Military Officer: September 2004

The “great game” is not over. In the 19th century, the great game was a tense ballet of bluff and brinkmanship between Great Britain and Russia over control of the riches of India and Central Asia. Today’s great game has different players, is more complex and dangerous, and has much higher stakes.

The New Great Game is author Lutz Kleveman’s first book, a grim and depressing analysis of the geopolitical strategies to control and exploit the huge reserves of oil and natural gas in the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea area, and all of Central Asia. Kleveman is a journalist and war correspondent who traveled extensively in Central Asia to see for himself the terrain, the players, the resources, and the dangers in what he calls “pipeline politics.”

This book is a well-written and cleverly presented political, economic, industrial, and military travelogue analyzing the tremendous difficulties of oil production and transportation in a region filled with bitter ethnic, religious, and nationalistic rivalries. Central Asia is known for violence, corruption, civil war, anarchy, economic chaos, and crime—hardly an encouraging business climate, but oil and gas are too valuable to leave in the ground.

According to Kleveman, the Caucasus region, the Caspian Sea, and all of Central Asia have great reserves of oil and natural gas, enough untapped fuel to offset the influence of opec and reduce the West’s reliance on Middle East oil. The problem is that Central Asia is politically unstable and geographically remote.

Kleveman describes the energy, wealth, and political complications of the region, highlighting all of the countries involved, from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. He also tells of the intense competition among the players in the new great game—the United States, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan.

Using anecdotes and dramatic narrative, Kleveman offers sharp insight into the unsubtle geostrategic maneuverings of the United States, Russia, China, and Iran over competing oil and gas pipeline projects, with each nation trying to thwart the others’ projects and promote its own. In the middle, of course, are the impoverished Central Asian countries, all former Soviet republics, whose leaders fully understand they are merely pawns in the new great game.

Kleveman provides startling examples of rampant corruption, bribery, and extortion. He describes Russia’s heavy-handed efforts to regain hegemony over its former republics, China’s growing influence and demands for oil, and the “oiligarchs” who rule Central Asian countries as polluted, personal fiefdoms. He also describes how deeply involved the United States is in gaining control of Central Asian oil. The Iranians, he reports, firmly believe the U.S. war on terror is nothing but a contrived plot to militarily take over all of Central Asia.

Kleveman is critical of U.S. foreign policy and the United Nations’ impotence with peacekeeping and negotiations, and his predictions for the future are stark and frightening. For more on this subject, see also Resource Wars by Michael Klare (Metropolitan Books, 2001).
— by William D. Bushnell

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