Arrogantly or fearfully, for it takes courage to compromise, pursuing total victory, decision-makers condemn themselves to needless defeat.
Some leaders, blinded by the rush of hubris, see total victory at hand; others, too fearful to sit down with adversaries in a joint search for mutual benefit, instead pursue the far more perilous path of total victory. They defend themselves with the narrow-minded claim that “realists” know the world is zero-sum: either we win or we lose, so they chase the ephemeral mirage of total victory. In truth, almost never is such a simplistic view “realistic.” The world is complicated; no amount of religious or nationalistic posturing can simplify this reality. By taking a zero-sum stance, these leaders are sacrificing potential positive-sum outcomes and accepting the near certainty of the utterly irrational negative-sum outcome.
When a clear electoral victory cannot be attained, power-sharing represents the positive-sum outcome: each side gets some power and the state can function. Continuing to pursue the zero-sum goal of total victory is likely to undermine the state, making the two opposing leaders both look selfish, and–even if it does not provoke civil war–broadly harm the society, producing the negative-sum outcome of harming everyone.
A proxy war between two powers (each seeking a zero-sum victory) fought in the guise of a civil war within a third country is likely to wreck the third country while radicalizing the regimes of the two outside powers. Policymakers will become more rigid, more orthodox, more focused on short-term gain and in the process will overlook opportunities for enduring benefit.
Black vs. white exists only for the color-blind. Pursuing zero-sum policy (“we must defeat the enemy! Never compromise!”) in our real world of complicated shading of cultural and political colors boxes regimes and societies into lose-lose outcomes. Anyone can see that making an agreement such that everyone loses is irrational, yet such policies are diligently pursued every day. Economies are destroyed and governments destabilized in order to avoid sharing resources with a disliked sect.
Leaders pursue zero-sum policies in the belief that they will lead to victory, but ironically in the real world, zero-sum policy produces negative-sum outcomes.