World Order, okay?

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Obama advisor Rahm Emmanuel is thought to have said that a crisis shouldn’t go to waste. The Covid disruption, as a crisis as such, provides an opportunity not to waste, a fresh window perhaps on the world – on how nations behave vis-a-vis one another and in tandem with each other.

It’s interesting to think about what informs a country’s actions – how a country at large sees itself and what its interests are. I would posit that one way to gauge a country’s perspective or composite “attitude” in the world is to see where that country may fall along a particular spectrum.

At one end would be a country which considers relations in the world essentially to be “zero-sum”, where its gain or benefit means an automatic advantage over another’s position. At the other end of the spectrum might reside a country that sees the world in a “positive-sum” light, where gains are not mutually exclusive, but can be enjoyed jointly – what’s good for me can benefit you, and what’s good for you can benefit me.

Of course, no country falls expressly at one end of the spectrum or at the other end. There may, though, be a preponderant view or posture a country shows that could be closer to one end of the spectrum or the other.

One could say that a country that views the world purely in hierarchical terms might be a country more prone to “zero-sum” thinking: for it to be “first”, others must logically be “last”, or rather, “less”. A country more “positive-sum” in its world view might see the value of associations, where the benefits accruing from an association exceed the simple arithmetic sum of the respective national efforts involved.

That said, human actions often fall into a gray area – apparent good faith association members may be tempted to “defect”, or resort to “free-riding”, thereby deriving an unfair advantage: benefits without the cost of commitment. Conversely, the strident global iconoclast may be very self-interested and not really much of an easy joiner, but nevertheless may be insistent on full transparency and disclosure – so helping to ensure the integrity and effectiveness of the association.

Complicating matters further, there can be a mutual recognition – among freely joining association members of equal standing – that there may be one among them whose resources and capacity place it above the others. And in this way, all members acknowledge a “primus inter pares”, and in a sense the beneficial certainty that results.

One consequence that does stem from the prevalence of “zero-sum” or of “positive-sum” attitudes in the global environment is the ambient level of global trust. Trust is the great efficiency maker: as an international actor in a positive-sum world, I trust you in our association, and therefore need not incur an expense for protection and mitigation against what your behavior might be. In a zero-sum world, I must be vigilant.

Human beings being imperfect, due diligence and vigilance remain always important in international affairs. At the same time, human beings being imaginative and hopeful always allow scope for positive-sum outcomes.





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