sent alarm bells in Moscow. Without exercising any control and influence, Russia would lose out on many lucrative resources and opportunities for future economic growth. This lead to closer ties with Iran, and an attempt at rekindling strategic partnerships with many of the former Soviet Republics. Yet, with the Western Democratic reform movements that swept through Ukraine and Georgia, Russia become painfully aware of the need for regional influence and a reanimation of their global inspirations.

As is frequently said, the death of the Soviet Union lead Russia into Hibernation, but the sleeping bear is awakening and hungry. Diving deeper in this analogy, having slept off the winter, the bear now sees his territory brimming with hungry bears, particularly one that seems intent on limiting his movement. He knows that even in his limited area, he has resources that the other bears covet. In Russia's case, Georgia is the geographic boundary that Russia must retain control to continue on its prosperous rout. Having allied itself with Iran and Armenia, Russia needs to maintain expansion in Georgia to retain regional control of the Caucuses and thus the bridge to extend into Iran. At the moment however, control of Georgia is in the hands of the West, and thanks in large part to the East-West Baku-Ceyhan pipeline (see previous post here), the West cannot lose influence in the region. Since Georgia is so critical to the interests of both Russia and the West, it has become a buffer state like Armenia used to be under the Roman and Persian Empires (also happens to be just north of it as well). The Russians, knowing they have little direct control in Georgia proper, decided to extend their helping hand to the small semi-autonomous states within Georgia that border Russia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, being the lesser pawns in the game, decided that siding with Russia would help maintain their independence (they should have talked to the Chechens) far more effectively than allowing Georgia to control their destiny. Moreover, both provinces feel as though they have economically more to gain when Russia exerts power and influence in the region. As for Armenia, it recognizes that siding with the Russians may be fraught with danger, but the chance for economic improvement and geopolical stability is a difficult proposition to discard. Knowing they have a hostile neighbor to their east (Azerbaijan) and a much stronger and, in their eyes, malevolent neighbor to the West (Turkey) they feel the necessity to maintain a strategic partnership with a near-by power whose strength is much greater then both their neighbors'. The partnership with Russia isn't just unilateral however. Russia in turn exploits Armenia knowing that they have an ally in the region completely dependent on them. This dependence on Russia provides Armenia with some feelings of importance. Yet, if history is any indication, the perceived power that small nations have is as illusory as unicorns and rainbow gold. As soon as the nature of the situation changes, or the economics shift, those small nations that hold so tightly to those in power will be readily discarded. As with Georgia's current crisis, the expectation that the West would come to Georgia's aid militarily must have been tempting but as it turns out, the West can only attempt to verbally intimidate Russia. Russia has fuel control over the West, and no amount of barking will amount to significant changes. The West, especially the United States in recent years, have continuously promised more then they could deliver to pawns all around the world. When the Kurds were promised greater freedom, and delivered on their insurrection against Saddam Hussein, the West, enjoying the oil riches, allowed the Kurds to suffer the consequences with little sympathy. Even now, the West exploits the Kurds, while concurrently manipulating Iraqi and Turkish politics to prevent the Kurds from gaining greater autonomy. We talk of the importance of territorial integrity, yet, find ourselves supporting Taiwan's calls for independence and allowing bases in countries that in some cases are completely hostile (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for example). Yet, this is how the work of empires is done. Through hypocrisy and the perpetuation of disingenuous ideals, the powerful forces of the world manipulate the game of world politics through sheer audacity and people's stupidity.

Considering the Chess analogy, many of the small nations in the world, already described as pawns, can be readily sacrificed as long as the game proceeds to it's conclusive end (checkmate occurs when on nation controls the resources of the whole world). There are some people who feel as though there is a world order that controls the nature of the game and seems almost omnipotent in its actions. Yet, that would be like assuming that the purpose of chess is to discard all the pieces and allow only the Queen and Rooks to remain in the game protecting one's King and attempting to attack the other's. The world is a lot more complex, and the outcome of the future as variable as the strategy and movement from one chess game to another. It should further be noted that the pawns are not always useless and can at times help protect the King and other times, hinder an escape. Similarly, many of the small nations of the world rely on their importance towards controlling regional affairs, and if the situation is favorable and remains constant, then they are rewarded, but if there's a negative turn in their position, they are the first to suffer the consequences of discord and strife. Those of us who come from areas of the world that are constantly changing hands, grow to become both cynical at the prospects, or idealistic towards a final change for the better. Yet, economics and the human condition will generally collude to prevent the lesser nations from attaining degrees of freedom and independence outside the protection of the much larger empires. Ultimately, the illusion we harbor at having freedom of choice, and control over our destinies is just that, a complete and total illusion. We are prey to the whims of both nature and human nature. But the one ray of hope from attaining this view is that although our destinies aren't under our direct control, we can investigate our position and be true to ourselves. We can allow our minds to probe our place in the fabric of society, and although disconcerting at times, how many creatures on this planet have that ability? How many people can truly say that conflict and warfare in the world have shown them that although we're at the mercy of forces greater than us, we can maintain degrees of freedom and expression in our thoughts and our daily actions? For all we know, an asteroid can collide with Earth and lead to our extinction. Would all the wars that we fight, and all the petty skirmishes over economic resources matter? Sadly, those who have the luxury to realize such things also happen to generally live in places of peace and stability.

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