On the stage of the annual Munich Security Conference (Siko, English Munich Security Conference, MSC ) one could witness an interesting production these days. On the agenda there was the difficult question of global Transformation in times of waning Western dominance. In plain language: according to whose rules should be played in the future, if the previous rules expire? Three variants were in the main program: Poker à la Trump, chess à la Putin, and – new to the program – GO à la Xi Jinping. All with a large audience.
In his opening speech, federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier assumed the mood for the conference. After a brief lament about the” increasingly destructive dynamics of world politics “that arise from the” competition of the ‘great powers’”, he went straight to the criticism of these powers as the originators of the development he lamented – Russia, China, USA.
There was talk of Europe and Germany as victims, who would have to take better care of themselves in the future so as not to fall out of the game plan. The Steinmeier assured us that this was not about Resignation, nor about cynicism. A “mental adjustment to the new reality” – “in all humility”, as he assured in the course of the speech, as also Europe, including Germany, must find its own rules again.
Mental adjustment to reality
This speech by Frank-Walter Steinmeier may have been considered courageous by some. In fact, right at the beginning of his speech, he was forcefully critical of the three “great powers”. But adaptation to reality? Was that it? And what’s more, “in all humility”? What does Steinmeier offer as reality? To whom does his humility apply? Let us first take a literal look at what he put forward to avoid misunderstandings.
In three equally long paragraphs, visibly anxious to suggest equal treatment of those mentioned, Steinmeier offered the following criticisms at the reception of the speech:
Russia, whether rightly or wrongly offended and alienated, has not only annexed Crimea without regard to international law. It has once again made military force and the violent shifting of borders on the European continent a means of politics. Uncertainty and unpredictability, confrontation and loss of trust are the result.
In the course of its impressive rise, China has also become an important player in international institutions, indispensable for the protection of global public goods. At the same time, it only selectively accepts international law where it does not run counter to its own interests. His actions in the South China Sea are disturbing the neighbours in the Region. His actions against minorities in his own country disturb us all.
And our closest ally: under the current government, the United States of America itself rejects the idea of an international community. Each country should see for itself where it remains and put its own interests above those of all others. As if everyone is thinking of themselves. “Great again” - also at the expense of neighbors and partners.
In a nutshell, a fine distinction is made here: Russia is destroying the international order, China is using what benefits it, the US is ignoring the community of its neighbours and friends. These are very different weights, but not only that, but also the most finely woven demagogy, in which reality is turned several times around itself in diplomatic turns.
What about the half-sentence “Russia, whether rightly or wrongly offended or alienated”, followed by the assertion that Russia has destroyed the international order? Apart from the casualness with which The Insult is put aside, it should be noted here: Russia has not only been “insulted”, it has been systematically contained since its return to the international Arena after the collapse of the Soviet Union, harassed by NATO and the EU, its president denigrated as the new Hitler, Stalin and Neo-Imperialist – all this without Russia having replied to this policy emanating from the West with the same coin.
Instead, Russia, from Mikhail Gorbachev up to Vladimir Putin, has repeatedly made new offers to build a Eurasian security architecture with Europe from Vladivostok to Lisbon. Even the US wanted to involve Russia in this. Instead of creating unrest, Russia has in this way – already in the interest of its own convalescence after the collapse of the Soviet Union – developed into a force without which nothing can be done in global conflict management. Russia almost became a bulwark against the destabilization of the global order emanating from the United States.
The fact remains that Crimea was not annexed by Russia in revenge for an “insult” and certainly not by force in violation of international law, even if this claim is repeated so often. Crimea was incorporated into the Russian state at the request of the vast majority of the population living on it, who expressed this request in a properly conducted Referendum. At best, one could argue whether the support for the undisturbed conduct of the referendum, which Russia provided through the presence of civilian law enforcement forces, took place in a legal-free area at the time of the state of emergency caused by the Kiev Maidan, or whether, despite the situation of upheaval, Ukrainian law still applied, which could have been violated by Russian support. However, Steinmeier’s half-sentence does not allow such differentiation.
It is already boring to have to recount all these facts, starting with the advance of NATO up to the stationing of NATO troops directly in front of the Russian border. Rather, it would be important to recognize that the cautious reaction of Russia, which did not allow itself to be provoked, is not a coincidence, nor is it a temporary tactical mimicry, which could change tomorrow into new imperial ambitions of Russia.
Rather, Russia’s reaction is rooted in the role that the country has to play, whether it wants to or not, in today’s constellation of powers between the decaying world hegemon, the USA, on the one hand, and China, on the other, as the new world power to come. From an insight into this constellation, Russia’s current President Putin pursues a clear strategy of stabilising the inner Eurasian region with Russia as the centre of integration between China and Europe.
This historical role of Russia as an integration node of Eurasia is a strategic factor according to which Russia’s policy defies all the demonizations that evoke Russia’s unpredictability and profundity, is clearly transparent and according to which Putin’s policy is also currently oriented. It follows recognizable, familiar, long-established rules. In the picture, she follows defined rules as in the game of chess and – guided by them – repeatedly denounces-in clear criticism of the USA-compliance with the rules of the international order agreed upon after the Second World War.
