It is easy to forget that before 2020 became a metaphor for the worst of all possible years, the previous candidate was 2016.
Not only did the UK vote for Brexit in that year, but Donald Trump won the Presidency, and all while we still mourned the deaths of David Bowie and Lemmy from Motörhead. Ever since then every political drama has been a crisis of civilizational proportions, every legal challenge provoked cries of fascism, every disobliging remark was racist, if not openly, then structurally. It’s no surprise that the goto poem of apocalyptic lucubration-‘The Second Coming’ by WB Yeats-received, as it were, a second coming from the last time it was fashionable in the 1960s and 70s; ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand.’ Words for our time.
2020, however, as well as witnessing the completion of Brexit and the end of Trump, was also the year that saw the ancient game of chess make a comeback. Subscriptions to Chess.com are up, chess sets are sold out and books about chess are flying off the shelves. Largely this is to do with the critical success of The Queen’s Gambit, the most compelling TV show produced in years, but it is tempting to believe it is also because we are subconsciously yearning for a strategic mastermind to solve all our problems. Accordingly, the show provides the viewer with a vicarious experience of control in a world of incomprehensible chaos.
The story portrays an improbably attractive young woman, Beth Harmon, overcoming a difficult childhood of abandonment and parental suicide, along with an obsessive and addictive personality, through a rare gift for the immortal game. What it represents, more subtly perhaps, is an almost religious appeal to the power of the mind. The power, that is, of the particular mind, the genius, the philosopher king, the expert, the master strategist. The sort of person, historically speaking, who rises during a crisis and delivers salvation.
Chess Is Not Democratic
The game’s precise origins are obscure and surrounded by legends, but it is known to have been played by kings and famous generals, from Tamerlane to Napoleon, securing its role as the master metaphor for strategy, both on and off the battlefield. There is a famous photograph of Henry Kissinger, perhaps the best known contemporary ‘strategic thinker’, sleeping on a plane with a chess game resting on his lap. Benjamin Franklin was an avid player, and once ignored a checkmate on the grounds that he had ‘no need of a King’. In the 20th Century, the Russians dominated the game because of their machine-like training, until along came Bobby Fisher to serve up a Cold War set-piece in Reykjavik in 1972. It is not an accident that the symbolism of chess dominates the discussion of strategy, for chess signifies the singular purpose of the undistracted mind. The game takes the form of dispassionate exchange of move and counter move. The player has absolute command of all his or her pieces and nothing is hidden on a board of only 64 squares.
Yet although nothing is technically hidden, everything is masked by the complexity of thinking just a few moves ahead and accounting for an unpredictable opponent. A successful player has to be able to see further into the myriad of possible futures than his or her opponent. Because of, however, the absolute need for concentration and focus, the game does not lend itself to debate and deliberation, so much as a clear plan and unquestioned authority. In democratic societies, the extent to which leaders can be thought of as chess players is uncertain. There are just too many variables and control is often little more than an illusion.
No wonder that it is easier to imagine autocratic leaders as comparable to chess players. At least they command all their pieces and don’t need to persuade anyone of their course of action. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, for example, are often portrayed as master strategists precisely for this reason. But while it may be easier to think of Russia or China as controlled by the singular will of one leader, their strategic challenges, both economic and political, are not necessarily resolved any better. Indeed, for all the respect Putin attracts as a stone-cold authoritarian, Russia’s position in the world declines unabated, no matter the great leader’s mordant grimace. Even Russians seem to be getting fed up with him.
Donald Trump, by comparison, was often thought by his supporters to be playing ‘3D chess’, though this reference was likely because no one had any real idea what he was planning next, and it doesn’t seem to have helped him in the end. Now we survey Joe Biden’s incoming administration and it’s hard to see any directing mind at all, or even a coherent strategic impulse that animates the whole. He takes power as a blank slate, an anti-President, or at least an anti-President Trump.
Biden also assumes power in a world filled with problems and no clear way forward. There is a fork between economic growth and the need to control the pandemic, an open file in Asia with a looming Chinese rook dominating, and all the allied pawns look badly disorganized, unprotected, and open to capture. The idea of a singular genius, able to make sense of all this and plot a path to advantage, is formidably appealing, but it’s very difficult to see Joe Biden occupying that role. In any case, the prevailing strategic choices do not lend themselves to polite agreement, and the risks in all directions feed a striking sense of political division. The stakes, as it were, are high right now, and democracies are not good at playing under pressure.
