The Irony of Zero-Sum Blindness

Zero-sum leadership is the way of the world: grab what you can, as fast as you can, and leave the mess for someone else to clean up.* The irony of this zero-sum mentality is that, while it is rooted in a desire for power, a much more effective approach to attaining power is there for the taking by any leader willing to open his or her eyes and search for opportunities.

Leaders will always want power on some level: after all, one leads to accomplish something. Unfortunately, most leaders are so self-absorbed that they cannot visualize any more effective way of influencing events than the zero-sum approach of grabbing and wolfing down the biggest piece of the pie. Naturally, the minute one leader behaves like this, the rest join in, and most of the pie gets spilled on the floor.

Exactly who really ended up with any significant degree of useful “power” in Iraq after a generation of zero-sum spitting and scratching? All sides poured in resources without restraint, resulting in social, economic, and political collapse requiring endless, daily, additional inputs of resources. Iraq, rich in resources and a generation ago boasting a growing middle class, has become a global “power sink:” everyone who touches it becomes weaker.

The end of the Cold War presented Washington and Moscow with an historic opportunity to replace zero-sum cold war with an obvious positive-sum deal: diminish the roles of military alliances on each side, let Ukraine stand on its own as a truly neutral new state; and concentrate on leading the world in baking a new, bigger economic pie…enhancing the long-term power of both sides. This opportunity, albeit clearly seen by thinkers on both sides, was essentially missed as the result of short-sighted arrogance, with the result that both the U.S. and Russia today find themselves in weaker positions than they could easily have attained.

Power” does not mean looking good; it means being able to have true, sustained influence. Too bad this is a bit subtle for most politicians. The ironic thing is that the reins of “power” can often far more effectively be held by holding them gently.

  • Instead of invading an oil-producing country and provoking a national revolt, one can offer to buy the oil and thereby gain great influence over the seller (not to mention getting the oil much more cheaply).

  • Instead of provoking a civil war no one can win, a war that destroys a functioning society and distracts outside powers from concentrating on improving their own societies, a war that provokes the emergence of new and more dangerous adversaries, a pair of regional competitors for power could compromise by agreeing to the neutrality of the weak neighbor. There is, for example, more than enough sand in Syria to support both a Saudi oil pipeline and an Iranian pipeline.

Opportunities for leaders to gain power abound. At the moment, Moscow and Washington have an opportunity to cut a deal on Syria that is likely to benefit both of them greatly over the long term. Riyadh and Tehran could reach a deal on Yemen would save both of them great future problems. Ankara could offer the Kurds a deal.

But to take advantage of such opportunities, leaders must open their eyes. We need leaders who look at the world instead of in the mirror! Opportunities are out there, if leaders would only look for them. Like snow-blindness overcoming a skier who rushes onto the slope without dark glasses, the newly victorious leader striding onto the world stage is blinded by his own sudden glory: zero-sum blindness prevents him from seeing precisely the power-enhancing opportunity he was searching for. Yet another self-perceived hero bites the dust. What bitter irony thus to snatch defeat from the smiling mouth of the angel of victory!

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*I gratefully acknowledge having been inspired to write this essay by Moszep’s comment on al-Monitor.com.

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