Great power games

Something has changed in great power gaming rules.

I used to look like soccer with great powers kicking small power balls again and again until one great power had scored decisively or the game had ended.

Well, that somehow stopped to be true - we seemed to have a kind of rule change, and this seemed to have coincided with the writing of the United Nations Charter (albeit I see no direct link).

Today it's more like small powers kicking great power balls. And I don't mean insurgents kicking conventional militaries, I really mean small powers.

Some examples:

Cuba played and plays as if it was a great power in Latin America and Southern Africa.

Egypt played the U.S. and USSR to get the highest bidder for support.

Kosovo's UCK fooled NATO into waging its war against Yugoslavia

Afghanistan's government - supposed to be a Western puppet - plays Western powers to fight its war indefinitely.

- - - - -

On the other hand, the success ratio for the great power's games has been astonishingly poor since WW2. It's even poor if we ignore the many disastrous decolonialization wars.

France was able to exercise some influence and stabilize friendly governments of some former French colonies, and it did so with relatively little effort (no major war). That's probably the biggest success story.

The USSR and U.S. competed for influence in the Third World (especially in the context of decolonialization), but this influence was very often limited to symbolic gestures. Regimes pledges allegiance to capitalism or socialism, but the actual benefits for the great powers were usually marginal. Many such allies of the West were simply dictatorships that merely had to declare to be anti-socialist to get away with almost everything, including weak forms of fascism.
The only "benefit" in these games was the denial of access influence to the rival. The Eastern Bloc had no great raw material shortage (mostly coffee and other non-industrial commodities), so it couldn't have absorbed the raw material exports of the Third World even if it had been 100% "socialist". The West would likely have been able to import enough from slightly socialist Third World countries (as it indeed did) even without any competition for influence efforts of his own.

The UK's great power games were little more than keeping close relations with former colonies, shadowing the U.S. and recapturing a group of island that a small power had dared to grab in expectation of no reaction. Oh, and of course there was also the political disaster of the Suez crisis.
It's not exactly obvious what kind of real benefits Britain gained by its great power status post-WW2.

The PR China has had a great power status for a while - and achieved little more than protection of its supposedly communist regime against a counter-revolution.

Luxembourg and Singapore are tiny, yet rich states. What is it exactly that creates the drive for being a great power and playing great power games? Are politicians and journalists bored?

Maybe the great powers should learn to anticipate their action's effects by reading the new rule book?

A few hours later the Sic Semper Tyrrannis blog published a text on Yemen, including this very fitting quote:

The Yemenis are crafty folk. In the Cold War they were adept at getting free money and weapons from the USSR, USA, Saudi Arabia, and East Germany. They hired the French, Taiwanese and Italians to do odd jobs for them using other peoples' money.

Salih is particularly good at that. He delights in "screwing" the big guys by playing on their fears.



  1. Perhaps the reason it appears that great powers have achieved so little success in the past half century is that their policies haven't been driven by national interest but by the personal interests of politically connected individuals.

  2. IMO, the US had it easier with buying influence. First of all the all mighty $, of course. Much richer than the USSR. But most importantly propping up a junta is a lot cheaper than nation building. The Soviet Union simply could not do so on idealogical grounds. Compare the Afghanistan occupations.

  3. The USSR had several groups of influenced powers

    (1) Eastern European satellites in WP (less Romania)

    (2) quite independent "socialist" countries like NK, PRC, Albania, Yugoslavia and Romania over which the USSR exerted much less influecne than the ideological alignment suggested

    (3) independence movements and later regimes who turned to the 'commies' for support because the West offered none. These movements were often not really socialist in the beginning at all.
    (Sub-saharan Africa mostly)

    (4) relatively large and established states in the Near East who treated the superpowers as competing bidders
    (Arab states mostly)

    The U.S. meanwhile had different clients

    (1) East Asian states and Israel who relied on U.S. support becuause of defence challenges

    (2) Dictators and others who pledged to be anti-socialist in return for support.

    (3) NATO allies (less France) who were united in deterrence of the WP

    (4) Assassins, coup officers and guerrillas who opposed a government that was considered to be too friendly/tolerant to Moscow.

    There were of course exceptions to the rule, such as Afghanistan and Costa Rica.

    Both Blocs had both tough and easy challenges in the global power struggle known as Cold War.

  4. Nice summary. My remark was mainly about the 3rd world.