The Great(er) Game: political rhetoric

NATO and Russia
Not a clash of civilizations, but the game of political rhetoric

The contemporary discourse within the study of international relations (IR) is already saturated with debate on the renewed strategic rivalry between NATO and Russia. To simply state that the last several years has witnessed the highest tensions between the two camps since the Cold War would do little to improve any measure of understanding and insight at a holistic level. Rather, the demand (and the urgency) to analyze, deconstruct, and apply contextually unique thinking to a fiercely complex geopolitical question cannot be overstated.

In the last several years, flashpoints between NATO and Russia have been seen at both the strategic level (e.g. conflicts in Ukraine and Syria) and at the tactical level (e.g. clashes between rival air and naval assets in the Baltic and Black Seas). With contesting interpretations of local, national, and regional identities, it is understandable – if not justifiable – that the public opinion within either camp is inherently contesting that of the other. While, to many political pundits and hardliners on either side, such sociopolitical cleavages may provide ample opportunity to buff up rhetoric and escalate tensions, these differences actually foster ideal circumstances to re-establish dialogue and cooperation between NATO and Russia, in an age in which it is needed most.

In the context of IR theory, the rising tensions between the two camps have seen a resurgence of political realist thought. That is, the belief that states are the central (if not, sole) referent within security discourse, and that all such states rationally desire power at the expense of other states. Ultimately, this Machiavellian diagnosis for the 21st century world order in its current state is both overly simplistic in its theory and irresponsible in its application.

Conventional criticism of such political realism states that this discourse of a supposed zero-sum game between states is a form of rhetoric, rather than one of what is actually realistic (or possible) to achieve between states and their respective governments. Critics also accuse political realism of shutting down opportunities to foster dialogue between states, as an inherent product of the realist diagnosis of IR. While the tensions between NATO and Russia do indeed elevate the power of the state to that of a central (but not the sole) referent in the arena of security studies, the current outlook does not – and should not, under any circumstances – mean that IR must also return to an anarchic and belligerent theoretical framework that discounts the potential and urgent need for states to have an interest in regional and global cooperation.

In terms of IR application (including the practice of national and international security) the need for a post-realist analysis of current affairs is especially true in the context of terrorism. While there are certainly many heterogeneous and independent terrorist organizations and networks throughout the globe (targeting NATO countries, Russia, and many other states, alike), the instrumental threat posed by militant Salafi jihadism remains a key priority for the governments of all such political actors. In the context of the two most significant players within militant Salafi jihadism – al Qaeda and ISIL – cooperation between regional and global states and non-state groups is more vital than ever before. This is particularly true for both global players NATO and Russia, and equally so for states of the Muslim world.

These points considered, the antiquated “Great Game” dichotomy between the British and Russian Empires of the 19th century continues today only in the rhetoric both camps deploy against the other. This, in fact, closes opportunities for much needed understanding of the unique perspectives of each camp, and inherently allows transnational threats (e.g. terrorism, civil disparities, and economic rivalries) to root themselves into the political foundations and thrive as seemingly legitimate alternatives.

If there are to be any sustainable and long-term gains for both NATO and Russia, the understanding of the current situation cannot be one that was suitable only for the 19th century. To see it as such would prove a disservice to the constituents of either camp, and a waste of the lessons learned through the countless travails of war and peace since the supposed Great Game began.

Casey Brunelle is a graduate of the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa. In 2015, he completed a contract at United Nations Headquarters in New York City, specializing in humanitarian response. Casey is currently an intelligence advisor with more than five years’ experience in both the public and private sectors.