Maybe Democracy Is The Problem
For some, the current international context shows the advantages of autocracy. They see in the maskless protestors in London and Washington a sign of a population gone wild, an ineducable rump not yielding to the considered opinion of the epidemiological experts. They point East and wonder at China’s surveillance society showing the way, then remark on how successfully they have contained the COVID virus, in addition to the clear purpose that underwrites the Belt and Road Initiative. They decry the ‘fake news’ that makes a population ungovernable, and yearn for a return to ‘the science’ before applauding the responsibility that informs social media censorship. The relief rippling across Washington at the exit of Donald Trump has suffused with the sense that his election was a terrible mistake that should have been prevented. If he wasn’t guilty of Russian collusion, then he must have been guilty of something, if only they’d looked hard enough.
In the UK the same kind of people spent years finding reasons why Brexit was a terrible idea, and why it simply couldn’t be done. The people who voted for it clearly didn’t understand, or were manipulated in some way. There needed to be a second referendum, or a ‘confirmatory vote’ once the ‘facts were known’. Statistics were published demonstrating that those who voted for Brexit were less well educated, as if this was all anybody needed to know. In both the U.S. under Trump and in the UK, now under Boris, always the appeal was to higher intelligence, greater mental discipline, foresight, and the advantage of authoritative decision making unencumbered by the need to persuade the emotional and unpersuadable, the populist rabble. After all, if chess pieces could vote, which ones would willingly agree to sacrifice themselves for the greater good like they do in China?
Is Democracy A Zugzwang?
Strategy, it appears, is for the single-minded. The raucous cacophony of democratic pugilism is simply not suited to it. Too many voices, too many choices, the commanding mastermind is superior, whether from an orphanage in Tennessee or the Soviet Chess Academy. No wonder that a TV show extolling the virtues of disciplined and heroic mental struggle was a big hit. It’s just what we need! Apparently. A comforting illusion, but a revealing one. Arguably the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, though very different in important ways were both democratic attempts to shift the strategic direction of each respective country. Trump proposed moving the U.S. towards greater economic nationalism, less immigration, and a stronger, more flexible defense posture. Yet the opposition and hostility he faced were astonishing, if not helped by Trump’s combative and somewhat insecure personality. It was as if his voters, whose democratic authority Trump both represented and wielded, were to be disregarded out of hand on account of the man himself.
In the UK, the Brexit vote was a demand to change direction away from greater and greater political integration in the EU, even if there were some economic disadvantages on the outside. Yet again, these long-standing concerns, finally given formal expression, were simply dismissed out of hand as a kind of racism or xenophobia. But if voting is simply not permitted to change the macro direction of a country, what is the point of it at all? It is as if democracies are simply not suited to acting strategically. As if democracy can only be permitted where its decisions conform to the far-sighted plan of the master strategist. And where it does not, it must be corrected.
In both countries, the desire to change direction was clear enough, but then characterized as a reckless gamble or an unacceptable betrayal to some wider project; the notion of magnanimous U.S. global leadership on the one hand, and the UK’s commitment to European peace and stability on the other. It wasn’t simply that there would be costs for each country, but that the two votes marked a somehow shameful repudiation of the direction ordained by the wise. As if benign US global leadership was not irretrievably tarnished and being progressively undermined by hostile rivals already, or as if Ted Heath himself really had successfully tamed the guilty and unruly imperial lion into a subordinate region of a greater empire still.
Wouldn’t it all be easier if we could have an attractive and appealing player represent us at the international chessboard? Someone who knew the answers? Who could clear away the confusion of the masses and just make the right moves? Why can’t we have David Cameron or Tony Blair back, or better yet Barack Obama? This is the best answer. The right leader, the singular mind, the one we can follow because they are good and wise. In the UK it is too late as the EU anchor chains have been broken and the voters have-regrettably-got what they voted for. But in the U.S. there is still hope. Trump has not been able to drain the swamp, or even finish building his wall. All those problems that saw him elected, they’re still with us now just waiting for the mastermind to emerge.
