In its recent dealing with Iran and Hamas, Russia has succeeded in achieving a major geopolitical objective. And it has done so with relatively little cost. It has managed to convince many in the Muslim world that it is willing to play the role of "the honest broker" — the role that the wily German Chancellor Otto Bismarck assigned to himself at the Congress of Berlin. For example, representatives of Hamas, on returning from their trip to Moscow, praised the Russian efforts at mediation, and noted that Russia's geographical position made it the ideal party to settle differences between the Islamic world and the West.
In ordinary life, an honest broker is a disinterested party whose even-handedness and sense of fair play allows him to resolve disputes between two or more antagonists. Because he has nothing to gain by taking either side, and is only anxious to play the role of the peace-maker, the honest broker makes the ideal mediator in any conflict. For example, Theodore Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for assuming the role of the honest broker in bringing the Russo-Japanese war to an end that was satisfactory to both of the warring parties.
Though honest brokers are appreciated in normal times, during a period of conflict and crisis, they become absolutely invaluable — indeed, they often provide the only ray of hope for bringing interminable disputes to a conclusion. That is why the offer of a third party to play the part of the honest broker is usually applauded by those seeking the peaceful resolution of violent conflict.
So the question arises: Should we in the United States be applauding Russia's efforts at mediation, or should we be worried that behind the façade of an honest broker the Russians are playing a much deeper game — much as Bismarck was playing a deeper game behind his posture?
Consider the case of Hamas. The United States refuses to recognize Hamas and is trying to persuade the rest of the world to follow suit. But if we do not recognize Hamas, then this rules out the possibility that we can act as a mediator between Hamas and Israel. Yet how can the USA appear to Hamas as an honest broker when we declare that we are unwilling to talk to them? Thus, by default, Russia's readiness to invite spokesmen from Hamas to talk things over in Moscow automatically creates the impression that Russia is being impartial and even-handed, whereas America is cast in the role of a party to the conflict, rather than an impartial force standing above it.
The same is true in the case of Iran. Here, once more, Russia waded into the midst of a conflict between Iran, with its nuclear ambitions, and the USA, with its insistence on preventing the Iranians from realizing these ambitions. In respect of Iran, America has no interest in playing the honest broker; we are only interested in keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Iranians. Thus we are on one side of the dispute, and Iran is on the other — a situation that permits Russia to appear on the scene as an honest broker, trying to resolve the disputes between the two of us.
What is worrisome about this, from our perspective, is that in a world in which there is increasing polarization between the USA and those who are firmly in the anti-American camp, Russia, if it plays it cards carefully, can emerge as the one major player who is willing to listen to both sides. Yet as those in the anti-American camp come to regard the United States as the enemy, while looking upon Russia as the honest broker, it is inevitable that Russia's prestige and influence will increase dramatically around the world, while America's will suffer accordingly — and this effect will obviously be felt most in those nations in which anti-Americanism has become a mobilizing and unifying ideology.
As hostility grows between America and other parts of the world, America will inevitably lose its ability to play its traditional role as the honest broker, while this same hostility will permit the New Russia to emerge as the mediator and peace-maker — a role that the USSR could never hope to play in the bipolar world of the Cold War, where its motives were always suspect because they were so transparently self-interested. Yet, as the world begins to move back toward geopolitical bipolarity, with America on one side, and the forces of anti-Americanism on the other, Russia has been handed a golden opportunity to stand above this bipolarization, and to play the role of a mediator, assuming the mantle of the honest broker that the USA once wore.
This presents American policy-makers with a grim dilemma. If we insist that Russia cease to play the role of the honest broker, and demand that it toe the line we have set, the effect would not be to win Russia over to our side, since such an outcome would be unlikely, but to enhance Russia's reputation as the honest broker. Its very refusal of our demands would be proof of its independence from us, and this by itself would increase its prestige. But if we permit Russia to continue to play the broker role, the inevitable result will be a geopolitical triumph for Russian policy, since Russia would naturally attract to its sphere of influence all those who feel resentment and enmity towards the U.S. While selling itself as an impartial mediator in conflicts between the USA and others, Russia would be re-establishing its position as a great player on the world stage, and it would be achieving this objective at little cost and at virtually no risk.
Essential to Russia's deep game, however, is the continuation of a show of impartiality towards the USA. At no point can Russia afford to openly declare its intentions, which means that the Russians must put on a convincing act that it is not working against us, but with us — just in its own way. In other words, it cannot, at this point, risk shattering the useful illusion of its "strategic partnership" with the USA.
The question for the United States, however, is whether this particular illusion is still worth preserving, or whether the time has come to acknowledge frankly that we are, once again, competitors for power on the world stage.