The eagle, the bear and the dragon

Here’s a new Cold War fable for an emerging multipolar world.

russia china meeting
Obama has shifted the US military’s focus from the Middle East to Asia in an attempt to ‘contain’ China [GALLO/GETTY]

Let’s celebrate the end of an eventful 2011 with a fable.

Once upon a time in the young 21st century, the eagle, the bear and the dragon took their (furry) gloves off and engaged in a New Cold War.

When the original Cold War ended – in theory – in late 1991, in a dacha in Belarus, with the bear almost in coma, the eagle assumed the bear’s right to an independent foreign policy which was also cancelled.  

That was more than clear between 1999 and 2004 – when NATO, against all promises made to former top bear Gorbachev, expanded all the way to Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

So the bear started wondering; what if in the end they take away all my security space and I’m geopolitically starved?

In the young 21st century, the key tug of war between the eagle and the bear concerns missile defence. Not even the eagle itself knows whether this immensely expensive gimmick will work. And even if it does, it will probably be financed by a reluctant dragon, which holds over US $1.5tn in eagle debt.  

The bear has repeatedly argued the deployment of interceptor missiles and radars in that land of the blind leading the blind – Europe – is a threat. The eagle says no, don’t worry – this is to protect us from those rogue Persians.  

Yet the bear is not convinced. So, in a global TV message with English subtitles, the bear announced it has already deployed to the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad a new early warning system to monitor missiles launched either from Europe or the North Atlantic. And the Iskander missile system may follow.

The bear is frustrated. It says it has repeatedly offered to co-operate with the eagle and its minions for the development of a joint system – to no avail. The bear insists the door remains open for a compromise. They will have to talk again – after the fractious 2012 presidential campaign in eagleland. Meanwhile, the dragon wearily watches.

And the blind shall lead the blind

Roughly two decades after what top bear Putin defined as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, he has proposed a USSR light – as in the Eurasian Union, a political/economic body already subscribed by snow leopard Kazakhstan and Belarus, soon to be joined by Eurasian cubs Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

As for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, they are far too worried about how to balance pressure by both the eagle and the bear. And then there’s the Ukraine; will it choose the bear or the blind leading the blind?   

The eagle wants something completely different; a New Silk Road under its control. The eagle seems to forget that the original Silk Road linked the dragon with the Roman Empire for centuries – with no interlopers outside of Eurasia.

The eagle is also literally fuming about the fact that the top bear for the next six years (and perhaps 12) will be, once again, Putin. The bear, for its part, is trying to manage for its own benefit the dragon’s inexorable push towards global preeminence.

That’s why the bear is betting on an economic space “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” – that is, intimate co-operation with that motley crew in crisis-hit blind leading the blind. The problem is the blind are, well, blind, and can’t seem to get their act together.  

The eagle, meanwhile, has massively raised the stakes. It has launched what amounts for all practical purposes to a progressively weaponised encirclement of the dragon (“I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific a top priority”).

The eagle is making a series of moves that amounts to inciting nations bordering the South China Sea to antagonise the dragon. Moreover, it’s repositioning an array of toys – nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, fighter jets – closer and closer to the dragon’s territory. The name of the game, according to the eagle’s Ministry of Deadly Weapons, is exactly “repositioning”.

What the dragon sees is a battered eagle trying to muscle its way out of an irreversible decline by trying to intimidate, isolate or at least sabotage the dragon’s irreversible ascent back to where it has been for 18 of the past 20 centuries; enthroned as the king of the jungle.

That’s a hard bet for the eagle. Virtually everyone that makes Asia tick holds complex, far-reaching connections with the dragon and the dragon diaspora.  

Players across Eurasia may not be much impressed with an eagle empire armed to its teeth anymore. They know that under the new laws of the jungle, the dragon simply can’t – and won’t – be reduced to the status of a supporting actor.
The dragon won’t stop expanding in Asia, Latin America, Africa and even in the unemployment-infested pastures of the crisis-hit blind leading the blind.

Moreover, only the dragon, if pushed too far, has the power to make the eagle’s staggering deficit explode, degrade its credit rating to junk and wreak havoc in the world financial system.  

Some like it hot

So after a decade-long pause – burn out by the eagle’s nonsensical  “war on terror”, which translated, in practice, as an all-out offensive in Muslim lands – realpolitik is back in business. Forget about a bunch of ragged jihadis; now it’s up to the big boys to settle their differences.  

A decade is the time it took for the eagle to realise that the political/economic center of a new multipolar world will be Asia.

Yet, what the eagle’s new strategic moves have accomplished is to turn the bear from a pliable client (during the 1990s and the early 2000s) to a virtual enemy. The “reset” is a myth. The bear knows there’s no reset – and the dragon can only see a reset towards open confrontation.

As the eagle gets more threatening, the bear will get closer and closer to the dragon. Both bear and dragon have too many strategic links across the planet to be intimidated by the eagle’s massive Empire of Bases or its periodic coalitions of the (somewhat reluctant) willing.

The dragon, for its part, knows Asia does not need the eagle’s Hellfires, although it would certainly welcome good, solid eagle-made products. Problem is, the offer is not that great.

If this is the best the once mighty eagle has to offer – from a war against Islam to weaponised cornering of both the bear and the dragon – that spells everything about an empire in search of a project. Moreover, Asia is smart enough to adopt a New Cold War that will undermine Asia itself.

Even as the warning shots of the New Cold War are still being fired, the eagle already runs the risk of losing its Pakistani client.

Then there’s Persia. The eagle has been after the Persians ever since they got rid of the eagle’s proconsul, the Shah, in 1979 (and this after the eagle and perfidious Albion had already smashed democracy to place the Shah – who made Saddam look like Gandhi – in power in 1953). The eagle wants all that oil and natural gas back. The bear and the dragon say – not this time, my bald feathery friend.

And so we reach the end – though not the endgame. Predictably there’s no moral to this fable. What sensible minds may expect is that even as we’ll keep suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, this New Cold War hopefully won’t become hot.

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is named Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.