Russians, it must be said, have not only been the leading chess nation since Soviet times; since 2019, chess has once again been a subject of instruction in Russia’s schools. Putin is also a master in several Asian martial arts disciplines (Judo, combat Sambo, Kyokushin Karate). Both together, Russia under Putin’s leadership today produces a policy that is oriented towards clearly recognizable goals and verifiable steps towards this goal. This goal is: to bring Russia and its inner-Eurasian environment back to health after the fatal collapse of the statehood of the Soviet Union and to preserve the necessary global security framework.
So if it were really a matter of making a “mental adjustment to the new reality,” as Steinmeier calls for, then that would mean in relation to Russia: recognizing that Russia needs fixed rules, yes, even a consolidation of the existing rules, because the task is to counter the centrifugal dynamics of Eurasian space with the power to integrate them. Of course, this can only be done in a secure global framework. It is only in this contradiction that it also becomes clear what is at stake in the question of what might come after Putin. Whenever in Russian history it was not possible to settle the succession in time, the inner Eurasian space sank into Chaos, Russian SMUTA, combined with destructive effects for the Russian environment. (>Book tip: Kai Ehlers, " Russia-heartbeat of a world power”)
Three great Smutas know Russian history: after the death of Ivan IV in the transition to the Romanov dynasty in the 16th century, in the revolutionary years 1905 to 1917 and in the transition from the Soviet Union to the new Russia.
China and Europe, as the eastern and western foothills of the Eurasian centre, are partners in this process, including you, whether you like it or not, without having to play by the rules of the multi-ethnic state of Russia. However, this partnership can only be sustainably fruitful if Russia is accepted by both sides as the integration centre of Eurasia.
China-only own interests?
China indeed plays differently than Russia. China does not have to center the Eurasian area, it only has to regain its former size on the eastern edge of the Eurasian continent, so it must first find itself. But to accuse China of its utilitarian thinking goes past the reality, clearly stated, of the development conditions of this country, as does the accusation of centralism against Russia’s integration constraints.
Measured by its multi-thousand-year history, China today emerges from a short period of oblivion measured by it, in which it vegetated as a European colony, step by step as a perceptible force on the surface of world events. These were the liberation struggles of the 1920s of the 20th century and the subsequent Revolution under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung (also Zedong), then the further steps under Deng Xiaoping, now under Xi Jinping, to name just a few stops. This happens with tremendous dynamics, but without haste, with a long breath. China has nothing to lose, but much to gain – winning back would be even better given its long history and ancient importance.
In other words, the world order into which China is moving today is not its own, but it is the space into which China is putting its stones. Dissolving the east-West contradiction is China’s slogan, which its representatives also put forward at the Munich conference. The rules that China follows are different from those that apply to Russia. They are not oriented towards chess. China follows its own Tradition-specifically: the Weiqi game, better known in the West under the Japanese name GO.
GO is a board game on which by placing stones, all of which have the same shape and value, movements of taking land are marked by encircling demarcated fields.
Players take turns placing their stones on pre-drawn Crosspoints of a grid made up of 19 by 19 lines to mark their own space. The game knows only a few basic rules, such as when a room is considered occupied or when the opponent must surrender the stones contained in it as prisoners. The GO is not about beating an opponent in open field battle according to established rules, in order to finally checkmate the King.
GO strategy, with which the small tiles are placed stone by stone in alternation with the opposite on the board, is rather comparable to the course that water seeks for itself on a flat surface: where it comes, where it comes, but it is by no means always foreseeable where it comes. It is important to follow its course flexibly. There is no predetermined outcome for the go game. The game does not end until the field is occupied in such a way that one of the players no longer sees any point in putting more stones, because every stone he would put would become a prisoner of his opponent and thus increase his score. Or the game ends when all of a player’s tiles are set despite possible prisoner exchanges. After all, the winner was the one who was able to convert the most free space so that the opponent can no longer place in it without making himself a prisoner. Converted points and number of prisoners together result in the result from which winners and losers are determined.
More about the character of the GO game can be read with profit in a publication of the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Of all things! should be added to that.
It is in the nature of this game to be unpredictable, flexible and long-lasting, just as Chinese politics are not designed for rapid conquests, but for long-lasting penetration of Asian, Eurasian and possibly also global space. There is no plan of conquest – there is only one goal that Xi Jinping has formulated for today’s Chinese politics: in 2049, China is to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the people’s Republic, the world’s largest industrial nation will be.
On the way of this global Go game there is no planned external Aggression, only-this, however, yes! - the gradual, gradual penetration of the world with Chinese thinking, specifically “Xi Jinping thinking” and global Chinese economic power, including the formation of its own population for this thinking. Accessions to international organizations, transnational alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), cooperation with the Russian-led Eurasian Union, accessions to the WTO, global and regional nuclear non-proliferation agreements and other treaties are steps that are taken whenever the current image of the playing field allows or demands a new setting of the stones.
