Friday, May 11, 2007

Statesmen Do Not Play Chess

Chess is a grand image for self-important world actors: their armies march across the stage, rooks and bishops plot devious pincer movements, queens sweep through to deliver the coup de grace. But international competition for influence over the Mideast is no game. The dead in the World Trade Center and Jenin and Beirut and Fallujah attest to that.

If one chooses to use game imagery, then chess should certainly not be the game in mind. The modern, interconnected, interdependent, nuclear world needs a much more sophisticaly metaphor than the Dark Ages "exterminate thine enemy" nonsense of chess. The game of politics, played skillfully, rests on a vision of compromise, but compromise in a very special sense.

Power is the issue, but power has attributes little appreciated by your average power-hungry but politically inept and testosterone-blinded political actor. Power is infinitely maleable. It can of course run out; it can be monopolized…but it need not be. Power can be transformed. Therefore, political compromise need not be a mindless and frustrating redivision of the same old pie. Handled skillfully—and herein lies the distinction between ‘politician’ and ‘statesman’, political compromise is the art of transformation: not only can the pie get bigger but multiple pies can be baked.

If a resource-rich but economically less developed country sold some of its resources to an industrial country and took the profits for honest national purposes, say, the creation of a modern educational system and an egalitarian economy, while the industrial country in turn built up its own economy, the pie would be bigger. Each country would end up with more "power"—more capability to do things.

If our two utterly mythical countries had started out in a military competition (e.g., the industrial country being intent on colonizing the other and stealing its resources or the less modernized country intent on overtaking the industrial country as the preeminent power in its own region), then the above scenario with its peaceful, cooperative and mutually-beneficial outcome would have effectively baked new pies. Rather than one military power pie, where the bigger Side A's piece, the smaller Side B's piece, the result would be additional pies.

An economic pie would be shared in some manner, no doubt not really 50-50, but that pie would be growing, with benefits on both sides. An intellectual pie might grow as well, with a new population receiving a modern education, cultural exchanges, and a general increase in knowledge occurring.

These are simple examples to make the point that skillful management of international affairs can replace the politician’s dangerous, zero-sum approach to international affairs with a safer, positive-sum approach in which compromise is the process of transformation of the competition. With multiple, growing pies, the two sides no longer need to compete to take each other’s share. One side may retain most of the military power, while the other gains, say, economically or in terms of status.

The brilliance of politics lies in the quest for transformation. Chessmen don’t transform: they conquer or die. The art of politics is to redefine an insoluable issue into an issue that is soluable. The possibilities are limited only by the human mind:

  • Once there were two superpowers who ruled the world, both armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons aimed at each other and sufficient to destroy the opponent, themselves, and all the rest of mankind several times over. Sensing that something was amiss, they managed to transform the competition just enough to avoid open war…engaging, for example, in an intense competition over Gold Medals.
  • Could one imagine Tel Aviv replacing its generation-long history of invading Lebanon and destroying the livelihoods of Lebanon's poor with an economic assistance program designed to enable them to become part of Lebanon's political system - with a stake in preserving it?
  • Could one imagine India and Pakistan agreeing that each of those countries has more than enough problems and potential without Kashmir as a possession and deciding that helping the Kashmiri people to develop their homeland as a friendly neighbor might not be so unbearable after all?
  • Could one imagine Colombians deciding that it might be worth the price to give Colombia's poor peasants control over their own land in an effort to end a half century of civil war?
  • Could one imagine Washington and Tehran renouncing violence and focusing their competition for Mideast influence instead on a cultural level by, say, funding competing educational systems?

Good leaders accomplish such redefinition.

No comments: