As tempting as it may be to conceive of an opponent as “evil” and oneself as “good,” the truth is seldom so clear-cut: something happened, someone felt boxed in, someone misunderstood someone else’s intentions, one thing led to another. But humans can’t know everything and will always search for a neat mental model. Rather than “good vs. evil,” try “zero-sum vs. positive sum.”
During the half century following WWII, this article would surely have focused on the example of communism vs. capitalism. Child labor and bailouts for the rich at the expense of the poor are bad even when practiced in capitalism systems. Free health care is good, even when practiced in communist systems. Each system should be judged on its merits rather than simply tossed in a box with a mindless label (“the good system,” “the bad system”). The U.S. caused itself enormous harm by the emotional, thoughtlessly rigid way it approached whatever group it judged to be “communist,” alienating potential allies by classifying them as enemies because they sought justice.
Today, the U.S. has the same self-defeating Manichean attitude toward radical Islam, as though no Muslim had the “right” to demand radical reform regardless of the injustice of his or her circumstances. Instead of trying to distinguish “good” from “evil” as a route to understanding Mideast politics, we should try distinguishing those who view regional political affairs as a zero-sum game from those who view the world as a positive-sum (win-win) game, and then we should act in an inclusive manner to promote the positive-sum perspective.
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. (Aside from a few fundamentalists–who seem to exist at the margins of most major religions–and the occasional terrorist with no apparent goal beyond dying along with his victims, essentially no one advocates negative-sum behavior, which would seek defeat for both sides. Therefore, even though negative-sum behavior is amazingly common, it can perhaps be ignored in this context.)
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), zero-sum examples (Hitler), and even negative-sum examples (Israel’s suicidal 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. These constructs or models are not “reality” but goals.
These models are of course not restricted to broad discussions of “history.” The point of grand models of history is that they serve as guides for negotiating the twists and turns along the sinuous trail toward practical policy goals. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R., hostility and suspicion notwithstanding, agreed that nuclear war should be avoided, that a direct Soviet-American military conflict should be avoided, that certain weapons systems could usefully be banned, that poisoning the common atmosphere with nuclear tests was bad, that bilateral trade was a good idea. They agreed, despite their bitter conflict for global supremacy, to talk and to listen…and to compromise. They understood the concept of positive-sum outcomes. The absence of a global nuclear war was a pretty clear example of a positive-sum outcome.
These two alternative models are also not trivial choices for policy-makers. The post-9/11 zero-sum attitude that “if you are not with us, you are against us” led to a decade of war against political Islam that has the U.S. bogged down in a losing battle to this day. If, by contrast, the positive-sum model offers a more beneficial foundation for foreign policy, that does not mean the choice is simple. Adopting a positive-sum model means, by definition, taking into account the preferences of others, from which it follows that one’s own appetites must be constrained by a willingness to share and to seek profit in ways that may be less convenient and more costly in order to enable adversaries also to find benefit. Designing policy for positive-sum outcomes requires far more imagination than fighting to the death for victory; it requires figuring out ways to redefine the contest:
- Rather than a zero-sum war to control global hydrocarbon resources, a positive-sum policy might promote a treaty to manage global resources and spend the money saved on developing alternative sources of energy.
- Rather than a zero-sum policy of offering nuclear arms to allies while threatening adversaries who demand equal access, a positive-sum policy might offer security guarantees and alternative energy technology to all who would sign up to a regional nuclear-free zone.
A positive-sum foreign policy constitutes a commitment to a fundamentally different worldview entailing a dramatic restructuring of budget priorities and long-term national security strategic calculations.
Using the Models to Guide Mideast Policy
Given the pertinence of the concept of a positive-sum outcome to reversing the disastrous U.S. foreign policy toward the Muslim world over the past decade, the rest of this discussion will focus on the application of the models to that case. According to the optimistic view of positive-sum history, 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 the pessimistic zero-sum 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. One constraint on arbitrary behavior after another evaporated. Less than a decade after the U.S. invaded Iraq, American bombing of other countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia) hardly even makes the U.S. news, and the precedent has been copied by Israel vs. Lebanon, Turkey vs. Iraq, Russia vs. Georgia, Colombia vs. Ecuador. Only the naive will be surprised if it is copied one day by China vs. Taiwan or India vs. Pakistan. The beginnings of the exponential spiral away from international law toward zero-sum interstate behavior is already quite clearly visible.