In Munich, this situation-adjusted policy was observed at the appearance of the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was there seeking foreign aid in the fight against the spread of the Corona Virus-a situation unimaginable for China’s party before the emergence of the Virus. Now the necessary New Stone is set. With further Stones, this image can be adapted, if necessary, to a new reality.
However, anyone hoping for a quick or even an opening for Western liberalism is likely to be mistaken. For the time being, China still allows criticism of its internal constitution to bounce back. For this, the game would have to develop much further. But none of the teammates knows yet, how its further course will be.
The only force that has surpassed the GO game so far is the computer AlphaGo, powered by ‘artificial intelligence’, which defeated Korean grandmaster Lee Sedol in March 2016. (>Go tournament between man and machine, > FAZ article “Computer teaches itself Go-and becomes world class” by Alexander Armbruster, 10/2017). This development raises apocalyptic fears. But with explanations about this, another topic would now be opened, which would also concern chess and Poker, which will be discussed in a moment, and perhaps even more games. This should not happen here.
With Poker against all
Instead, let us come to the characterization of the United States: they reject the international community. Yes! The criticism is clear. One would like to agree with her. But in comparison to the criticisms Steinmeier has made of Russians and Chinese, this criticism – to say the least and as already indicated-is upside down: the US is not only giving a friendly rejection to its friends and neighbours, it is they who deliberately paralyze the international community – from the UN to the WTO and environmental policy – destroy treaty networks, provoke wars worldwide, break into the sovereignty of other states by regime change, etc..
Even NATO is not sure whether it will not be sent by Trump on occasion on the old part. Everyone must expect unpredictable announcements from Trump’s Twitter Account at any time. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompejo, was also unable to erase this image of a weakening world power that is struggling unpredictably with his statement that everything is in order: “the West is victorious, we are victorious together,” which he made in response to Steinmeier’s introductory speech.
But even that is not to be pursued here. Enough has already been said about this. The world media are full of it every day.
But what is important beyond all this is to note the pattern of this policy, which is flourishing today in Trump’s Twitter operations: it follows the rules of Poker, the most popular card game in the American West, which could not be missing in any ‘classic’ Western: teasing and bluffing with the aim of pulling the opponent across the table, if necessary, briefly even with the Revolver to help.
As Von Steinmeier rightly notes, this approach also affects friends and neighbors, but not only, but the entire world community, which sees itself threatened by the unpredictability of the current president of the United States and the military apparatus at his disposal.
Europe (without Russia)
When, at the end of his speech, the German president asks the question of what rules Germany, as Europe’s central power, can play by in the future in order to live up to its historical responsibility for the preservation of what he calls the “project Europe”, when it comes to the “mental adjustment to the new reality” that he demands, then he would be advised first of all to turn to the game of chess, the rules of which are probably closest to him and to us Europeans from European history. Neither GO nor Poker has a cultural Basis in Europe, especially in Germany, which calls on Steinmeier to take responsibility for the preservation of Europe, but very much the tradition of chess.
Turning to chess, however, would mean turning to Russia instead of drumming against Russia. Europe, especially Germany and Russia, are undoubtedly closer to each other in their eventful history, especially in the present than with China or the USA. Russia and Europe, especially Germany, together form the core of Eurasia, even though part of Russia extends into Asia and parts of Europe are now more connected to the USA than to the European centres after England’s separation from the EU.
To put it bluntly: Germany and Russia, Berlin and Moscow form the two central points of an Ellipse, the two parts of which can only work together, not without - and not against each other in a beneficial way forward.
All this does not mean that Germany and Russia should combine to form a German-Russian axis that excludes other players. The rules of GO and Poker should be familiar to Russian as well as German and with them European politicians, yes, they must consciously study them in order to be able to live in fruitful dialogue with China and the USA, instead of being unexpectedly undermined by China and further pulled over the table by the USA.
But in a friendly alliance with each other, Russia and Germany would have the power to stabilise Eurasia and thus the globe, because it is still possible to formulate, in modification of the dictum of Halford John Mackinder, that whoever stabilises Eurasia stabilises the world. Even after the death of Zbigniew Brzeziński, who updated Mackinder’s dictum for us world domination, nothing has changed – except that the US is less and less able to colonize Eurasia.
Despite all his dependence on the USA, his partiality towards Russia and his perplexity as to what the role of Germany and the EU might be in the new game of powers, this insight shimmers out of Steinmeier’s speech when, in spite of all his criticism, he finally comes out of nowhere to the surprising invitation:
Europe cannot and must not resign itself to increasing alienation from Russia. We need a different, better relationship between the EU and Russia and Russia and the EU. But the necessary reflection on our future relationship with Russia must not take place without or at the expense of the states and peoples of Central Europe.
Yes, one can only say. That’s what we need. Also on the terms he has mentioned. But for this, the mask of “humility” would have to be removed, under which Germany only squints in the second row for new “responsibility”, and would have to be replaced by a self-confident own peace initiative together with Russia and a coalition of those who want peace.
Even more interesting, however, would be the development of rules that, through the eternal repetition of fighting games, be it chess, Go or Poker, could lead into a field that has not yet been developed, in which it is no longer a question of defeating each other, but of overcoming the so bitterly lamented competition through cooperation based on mutual help.