Positive Sum History
“Positive-sum history” is the optimistic view that history shows the development of human civilization in the direction of an ever-broader definition of the common good. The optimist sees history as progress, believing that as education spreads it also deepens, so we can learn from history. According to this view (which one may call a “religion,” since it must be taken mostly on faith), the barbarism of the 20th century will teach us the value of international law and democracy, with both institutions used for the good not of a class or ethnic group but of mankind.
“Zero-sum history” pessimistically interprets history as always adding up to the same thing; it’s either them or us. The pessimist sees history as repeating old mistakes since human DNA preordains that hubris will trump humility. According to this view (which may be called “realism” because most historical evidence supports it), all issues are zero-sum and all goals are short-term.
The Power of a Mental Model
Positive-sum history and negative-sum history are alternative mental models, gross simplifications designed to provide first steps toward organizing the clutter of information into meaningful categories. Neither, by definition, is “true,” any more than it is “true” that a rainbow is green. A rainbow may contain green, and history may contain positive-sum examples (international law) and zero-sum examples (Hitler, Israel‘s Sampson Option). When a decision-maker mistakes either of these constructs for organizing one’s thinking as a description of reality in global affairs, disaster should be anticipated.
Using the Models to Guide Mideast Policy
According to this optimistic view, Obama means what he says and will in the end support peace and justice in the Mideast, believing that while “peace” via totalitarian control may have worked rather well for extended periods in the past, mankind has today matured and the world has shrunk to the point of putting Orwell’s 1984 behind us. Obama will thus further understand that peace between Israel and Palestine is one side of a many-sided coin that certainly includes peace between Iran and the West and that the most reliable route to the one is to move simultaneously toward the other. Hence, the U.S. will grope its way toward a position of supporting Israeli security not because of some “chosen people” myth, “end of days” fundamentalism, guilt over Nazi atrocities unhindered, or the short-term convenience of an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” but simply because Israelis are human and deserve security just as much as Palestinians do. Obama will also understand that Iran deserves an active part in Mideast affairs not because of its Israeli-style nuclear ambiguity but because of its intrinsic importance and originality of thought. Washington will therefore offer genuine compromise to Iran, and Tehran will find the maturity and vision to meet it halfway. Washington will curb Israeli militarists and support the maintenance of beleaguered Israeli democracy even while helping to construct Palestinian democracy. Washington will realize that the road to peace is the right road and that the question is not about which ethnic group to support but whether to support fascism or democracy. Then Washington will, as a superpower should, change the world.
According to this pessimistic view, if oil is running out, then Washington will use a good bit of what is left in military adventures to seize the last drop. If a corrupt regime offers support, Washington will greedily accept. Obama, being black and having what has now become an extremely sensitive Islamic name, is nothing more than an extraordinarily fortunate cover behind which the conservative military/financial elite can hide their manipulation of the world in a way they never could under Bush/Cheney. The Palestinians will be bulldozed into oblivion under the cover of beautiful rhetoric delivered with winks and endless talks about talks. The eager Israeli militarists will get everything they want, but the price will be Israeli descent into fascism under the management of a garrison state that can survive only amidst perpetual war, moving smoothly from the West Bank to Iran, joining the region of Muslim unrest in the Mideast with the region of Muslim unrest in Central Asia. The superpower, focused on power instead of governing for the people, will turn into a new Weimar Republic and very likely catch the fascist disease as its uneducated population rightfully becomes angrier and angrier but sadly without understanding cause and effect. And thus, in a different way, the superpower will change the world anyway.
Of course, neither of the above scenarios is likely to occur; reality will be a confusion of the two and perhaps much else. The point of the scenarios is that each worldview–that world affairs is zero-sum and that world affairs is (or at least might be) positive-sum–in practice amounts to an exponential spiral with the dynamics of a whirlpool or an avalanche. A step in either direction just makes the next step all the easier.
As soon as it became fashionable to make war on terrorists, as though they could be defeated by charging through the gates of their fortress and demanding their surrender, it became much easier to start wars for other purposes. If a superpower could invade a country to catch a gang of terrorists, then it could invade a country to get its oil or prevent it from posing some theoretical future threat. All constraints were removed.
