From chess board to go board: The transition of International politics

The chessboard has always been using for describing international politics. This word compares the competition between two or several states over a vital region to a chess match. Any movement by one side, no matter how small it is, impacts on the overall situation and significantly tilts the balance of power. Most importantly, just like a chess game simulates a battle, the competitions between great powers usually involve in military actions and wars.

It is hard to trace the first person who phrased this term. However, the man who made this term well-known is Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former National Security Adviser of President Jimmy Carter. In his book, The Grand Chessboard, he illustrates the world after the Soviet Union and predicts that the Eurasia continent will inevitably become the stage of competition among major powers. He particularly focuses on the heart of Eurasia, the Central Asia. A power vacuum appears in the Central Asia after the fall of the USSR. Russia desires to continue the historical domination over the region since the Romanov Dynasty. China struggles to push westward for trade, natural resource, and political buffer zone. Other states, such as India, Iran, and Turkey, want to influence the region in their own manner. The United States should penetrate into the region in order to deter the influence of Russia and China and maximize owns benefits. His theory is clearly influenced by Halford Mackinder’s Heartland Theory and the Great Game of Russia and Britain during the 19th century.

However, as the international politic comes into a new age in the 21st century, the concept of the chess board is becoming outdated. Instead of viewing the world as a combination of vital regions, just like separate chess boards, the policymakers must consider the world as a whole go board, where all regions are correlated.

Recently, go has become a hot topic after Google’s new artificial intelligence, AlphaGo, defeated Lee-Sedol, one of the best Go masters in the world, in a 5-set match. Go, invented by ancient Chinese, is a simple game; two players use black and white stones to encircle as much free space on the board as possible. However, mastering this game requires game planning, read the situation and adjust strategies. It is different from chess in several senses. First, Go focuses on the grand strategy, not individual tactics. There are regions on Go, the four corners, the four sides and the entire battleground at the middle. The battle on the sides reflect on the corners, and the situation on the corners influence the tactic in the center. All regions are connected and correlated. Unlike the chess players who focus on the individual tactic on a small scale battleground, the Go masters examine the grand strategy based on the overall situation and adjust tactics at each region. Second, go focuses on the distribution of the force and the creation of regional advantage; while in chess, the force of both sides is even. Each side has same and a limited number of stones in Go; therefore, a Go master needs to choose where to concentrate and where to abandon. The distribution of force must serve for the grand strategy. In order to seize upper-hand, sometimes giving up temporary interests is essential. A Go master needs to concentrate and invest stones in the most cost effective way, seize opponent’s minor mistakes and attack his weak spots. Go also de-emphasizes on battles. Chess stimulates typical medieval battles in Europe and the goal of chess is to take down opponent’s pieces and seize their king. In contrast, a Go master battles the opponent by overpowering and surrounding the opponent’s stones. The goal is not taking down certain pieces, but to control more space on the go board than the opponent. These unique characteristics of go echo the international politics in the new century.

In the new era, with the advance communication and transportation technology and the economic globalization, all regions interconnects and correlates with each other. All events are global events. For example, the South China Sea dispute is not just between China and its southern neighbors. The United States and Japan involve in the conflict; Russia, India, and the Europe follow the situation closely and calculate the potential benefits they might acquire from the chaos. The policymakers must have a deep understanding of the world situation and the ability to analyze international politics in a global perspective . The policies of each theater aren’t isolated; these policies connect and influence each other.

There is not a single state can project overwhelming military power at every part of the world. The ability to project force declines as the distance of the projection increases. Therefore, a state must establish a primary target and strategy that guides the diplomacy and deployments of military forces. Without this ambition, the military deployments often become shotgun-like and causes over-stretching. A state needs to concentrate the military forces and deploy them in the most advantageous way. As the greatest and most powerful states, the United States often assumes more responsibilities than it could take. During the cold war period, the United States took the responsibility of protecting the entire free world. Under this mandate, the United States confronted the Soviet Union in Europe, intervened in the civil wars in Africa and Latin America, stepped into the Korean War and finally faced devastated defeat in Vietnam. In the late 1970s, the Soviet Union faced the similar situation. The Red Army stationed in the Eastern Europe and the Far East and invaded Afghanistan. However, the low morality of the Red Army and overspending in the military sector contributed to the defeat in Afghanistan and the fall of the Soviet Union. In the new century, the United States tasted the bitterness of the two-front war after President George Bush declared war on terrorism in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Now the United States is actively solving the ISIS crisis in the middle east, interfering the South China Sea disputes, and guarding some other threats such as possible aggression from North Korea and the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Solving any of these problems requires massive spending and resource. The United States must avoid dealing with all of them together, identify the most dangerous crisis and concentrate force and resource on solving it. Diplomacy with flexibility can solve and delay other problems.

Any state must consider several times before declaring a war. The war resolution becomes increasingly dangerous. The huge political, economic and humanitarian consequences ensure that war between major powers is nearly unwise and unrealistic. The military, therefore, becomes a bluffing mask for diplomacy between major powers. The allusion of military possesses a much bigger influence and impact than the actual military operations. For example, the United States moves an Aircraft Carrier Combat Group into a region means the State Department and the Pentagon decide to pursue hardline policies; a state is not just facing a combat group, but the entire US military force. China’s military exercise in the South China Sea signals Beijing’s will of using the military as necessary conflict solution and warns off potential intervention from the United States and Japan. War is the mean; it is never the end. The great Carl von Clausewitz maintained that “War is the continuation of the politics”. Since war is costly thus unrealistic, the military mainly serves as a bargaining chip during the modern diplomacy: military threat can serve as a useful tool in negotiations. Rational and intelligence policy-makers foresees the results of war and adjusts military and diplomatic plan without even fighting the war. The usage of military truly reaches the height of Sunzi’s Art of War: Defeating the enemy without conducting war.

The international politics is moving away the tradition “chess board” system. The equal power regional battles have become old fashion. The new rules of international politics focus on formulating grand strategies and analyzing regional events in the setting of international situations. The effective distribution and concentration of power, rather than the total power, determine the relative military advantage within a region. The military also transforms into a bargaining chip between major powers. These characters are closer to the “go board system” rather than the chess board system.

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