It’s Time to End the Great Game

Oh the wailing and gnashing of teeth as the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, bringing its longest-running war to an ignominious close.

Then again, there’s a reason they call Afghanistan “the place where empires go to die” — and we have just been added to the long list of would-be occupiers and rulers who have dragged themselves out with their shields or on them. When the self-titled “most powerful nation in the world” does so, it’s time to acknowledge that “the Great Game” of global control by powerful nations has far outlived its time.

The Great Game is usually defined as “a political and diplomatic confrontation that existed for most of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century between the British Empire and the Russian Empire, over Afghanistan and neighboring territories in Central and South Asia.” But the term is also used frequently to describe the efforts by colonial powers to exert global influence, usually via military force, in pursuit of resources, trade routes, strategic areas and wealth.

In modern times, the term was applied to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan which, like our own experience, ended in failure. The same has been said of the failed French, then American, disasters in Vietnam. In the case of the U.S., we were facetiously told we had to step in when the French were defeated to stop the march of communism or the rest of southeast Asia would tumble under the so-called “domino theory.” Fifty years later, that theory has, like so many geopolitical predictions, proved to be completely false, despite the enormous cost in life and resources lost.

Generally speaking, humans are said to “learn by their mistakes.” Nations, however, don’t seem to follow that path to wisdom, especially those imbued with an outsize sense of their own greatness. Remember, at one time “the sun never set on the British Empire” — but that time is long, long gone, as are the once-great colonial powers of the French, Dutch and others left on the roadside of history.

Yet, the Great Game persists, particularly in the ambitions of the leaders of our own nation. Remember, we went into Afghanistan not because of Donald Trump or Joe Biden, the latest to shoulder blame, but because President George W. Bush decided to declare a “global war on terror” after the tragedy of 9/11.

It was, of course, foolish from the start to ever believe one nation could somehow force its will onto all the nations of the world simply because we decided they were “terrorists.” Nonetheless, even given the proof Afghanistan has revealed of our unfounded hubris, we continue to follow that losing path in the belief we can somehow control “spheres of influence” over the planet. We cannot.

In fact, the single greatest challenge of our time is not the chest-thumping, threat hurling, “power” of nations in conflict, it’s trying to hold the climate together to enable a livable future — a challenge we have yet to meet or even come close to meeting.

Considering the U.S. spends more on military adventurism than the next 11 highest-spending nations combined, it’s obviously far past time to end the failing Great Game of geopolitical control.

Funneling the more than $2 billion we spend daily on “defense” into addressing the actual challenges facing the nation and planet would produce real long-term benefits. Or we can continue to fund 800 “lily pad” military outposts worldwide as we patrol and intimidate — waiting for the next Afghanistan disaster to prove, once again, that humanity must now leave the colonial ambitions of powerful nations on the ash heap of history.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.