History repeats itself in Central Asia with minor variations

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmad Musa

Dhu al-Hijjah 27, 1423 2003-03-01

Book Review

by Ahmad Musa (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 1, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1423)

Endgame: Britain, Russia and the Final Struggle for Central Asia by Jennifer Siegel. Pub: I. B. Tauris & Co., London, 2002. Pp: 284. Hbk: $29.50.

One feature of current international disorder is the unprecedented focus on Central Asia. This is a term which has come to refer almost entirely to the former Soviet Republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, but has traditionally had a far broader definition, encompassing the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Kashmir, the Himalayan regions, Tibet and much else beside.

This is certainly how the term was understood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the periods discussed in this new history of ‘the Great Game’ by Jennifer Siegel, an American historian specialising in diplomatic and international history. The phrase ‘the Great Game’ was coined by a British officer in the early nineteenth century to describe the diplomatic politicking and manoeuvring taking place between Russia and Britain in Central Asia, which lasted well into the twentieth century.

What is more, there are strong parallels between the ‘Great Game’ as described by Siegel in Endgame, and the present politicking in the region as the US seeks to control it, its resources, and the strategic position it occupies. Then, as now, the dominant Western powers were fearful of militant pan-Islamism, and ideologically opposed governments found themselves uncomfortable partners on the grounds of dubious common interests. Compounding and affecting all security concerns and alliances, just as they do today, were commercial interests–particularly, of course, the common interest in oil.

Beginning as early as the late eighteenth century, the ‘Great Game’ involved the two most powerful ‘Great Powers’ of the time in an undeclared conflict that seemed permanently to be on the verge of war but never culminated in battle. The ‘players’ in this game were Britain, which possessed India, crown jewel of the colonial world, and Russia, which was expanding south into the Caucasus and what we now think of as Central Asia, and was thought to be interested in expanding even further south, in pursuit of the warm-water ports its traditional territory lacked. The need to protect India caused England to become concerned in all the surrounding countries; this concern frequently resulted in a process of creeping colonisation. Simultaneously, Russia expanded much more aggressively in all directions.

The speed of the two countries’ growth was evident from the shrinking distance separating their frontiers. At the turn of the nineteenth century they were 2,000 miles apart. By 1876 this distance had been halved, and by the end of the century the gap was only a few hundred miles. As the margin narrowed and Russian ambitions for a Central Asian empire remained undiminished, official and public opinion in Britain grew even more apprehensive about the intentions of the ‘Russian Bear’. To some, hostilities appeared to be all but inevitable; yet open warfare never actually broke out between them. Indeed, the next war in which both were involved found them allied against Germany in Europe rather than fighting each other in Central Asia. Explaining the politics which resulted in this rather remarkable balance of regional power over several decades is the object of this book.

The traditional explanation suggests that the threat of war over Central Asia receded because, by the early twentieth century, both countries had what in hindsight seem to have been more pressing problems. Russia was in political turmoil after being routed by Japan; Britain was torn by social troubles at home and the Boer War in South Africa (in which victory proved rather more costly than defeat might have been); and both found their interests threatened by an assertive Germany.

It is traditionally argued that, in response to these issues, both countries decided that it was in their interests to conclude their years of animosity by signing a treaty that would allow them to focus elsewhere. This they did in August 1907 with a convention formalising their respective spheres of control. Both were allotted a third of a notionally independent Persia; Russia agreed to recognise that Afghanistan was entirely within Britain’s sphere, while Britain agreed not to try to change its status from a protectorate to an actual colony; and both agreed to recognize the suzerain rights of China over Tibet and not expand operations in that direction, except for Britain’s initial commercial contacts, which had not yet been developed.

Siegel’s object is to challenge this conventional wisdom. She does this by arguing that, at the time when it was signed, the Treaty represented no more than a temporary cessation of hostilities for each of the competing powers. Moreover, she argues that it would almost certainly have been renounced or renegotiated but for the First World War. To build her case, she has undertaken considerable research in the archives of both countries, finding ample convincing evidence to show that their interests in the region remained undiminished, their motives remained unchanged and their plans proactive rather than reactive. Russia continued to seek expansion; Britain continued to refuse to countenance any act that could facilitate an attack on India, which led them to wish to increase their presence in Tibet to stave off possible trouble with regards to Nepal. Parties in both governments sought to maintain the integrity of the convention, but these efforts became increasingly difficult as both empires pursued policies that seemed destined to contravene the agreement.

The story of how both countries sought to increase their influence, while ostensibly not doing so, sometimes makes for gripping reading. This is especially the case when Siegel is able to present differing reactions of the two governments to the same events. An entertaining example of this is her treatment of the minor crisis provoked by the theoretically autonomous Persian government’s decision to employ an American rather than a Belgian to improve the state of Persia’s finances (pp. 102-3).

However, Endgame’s overwhelming concern with diplomatic history and the attendant need to cover relatively small crises extensively does reduce its narrative drive. Another problem is that, with so narrow a focus, Siegel lacks the room to provide the historical context for the behaviour of the two countries. For example, it is far easier to understand the problems confronting both Russian and Britain over Afghanistan if one is aware of the previous century of interactions, which included two failed invasions and considerable skulduggery.

Endgame is undoubtedly a valuable contribution to the scholarly literature on the ‘Great Game’, adding considerable insight to the diplomacy and international policking underpinning the events of a period of history which shaped the region heavily in later years. It is bound to appeal to historians and others with an interest in the Great Powers, in diplomats, or in Central Asia. It is, however, an academic monograph rather than a general work on the subject. For general readers a prior knowledge of the history of the region is essential, perhaps by reading it in conjunction with some of the broader literature on the subject. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating and useful addition to the literature of the international relations of the region.

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