THE queen is the most powerful piece on the chessboard. Today, on the ‘chessboard of world politics’ there are three queens: the US, China and Russia. Japan, Germany, India and Brazil could be depicted as the bishops; the mid-level powers — Italy, France, UK, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran and a few others — as the knights and castles, and the rest as pawns.
The modern ‘game’ is complex and multi-dimensional. It is not always ‘zero-sum’. Killing the opposition’s King is not the aim; it is to expand and sustain the game and gain dominance over its various facets through competition and, where needed, cooperation with the other players.
While the most publicised ‘moves’ on the chessboard — the chaos in the Middle East — involve lesser players, the central contest is between the three queens.
At present, the US-China struggle for power in the Asia-Pacific is the major play, involving a mutual military build-up, construction of competing political alliances and affiliations, support to regional rivals, financial and trade competition and the endeavour to control or have access to natural resources globally.
The modern ‘game’ of world politics is complex and multi-dimensional.
Yet, their national objectives require that these two queens simultaneously cooperate in several areas to advance these objectives. They are locked in mutual trade and financial dependence. Robust growth in the US and China is vital to both. Their interests coincide on several global issues: climate change, global terrorism and nuclear proliferation and the stability of regions where their interests intersect, including the Korean Peninsula and South Asia.
The second major play on the global chessboard today is the contest between the third queen, Russia, and the US and its Western allies. Under Putin’s long reign, Russia has stabilised its economy, rebuilt its military, reasserted its power and set out ‘red lines’ against further Western encroachment on its sphere of influence.
Ukraine was always within this red line. Russia’s reaction to the Western-sponsored ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian regime was predictable. It will act to ensure its influence over eastern Ukraine and the country’s exclusion from Nato. But the Ukraine crisis has unleashed a new, if smaller, Cold War.
Of course, the power of the three queens is not equal. The US is, by far, the most powerful among them. But, each of the three has certain advantages and disadvantages that make the contest more equal.
The American advantages are obvious: the world’s largest military budget; the most technologically advanced military; global air and naval capabilities; military alliances in Asia and Europe; political and economic influence in scores of other countries; dominance of world finance and control of financial institutions; the trade leverage provided by its large market; the position of US corporations at the apex of almost every global production chain; its new energy independence due to the revolution in oil and gas ‘fracking’; its technological lead and cultural dominance through the entertainment industry.
The US disadvantages are mostly self-imposed: no political consensus on a long-term political-military strategy; domestic unwillingness to sustain large casualties; a shrinking, wasteful military budget; unwillingness of its Nato allies to spend more on defence; and the popular antipathy against America generated by its domineering diplomacy, its unqualified support for Israel, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and its (anti-Muslim) ‘war against terrorism’.
Economically, the US is in decline due to: the recent financial crisis caused by profligacy, expensive adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the divisive political paralysis in the US Congress, rising income inequality and crumbling infrastructure and industry.
China’s advantages are several and growing: disciplined and decisive decision-making; the world’s largest land army; rapidly improving weapons and technological capabilities; proximity to the areas of vital interest; the world’s second largest economy; a globally competitive manufacturing base; new infrastructure; financial capacity to invest globally and strategically; a rigorous education system producing the human resources required for its growing modern economy.
China’s disadvantages are several but may be temporary. Its military is technologically still far behind the US. Its navy is incapable of global power projection. Its maritime disputes have opened the door to revived US military-political alliances ringing China’s eastern and southern periphery. It remains financially and trade dependent on the US. China also lacks the ‘soft power’ to counter the Western media’s negative coverage or the cultural dominance of the US entertainment industry.
Russia’s advantages are few but critical. It remains the largest nuclear power; its military is being modernised; its military aircraft and other weapons systems are among the best; it can act decisively to protect its vital interests; Western Europe is highly dependent on Russian energy supplies; its ability to supply oil and gas to China provides a strong economic foundation for its new strategic partnership with Beijing; Putin is using Russia’s energy, technological and civilian nuclear capabilities to reinforce ties with several middle powers, from India and Italy to Argentina and Pakistan.
Russia’s disadvantages are several. In the present era, its nuclear arsenal offers limited leverage in its relations with the US and other powers. Its military capabilities have technological gaps, including in advanced electronics. Western energy dependence on Russia is declining. Its industry and infrastructure are seriously deficient. It remains highly dependent on US-controlled finance. Its CIS alliances are undependable and fragile.
The ‘game’ between the three queens will define the global political and economic environment in the coming decades. It will also have a significant, often decisive, impact on moves made by other ‘players’. Yet, in this multi-sided game, the bishops, knights, castles and even some pawns will not always conform to the strategies of the queens. The Islamic world, in particular, could emerge as a ‘dark hole’, producing chaotic outcomes for all players.
Thus, while competition is unlikely to be eliminated, it would be in the larger interest of the queens to focus on the cooperative elements of their strategies and set parameters for the ‘game’ that advance the common objectives of global peace and prosperity.
Yet, to redirect the game towards positive outcomes will require a consensus that embraces not only the queens but also the bishops, knights, castles and pawns. This can only be achieved with visionary leadership at the UN.
By Munir Akrsm; a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.