Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia

Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia

Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia

Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia


The struggle between Russia and Great Britain over Central Asia in the nineteenth century was the original "great game." But in the past quarter century, a new "great game" has emerged, pitting America against a newly aggressive Russia and a resource-hungry China, all struggling for influence over the same region, now one of the most volatile areas in the world: the long border region stretching from Iran through Pakistan to Kashmir.

In Great Games, Local Rules, Alexander Cooley, one of America's most respected international relations scholars, explores the dynamics of the new competition for control of the region since 9/11. All three great powers have crafted strategies to increase their power in the area, which includes Afghanistan and the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Each nation is pursuing important goals: basing rights for the US, access to natural resources for the Chinese, and increased political influence for the Russians.

However, overlooked in all of the talk about this new great game is fact that the Central Asian governments have proven themselves critical agents in their own right, establishing local rules for external power involvement that serve to fend off foreign interest. As a result, despite a decade of intense interest from the United States, Russia, and China, Central Asia remains a collection of segmented states, and the external competition has merely reinforced the sovereign authority of the individual Central Asian governments. A careful and surprising analysis of how small states interact with great powers in a vital region, Great Games, Local Rules greatly advances our understanding of how global politics actually works in the contemporary era.


This was not a book that I planned to write. Though a long-time observer of Central Asia, my previous work mostly looked at the region as “a case” when exploring topics such as comparative imperial legacies, the politics surrounding U.S. military bases or, in my joint work with Hendrik Spruyt, how countries divide, share, and transfer their sovereignty.

This project originally started as a more limited attempt to make analytical and practical sense of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a new regional organization comprising China, Russia, and the Central Asian states, which in the late 2000s appeared to be establishing itself as a rival to Western-led security and economic organizations in Central Asia. But the onset of the global financial crisis and the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia War underscored important differences in the agendas of its two biggest members, China and Russia, and the organization’s development was halted.

Meanwhile, just a few months after my Base Politics book came out, the small country of Kyrgyzstan, in seeming collusion with Russia, announced that it would evict the U.S. military from its critical airbase at Manas, near the capital of Bishkek. U.S. officials launched a furious, and ultimately successful, behind-thescenes efforts to reverse the decision, renegotiating an extended stay at an increased price. Just one year later, the regime of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had launched the U.S.-Russia bidding war, collapsed, prompting a domestic backlash against the United States and an investigation into the baserelated service contracts and fuel deals that the U.S. military had reached with the previous regime. My testimony for a U.S. Congressional investigation into the fuel contracts at Manas rekindled my interest in the topic, but also emphasized that events in the region were moving with great speed.

Upon reflection, I realized that rather than understand specific developments in Central Asia as “cases” of certain political phenomena, the region’s dynamic . . .

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