Sunday, June 06, 2010

Zero sum and the bitter end

"A constant failure of those who have been war leaders has been a failure to ‘enlarge the shadow of the future’ instead of remaining in the shadow of the past" (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, & Miall, 2005, p. 38).

Adversarial conflict is so very satisfying. Seeing your enemy suffer--what could be better? Just because it cost you your life savings and your only son, hell, it was worth it. A lonely retirement in harsh poverty is much better than negotiation any day. Soft power is for soft-headed quivering lard-butts who don't have the stomach for real decisive vengeance and victory.
That, or a variant of it, sums up one strand of opposition to nonviolence, to talking with those who we believe have wronged us, or of simply engaging in unarmed struggle for justice.
But theorists in conflict resolution assert something else. More than 40 years ago, way on back in 1967, Anatol Rapoport noted well that zero sum approaches were sometimes the primary reason so many conflicts were so prolonged and so costly. If we do not defeat the enemy, we do not win.
What an odd notion. A relatively small conflict can literally explode into years of costly conflict. And look at the frames for justifying it.
Just War doctrine: Here the Catholic Church pioneered the way by torturing their holy texts into saying the opposite of what Jesus said and stood for. It all really started with Constantine, who made a promise to abandon his old gods and take up Christianity if he could prevail on the battlefield the next day--a classic case of garbage in, garbage out, and this doctrine is piously used to justify brutal slaughter right down to this day in complete contravention of Christ.
National security, an outmoded concept then and an outmoded concept now. Just look at the BP oil gusher. That is neither security for the US nor for any other country. It is a lose-lose example of the utter failure of the US to see national security in any other terms than military or terror attack. If North Korea had blown up the BP rig (and naturally the rightwing immediately speculated that they had) we would be attacking them mercilessly right now. We devote all our resources to a zero-sum game and we cannot play any other.
In sum, the idea of zero-sum is simplistic and reactionary and guarantees lose-lose when violence is the method of waging conflict. The field of conflict resolution and nonviolent civil society power is dedicated to the opposite proposition, that everyone is a potential ally and that all stakeholders belong at the table, partaking and talking. We care far more about the bright future for the children out into the generations than we do about exacting vengeance to satisfy our fathers, grandfathers or ancestors long dead. In conflict we cannot have both unless we convince those who came before us to examine their real interests rather than their positions of fear and hate, win-lose and violence. I have had long "talks" with my Scottish ancestors and I think we now agree that they have a more enlightened self-interest and see the power of nonviolence and dialog once they admit, at last, that they value the well being of the little ones now and to come more than they value those little ones paying a fierce price by waging violent conflict. How I wish Israelis and Palestinians could have those little talks with the Old Ones who are either in control or were in power in the past. It is time for them to move forward; they are so very stuck in their zero sum lose-lose endgame. Revenge may be sweet for a nanosecond before the bitterness of the accumulated costs are toted up.

Ramsbotham, Oliver, Woodhouse, Tom, and Miall, Hugh (2005). Contemporary conflict resolution (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Polity Press.

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