How cold do you want your war? The current Syria conflict tends to awaken that kind of rhetoric. Each era tends to leave in people’s minds a framework for understanding the world, a set of worries and anxieties that persist even if the reality on the ground has shifted. And before the Cold War, there was the Great Game.

In that vein, both Stalin and de Gaulle were in fear of a reunited and militaristic Germany, even after the Second World War, when the situation and attitudes within Germany had shifted and a new culture had taken hold. They died having that fear, even though the world had moved on since then.

Cold War 2.0?

Today, we keep seeing references to the Cold War in the current conflict with Russia. The Syrian proxy war especially, gives rise to these turns of phrase. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the UK’s largest opposition party, is worried about a “drift to conflict”. The Americans use similar Cold War rhetoric as well. Europe is not immune to it either, the French do it too. It is partly inevitable.

It is what is most recent in people’s minds and has entered our cultural lexicon. It’s also a period of history that we are intimately familiar with, and the example comes easily to mind. It also fits in with the way the world tends to be currently portrayed; the Guardian often attempts to portray the conflict between the West and Russia as an ideological one by pointing out the differences in laws and attitudes with regards to LBGT issues.

Or the Great Game 2.0?

Indeed, an attempt to fit the current conflict into a framework of good and evil is perhaps what prompts the comparison with the Cold War. It does not help that the media in the Anglosphere has not stopped portraying the world as good vs evil after the end of the Cold War. When George W. Bush in January 2002 gave his famed Axis of Evil speech, painting Iraq, Iran and North Korea as such a collection of countries with malintent, it was received well both within the Republican base and in general, even at the venerable New York Times.

However, perhaps the Cold War is not really the most appropriate analogy to understand the current situation the world is in. It is of particular importance for us in Europe as there is such a difference in situation between various EU states.

There is no difference of ideology. None of the Great Powers is trying, to a first approximation, to impose a political model per se. There is no pivot point, no takeover of government by the communists to be feared or welcomed, in the same way as there used to be. The same economic model is used by both sides.

Francis Fukuyama Strikes Back

That cliché phrase of Francis Fukuyama, the “end of history” seems to apply here. However perhaps it is more a case of a return to a previous condition. As the Russian establishment funds Russophile parties in Europe, such as the well-publicised loan to France’s Front National,  and the Chinese state uses a network of corporations and middlemen to have friends in high places, as with the case of the Czech Republic, it is the economic aspect that takes precedence. There are billions to be made, empires to build, protectorates to acquire.

Perhaps a better analogy would be the confrontation between Great Britain and Russia before WW1, known as ‘The Great Game’. Using a short, catchy phrase, the Great Game is back. Great Powers are angling for advantage, talking to the local elites and seeking economic gain.

Hall d’entrée d’un immeuble art nouveau (Paris) by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

The Great Game was originally used for the efforts of Britain and Russia in the area currently between and including Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, to gain advantage, to acquire economic benefit or acquire territory. Even without the “boots on the ground” aspect of it, we are in quite a similar situation.

The Great Powers send their middlemen, their diplomats, their cultural institutions to the capitals of Europe’s smaller states. Indeed, in pre-WW1 Greece, it was known amongst the population that there was an Anglophile, a Francophile and a Russophile political party. And in the same way, in the Balkans, Austria-Hungary was worried about increasing Russian influence in those governments.

Within the “Great Powers”, for lack of a better term, each ruling class is looking to a preservation of its own status, and both the economic and security gains from such adventures, such as access to another country’s telecommunications systems or building key infrastructure projects, as well as the posturing they allow to leaders, such as Turkish President Erdogan’s recent call for elections a few months after invading a region of Syria, remind us of this.

Mixed fortunes

Where does that leave Europe? Some European states try to play the role of the Great Powers, although they are much reduced. Britain, for example, has increased the budget of its BBC World Service, its emblematic soft power tool. Indeed, the increase in budget was conditional to it expanding to Russian-speaking areas, North Korea, Africa and the Middle East. So to a first approximation, Britain, France and Germany have a chance at a more independent existence.

However, most other European states are clearly in the role of protectorates, with the “Great Powers” trying to build a friendly elite, working towards the future. To differentiate with the Cold War, this is not done for any kind of ideological supremacy or any thoughts on how people should live, this is done for economic gain.

Gone are the times when Communist youth would be sent to study in the Soviet Union. However, by gaining influence, a Great Power can ensure a flow of funds, from its corporations. And the flow of funds to itself will go to its treasury, and thus provide a better quality of life for its people, fund its healthcare, its education system, or simply ensure almost all the money goes to its elite.

The structures are there for us to exert influence on a European level, but they are embryonic. The European External Action Service is an example. It manages the European Union’s presence at the United Nations. It is trying to create a joint European foreign policy, under its current head, Federica Mogherini. Increasing defence cooperation is also an area where progress has been made.

Macron’s promotion of the French language in Europe could enable us to create media structures that will influence the world with our point of view, instead of the existing structures. Even the major news site reporting on EU issues,, is American-owned. What should Europe do in this case? Do we play the Great Game together? Or we resign ourselves to irrelevance and being a place that is acted upon, where others will struggle to determine who will control us?

Crédit photo: Markos Loizou

Nicolas Mavreas was born on what later became Europe’s eastern frontier, on the island of Cyprus. He lived through Europe’s enlargement and the turmoil of the early 2010’s. After completing his two-year compulsory national service, he went to the University of Cambridge to study. He observed the Brexit debate and result. Being a European in another member-state sharpened his awareness of the European “we” and spurred on a search to understand the European interest.

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