A New Dawn
Yet despite the baleful criticisms, Brexit has now finally happened, and surprisingly, the predicted Armageddon has been postponed. There are some delays here and there, and a few adjustments to make, but the UK has successfully rolled over its trade agreements with the world and is stepping out with a will. This year the UK occupies the chair of the G7 and has invited India, Australia, and Korea, giving shape to a putative D10 that may follow. If this new organization faces opposition, it comes from the EU, jealous of its own loss of relative influence. The UK is also increasing its defense expenditure and adopting strong diplomatic positions with its allies in North America and Australasia. The EU meanwhile, is busy following Germany’s lead over NordStream 2 and an investment deal with China. ‘Strategic autonomy’ is the phrase used to describe it; supine acquiescence will also do.
And while the UK has suffered a bad case of COVID, its response was to build up the largest testing capacity, both for detecting the virus and analyzing its genomic evolution, in the world, then to develop two successful treatments and a vaccine, while getting ahead of the whole EU in rolling the vaccine out. The overall impression is one of determination and strategic innovation despite the challenges. Time will tell how successful these initiatives are, and how people eventually view Brexit, but the relief felt at the final escape from four years of opposition and indecision is palpable. Whatever the future holds, the British people voted, and can meaningfully still claim to be in command of their destiny, wherever that leads.
In the U.S. it is uncertain what will remain of the 2016 vote to change direction. The mood with respect to China has hardened over the last four years and there are signs that Trump’s new approach will be reinforced not abandoned. If Biden endorses, both in theory and practice, the new ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ idea, this will be welcomed by many in Asia. On the other issues, perhaps Joe Biden will try to reconstruct the pre-2016 order, though this may not be so easy. The old strategic certainties of the post War U.S. world order are still crumbling and oblige a response even if Trump is no longer there to steer it. In some strange sense, the hostility directed at Trump resembled the very backward-looking nostalgia Trump was himself accused of. The old world of American supremacy is a mirage, he was told, by the very people who seek to resurrect it in a different guise. Trump was always the better realist, he just sought the wrong reality, the one without the sanction of the wise cross-party masterminds that have (mis)governed U.S. policy for decades.
There are two ways to look at the 2016-2020 period in international affairs. The first and most prevalent is that the U.S. made a mistake in electing Trump, which is now corrected, and the UK with voting for Brexit which they will now suffer from for years. A more sober view sees that neither Trump nor Brexit came out of the blue, and that both represented enormous blows to the complacent strategic consensus concerning the direction of the West in general. The sense of crisis engendered by the double votes in 2016 has dominated public debates ever since, but might be better understood as the unfamiliar rasping of geostrategic gears in the democratic engine. Most voters never think much beyond the next few years, and just like things to run smoothly. Thinking about the next 20 to 50 years takes training and education, and is best done in the pages of dusty journals or websites like this one. People shouldn’t be allowed to vote on such matters, apparently. Leave it to the strategic masterminds, to those who truly understand the vast and complex problem of the future.
Leave it to Beth Harmon.
People disagree about the future. Before 2016 we perhaps didn’t understand how much. For all the complaints and concerns expressed, however, and for all the apocalyptic warnings of crisis and chaos, you can be certain that if either Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping had announced a huge strategic shift in 2016 they would have been hailed as masterminds by the very same people who wailed about a civilisational collapse when Trump was elected. The problem for the U.S. and the UK was really that we have coasted along within the parameters of a broad strategic consensus since the 1970s and changing direction is intensely hard to do in a democracy. Where the consequences are long term, the disagreements are all the more fierce, and the public are forced to takes sides in arguments they never normally think about. But while strategy is hard to do in a democracy, we should never forget that democracy is itself a long-term strategy, one that has led the way for a long time now. Yes some arguments are bad tempered, but some decisions are important too. Moreover, sometimes the masterminds are wrong. Democracy is how we find that out. No wonder they don’t like it.
Beth Harmon For President? Not Exactly
Without giving too much away, the final scene of The Queen’s Gambit sees Beth Harmon liberated from the straitjacket of her ambition, sitting in a park in Moscow playing chess against an unknown fellow devotee in the snow. The strategic genius is now free of the expectation and the egos of the vanquished and victorious players. The game itself returns to the center, and the love of it takes over. In 2016 a new course was chosen by the people of the UK and after four years of intense and bitter struggle, they have finally brought about a new reality in their external relations, along with a few wounds to heal. In the US, Trump has achieved less than he proposed, but his election has shattered the inertia of America’s post-Cold War drift. For all the chaos foretold, the US stands and the chessboard awaits. Over to Joe Biden 2020; E4…?