What if no one wins?

October 06, 2022 09:34
Photo: Reuters

On great power politics – some say, the East shall prevail; others say, the West shall win out.

The presumption underpinning the “X wins, Y loses” logic, is that the nature of hegemonic contests is inherently zero-sum (if we take being the hegemony as the metric of winning, which is itself a dubious, and controversial at best, claim). There is no in-between, and there is no win-win, despite the bombastic confidence with which some advocates would assert the possibility of such occurrences. After all, positive-sum games are hard to come by – chess isn’t one, Poker isn’t one, and it would certainly be rare, albeit not impossible, for countries to eschew the winner-take-all mindset, and opt for cooperation.

We’ve had thirty years of faux-collaborationism and seeming successes in multilateralism, since the end of the Cold War. And look at where we’ve now ended up – trying to straddle and reconcile the narrative of a cosmopolitan peace, with the reality of precipitous fragmentation and skepticism between countries.

Yet few folks, if any, seem to be contemplating a possibility that, in truth, is all but too real as it stands – what if… no one wins?

The West is riddled with problems of its own. Political polarisation, surging inequalities, inept governance rooted in a mixture of hubris and shocking elitism. A precarious mixture as it is, let alone the fact that Western states must now grapple with the worst inflation crisis to hit in over forty years, leaving few unscathed amongst the unemployed, the working-class, or, indeed, the mortgage-bearing middle class in its wake. The double whammy of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine has imposed a hefty toll on many in Europe and the US, and the surge in populism and reactionary conservatism has done very little in actually addressing the problems. Kicking the can down the road may make a few select voters feel better – through self-delusion; yet fundamentally, the cost-of-living crisis cannot be resolved through measures that line the pockets of the wealthy, at the expense of genuine productivity boosts.

There is a trove of secondary argumentation as to why the West cannot, frankly, recover. This ranges from the innate corruption in the money-driven establishment, to the tendency of popularly elected politicians to prioritise short-term gains that can be easily converted into partisan and political victories. Then there remains the age-old question of how former powers of yore could come to terms with their own relative demise – some turn towards innovation; more, however, turn inwards and to racism, xenophobia, and all forms of victim-centered blaming that kicks downwards, as opposed to punching upwards.

Yet none of this means that the East is guaranteed to rise. A rising power must be sustainable in its growth trajectory. It must possess structures that include, as opposed to exclude; emancipate, as opposed to subjugate; empower, as opposed to disenfranchise. At the root of the matter rests the key question – is the growth of the East sustainable, or is it merely a transient mirage, one baked and caked with all sorts of accolades and décor, amounting nevertheless to nothing but sound and fury? Could it be the East – in seeking to prove the West wrong by pursuing an alternative trajectory – inadvertently sabotage its very own growth potential and engine, through rooting out industries and sectors that would otherwise lead economic expansion; through over-regulating and under-devolving to those with original and emphatic thought; through replacing one set of dogma centered around laissez-faire economics, with another set of dogma that is both disconnected from and allergic to reality?

The die has yet to be cast. Hubris can be costly – especially for those who are seeking to displace the incumbent. Those who seek to rise too rapidly could well commit mistakes – whether it be in resorting to futile growth approaches, hugely costly policies and decisions, or, worse yet, the replacement of reality with alternative facts. I am by no means suggesting that countries such as India or Indonesia cannot possibly rise to displace the West from its crowning throne – but it would behoove policymakers in these countries to think twice about the paths they are pursuing, lest they fall into what I term Icarus’ trap: flying too closely to the Sun, would only scorch one. Seeking a different path for the sake of difference, would only estrange one from genuine progress. What if no one wins? – is a very much alive and real question.

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Assistant Professor, HKU