ery occasionally, a single anecdote can almost completely summate a moment in history. And this one – did it: In 2005, Zbig Brzezinski, the architect of Afghanistan as quagmire to the Soviet Union, and the author of The Grand Chessboard (which embedded the Mackinder dictum of ‘he who controls the Asian heartland controls the world’ – into US foreign policy), sat in Washington with Alexander Dugin, the advocate for a ‘heartland’ cultural and geo-political renaissance.
Zbig had already written in his book that, absent Ukraine, Russia would never become the heartland power – but with it, Russia can and would. The meeting, had been set with a photo-prop of a chessboard placed between Zbig and Dugin (to promote Zbig’s book).
This arrangement with a chessboard prompted the latter to ask whether Zbig considered Chess to be a game meant for two:
“No, Zbig shot back: It is a game for one. Once a chess piece is moved; you turn the board around, and you move the other side’s chess pieces. There is ‘no other’ in this game”, Brzezinski insisted.
Of course, the single-handed chess game was implicit in Mackinder’s doctrine: ‘he who controls the heartland’ dictum was a message to the Anglo powers to never allow a united heartland. (This, of course, precisely what is evolving at every moment).
And on Monday, Biden channelled Brzezinski out loud (whilst addressing the Business Roundtable in the US): The remarks came toward the end of his brief speech where he talked about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and America’s economic future:
“I think this presents us with some significant opportunities to make some real changes. You know, we are at an inflection point, I believe, in the world economy: [and] not just the world economy – in the world [which] occurs every three or four generations. As one of my, as the one of the top military people said to me in a secure meeting the other day, 60 million people died between 1900 and 1946; and since then we established a liberal world order and that hadn’t happened in a long while. A lot of people died, but nowhere near the chaos. And now’s the time when things are shifting. We’re going, there’s gonna be a new world order out there; and we’ve got to lead it and we’ve got to unite the rest of the free world in doing it.”
Again there is no ‘other’ at the board. When the moves are made, the board is turned through 180º, to play from the other side.
The point here is that the carefully deliberated counter-attack on this Brzezinski zeitgeist was formally launched in Beijing with the joint-declaration that neither Russia nor China accept for America to play chess alone with no others at the board. This represents the defining issue of this coming era: The opening-up of geo-politics. It is one for which the excluded ‘others’ are prepared to go to war (they see no choice).
A second chess-player has stepped forward and insists to play: (Russia). A third stands ready: (China). Others are silently lining up to witness how the first engagement in this geo-political war fares. It seems from Biden’s comments on Monday that the US intends to use sanctions, and the full unprecedent extent of US treasury measures, against Brzezinski dissidents. Russia is to be made an example of that which awaits any challengers, demanding a seat at the board.
But this approach is fundamentally flawed. It stems from Kissinger’s celebrated dictum that ‘he who controls money controls the world’. But it was wrong from the ‘get go’: It was always ‘who controls food; energy (human as well as fossil) and money can control the world. But Kissinger just ignored the first two required conditions – and the last has imprinted itself on the Washington mental circuits.
And here is paradox: When Brzezinski wrote his book, it was a very different era. Today, whilst, Europe and the US never have been more closely aligned. The ‘West’ paradoxically, has also never been more alone. Opposition to Russia may have seemed at the outset, a slam dunk global unifier. That world opinion would so robustly oppose Moscow’s attack – that even China would pay a high political price for failing to jump onto the anti-Russia bandwagon. But that is not how it is working out.
“While the US rhetoric pillories Russia for “war crimes” and the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, et al”, former Indian Ambassador, Bhadrakumar notes, “the world capitals view this as a confrontation between America and Russia. Outside of the western camp, the world community refuses to impose sanctions against Russia or even to demonise that country”.
The Islamabad Declaration issued on Wednesday after the 45th meeting of the foreign ministers of the fifty-seven member Organisation of Islamic Conference refused to endorse sanctions against Russia…Not a single country in the African continent and West Asian, Central Asia, South and Southeast Asian region has imposed sanctions against Russia”.
There may well be a further factor at play here: For, when these latter states hear phrases such as the ‘Ukrainians, through their heroism, have won the right to enter our “club of values”’, they scent a whiff of debilitated ‘white’ Europe clutching at the life-rafts.
The reality is that the sanctions to which Biden refered in his speech have already failed. Russia has not defaulted; the Moscow stock exchange is open; the Rouble is on the rebound; the current account is in rude good health and Russia is selling energy at windfall prices (even after discount).
In short, trade will be diverted – not destroyed (the benefit of being an exporter of goods almost fully produced locally – i.e. a fortress economy)
The second oddity in this Biden approach is that: whilst Clausewitzian doctrine (to which Russia broadly adheres) argues for the dismantling of ‘the enemy’s centre of gravity, to achieve victory’ – in this case presumably, the western control of the global reserve currency and payments systems. Today, rather, it is Europe and the US that have been dismantling it themselves: and further locking themselves into soaring inflation and contracting economic activity, in some unexplained fit of moral masochism.
As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard notes, “What is clear is that western sanctions policy is the worst of all worlds. We are suffering an energy shock that is further inflating Russia’s war-fighting revenues…There is a pervasive fear of a gilets jaunes uprising across Europe, a suspicion that a fickle public will not tolerate the cost-of-living shock once the horrors of Ukraine lose their novelty on TV screens”.
Again, perhaps we can attribute this paradoxical behaviour to Kissinger’s obsession with the power of money, and his forgetfulness of other major factors.
All of this has led to a certain unease creeping into the corridors of power in some NATO capitals over the course that this Ukraine conflict is running: NATO will not intervene. It will not implement a no-fly zone – and has pointedly ignored Zelensky’s plea for additional military equipment. Ostensibly, this reflects the ‘selfless’ gesture by the West to avoid a nuclear war. In reality, the development of new weaponry – too – can transform geopolitics in a moment (the Kinzhal bunker-buster). Simply, across the board, NATO cannot prevail against Russia in Ukraine.
For now, it seems the Pentagon has – for now – won, in the war with State department, and has begun the process of ‘correcting the narrative’:
Contrast these two US narratives:
(State Department): Monday signalled that US is discouraging Zelensky from making concessions to Russia in return for a ceasefire. The spokesman “made it very clear that he is open to a diplomatic solution that does not compromise the core principles at the heart of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine. When asked to elaborate on his point, Price said that the war is “bigger” than Russia and Ukraine. “The key point is that there are principles that are at stake here that have universal applicability everywhere”. Price said Putin was trying to violate “core principles”.
(Pentagon): “drops two truth bombs” in its battle with State and Congress to prevent confrontation with Russia: “Russia’s conduct in the brutal war tells a different story than the widely accepted view that Putin is intent on demolishing Ukraine and inflicting maximum civilian damage—and it reveals the Russian leader’s strategic balancing act,” reported Newsweek in an article entitled, “Putin’s Bombers Could Devastate Ukraine But He’s Holding Back. Here’s Why.”
One – quotes an unnamed analyst at the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) saying, “The heart of Kyiv has barely been touched. And almost all of the long-range strikes have been aimed at military targets. A retired U.S. Air Force officer now working as an analyst for a Pentagon contractor, added: “We need to understand Russia’s actual conduct. If we merely convince ourselves that Russia is bombing indiscriminately, or [that] it is failing to inflict more harm because its personnel are not up to the task or because it is technically inept, then we are not seeing the real conflict”
The second – directly undermines Biden’s dramatic warning about a false flag chemical attack. Reuters reported: “The United States has not yet seen any concrete indications of an imminent Russian chemical or biological weapons attack in Ukraine but is closely monitoring streams of intelligence for them, a senior US defence official said.”
Biden is positioned in the Middle: saying ‘Putin’s a war criminal’; but also that there will be no NATO fight with Russia: “The only end game now,” a senior administration official was heard to say at a private event earlier this month, “is the end of Putin regime. Until then, all the time Putin stays, [Russia] will be a pariah state that will never be welcomed back into the community of nations. China has made a huge error in thinking Putin will get away with it”.
There it is – The Bottom Line: allow the carnage in Ukraine to continue; sit back and watch the ‘heroic Ukrainians bleed Russia dry’; do enough to sustain the conflict; but not enough to escalate it – and play it as the heroic struggle for democracy – in order to satisfy public opinion.
The point is that it isn’t working out that way. Putin may surprise all in DC by exiting Ukraine, when the military operation is complete. (When Putin speaks of Ukraine, by the way, he usually discounts the western part added on by Stalin – as Ukrainian).
And it isn’t working out with China. Blinken said in justification of new sanctions imposed on China last week: “We are committed to defending human rights around the world and will continue to use all diplomatic and economic measures to promote accountability.”
The problem here is that the sanctions were imposed because China had failed to repudiate Putin. Just that. The language of accountability and (of atonement) used however, can be understood only as an expression of woke contemporary culture. It is enough to present some aspect of Chinese culture as politically incorrect (as racist, repressive, misogynist, supremacist or offensive ), and immediately it becomes politically incorrect. And that means that any aspect of it can be adduced at will by the Administration – as meriting sanctioning.
The Problem again reverts to the cultural refusal accept ‘others’ at the board. Everything is contested and potentially incorrect or offensive, or both — Ukraine is under attack from Russia, racism is immoral and Black Lives Matter, and the science of Covid is, while evolving, still recognizable as science – “I’m not willing to “both-sides” any of that – is the western politically-correct refrain. This cultural identity politics however has almost zero traction beyond US and West Europe.
What can China do; but shrug at such nonsense.
Biden in his speech to the Roundtable forestaged for his audience a New World Order – he suggested that a Great Re-set is coming.
Maybe so. But maybe also, a ‘Re-set Reckoning’ is on the cards: One that will return many things to that which, until relatively recently, had actually worked. Politics and geo-politics is metamorphosing – in every moment.