Once invasion became acceptable to defeat a subnational actor, it was an easy step to collective punishment. After all, if the subnational actors in fact represented social movements, then perhaps “society” was to blame and deserved to be punished. When down-on-its-heels Russia was allowed to get away with the collective punishment of Grozniy, al Qua’ida’s slaughter of civilians in New York and the U.S. attack on Fallujah became all the easier, and then who was pure enough to criticize Israel’s destruction of Gaza?
As soon as it became fashionable to toss around the idea that “all options” were on the table, it became easier to imply with a smirk that “all options” really meant the military option and that the military option really meant nuclear war. The ultimate threat became common parlance; civil discourse began sounding like the sneer of a bully in a dark alley. The ultimate threat became commonplace and began to be used thoughtlessly and in a way that had become demeaning and counterproductive.
A striking recent example was the unseemly rush of the Pentagon to contradict a now rare example of Washington reasonableness, when U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy stated that all options toward Iran were “off the table in the near term” [AP 4/21/10]. Although still falling far short of what would have seemed the only rational statement in past decades, i.e., that nuclear attack against a non-nuclear power is always off the table (in order thereby to encourage countries to forego the development of nuclear weapons), Flournoy’s remark was still too much for the new, post-Cold War Washington to tolerate, so the Pentagon immediately reminded the world that nuclear attack by the world’s only superpower remained on the table [Reuters 4/21/10].
Then Washington went further down this slippery slope, making the incredible statement that “all options” would be on the table against Syria if it turned out that Syria had sent Scuds–an absurdly primitive weapon with which to balance Israeli military might–to helpless Lebanon‘s Hezbollah. Are we to believe that Washington decision-makers have floated so far into the Twilight Zone that they would launch nuclear war against everyone who talks back? Or have “all options” suddenly metamorphasized into a code word, as I have advocated regarding Israel [OpEd News 3/16/10] and Iran [Foreign Policy comment 3/7/10], for”ah””all” options, including sympathy and compromise? Perhaps they have, but somehow I doubt it.
The rising acceptance of invasion, the collective punishment of civilians, and the use of nuclear weapons illustrates the perilous dynamics of a zero-sum view of history.
Positive-sum dynamics are harder to get started because they suffer from the reputation of being “dangerous,” as though the events of the last 15 years in Grozniy, New York, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon were somehow “not dangerous.” The very actors who implement these zero-sum policies are the first to warn of the dangers, citing Hezbollah rockets or Pakistani rebels or Iranian nuclear infrastructure, yet they persist in employing the very tactics that push the world further toward realization of the extreme zero-sum mental model.
Yet the trend toward a zero-sum world took place one step at a time. Public rhetoric only slowly lost its sense of morality. War on cities only slowly became commonplace. What might have happened if the West had seriously condemned Russia‘s flattening of Grozniy? What would have happened if Washington, basking in the glow of global sympathy on 9/11, had called for an international police action to arrest and bring to trial international terrorists? What would have happened after Israel‘s retreat from Lebanon in 2000 if Lebanon‘s security had been guaranteed? What would have happened if Israel‘s attack on Jenin had been used by the West as evidence that Palestinians must be given justice? What would have happened if the legally elected Hamas administration of Palestine in 2006 had been supported rather than overthrown?
What would happen if…
- What would happen if the West now recognized the right of all countries to obtain medical-grade uranium for whatever medical use that those countries would open to full international inspection?
- What would happen if Washington endorsed international calls for a nuclear-free Mideast and called on Israel and Iran jointly to adopt a policy of nuclear transparency?
- What would happen if Washington guaranteed the integrity of Lebanon‘s borders?
- What would happen if Washington stated that it favored the security of all Mideast societies and that it was replacing its Israeli-centric strategy with a strategy of Mideast multipolarity, in which Washington would work closely with all regional powers that were willing to work with it, without requiring that they accept all of Washington‘s policies?
None of these actions would instantly transform the balance of power. None of these actions would irretrievably imperil any country’s security. Each would be just a step that could be reversed, slowed, or redirected.
These questions point out the many opportunities for reversing the cycle of violence and suggest that the sparking of a benign dynamic founded on a perception of history as positive-sum might not only be possible but might increase the security of all.____________________________*Thanks to OpEd News for publishing on 4/25/10 the initial version of this essay and to Online Journal for publishing on 3/16/10 an earlier paper, Mideast Peace or Fascism?, on which this essay expands.