Once invasion became acceptable to defeat a subnational actor, it was an easy step to collective punishment, as well. 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 forgo 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. Two dynamics are visible here. First, once the moral barrier is broached, others copy the bad precedent. Second, one zero-sum precedent facilitates the use of other zero-sum precedents. The interaction of these two dynamics merely accelerates the exponential curve of collapsing standards of behavior.
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, Somalia, Yemen, 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 (or, more accurately, commonplace again). 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 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?
Would that simply allow Tehran more room to cheat or might it undercut the pro-nuclear lobby in Tehran? Would that simply allow Tel Aviv more room to cheat or might it spark the revival of Israel’s formerly vigorous pro-peace party? Might the undercutting of Tehran’s nuclear advocates feed the revival of an Israeli peace party and vice-versa?
- 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?
If Washington pressured Tehran and Tel Aviv to talk about the tough issue of nuclear arms, might each side come to see some advantage in doing so? And if they did, might they discover other arenas in which cooperation would be mutually beneficial?
What would the impact on Hezbollah be if the Lebanese Army were able to defend the country against Israeli aggression? What would be the impact on Israel if it saw Hezbollah’s power decline at the same time that its own ability to conduct a foreign policy based on military superiority was also declining?
- 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?
Do Washington decision-makers have the wisdom to discover ways of putting teeth into such a pronouncement? If so, might Mideast states slowly come to see some value in cooperating? Even under the neo-cons, the U.S. and Iran cooperated to set up the current regime in Afghanistan. This was a rare positive-sum outcome swallowed by the Bush Administration. Can we believe it is the only conceivable example of a potential positive-sum joint U.S.-Iranian action?
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. But these are important questions. These questions deserve to asked, debated, answered, and acted on; evading the questions is merely voluntarily to blind oneself. Adopting the positive-sum approach does not provide any answers, but it does guide one to start asking questions that open doors to considering new possibilities. 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.
The Case of Afghanistan
Can a positive-sum outcome to the endless mess in the Pakistani-Afghan theater be negotiated? The core U.S. goal in Afghanistan is, presumably, to avoid a terrorist attack on the U.S. The second most important U.S. goal should arguably be constraining heroin exports and the third escaping with the shirt on our backs. These goals constitute minimal U.S. interests.
Putting these three modest and non-threatening goals on the table as U.S. requirements while offering to negotiate everything else, might Washington be able to entice cooperation out of Kabul, New Delhi, Islamabad, Tehran, and the Taliban? That group is probably the smallest set of negotiating partners that will have to be included to achieve a workable compromise, with success being premised above all on convincing them that the U.S. will truly be willing to walk away in return for some measure of local peace and justice–giving up control, military bases, and oil rights.
This minimal goal set should reassure all the many who fear U.S. imperialism, the irritation of U.S. troops on the ground, heavy-handed U.S. efforts to remake the world in its own image whether the recipients want such help or not, etc. This goal set would open the door to serious consideration of how the conflicting interests of the other parties might be redefined. How that can be accomplished is not clear, and the U.S. role should perhaps focus simply on encouraging them all to get together and define a smooth exit strategy for the U.S. (keeping in mind that al Qua’ida may well focus on preventing the U.S. from escaping).
Three points seem unavoidable: 1) the frame of mind that all the above-mentioned negotiating partners have legitimate interests that will require consideration, 2) that all will need to be included in the dialogue, and 3) that the U.S., as the outsider, should expect to gain the least (a degree of modesty not common in superpowers). The first step is to set the tone by adopting the perspective that attempts to achieve one-sided (zero-sum) victory must give way to a positive-sum outcome.
In practice, U.S. foreign policy has traditionally mixed and hopelessly confused these two diametrically opposed perspectives. Yet almost always one of these policies is the best foundation for a consistent, effective long-term approach to creating a safer world. It is time to face up in public debate to the implications of these two alternative approaches to foreign policy and to decide which one will best serve the interests of U.S. society and the rest of mankind.