Would Our Lives Be Better with Cooperation Instead of Competition?

By Maxwell D. Epstein

The short answer to that question, is “yes.” It is a basic faith of the American people that competition is not only good for us, but necessary. We are, as a nation, deeply committed to the idea that competition brings out the best we have to give, makes us strong militarily, and insures our moral fiber. Add to that our firm belief that competition, as a national credo, has been essential to our becoming the world’s richest country.

That is a heavy legacy to challenge, but it deserves to be challenged. The negative aspects of competition include the devastation suffered by the losers, some of whom are our friends and relatives; the waste of energy and resources required to “win;” and the spiritual cost of a system which guarantees that in military affairs, we will have losers whose suffering may range from short-term to permanent, which only death will erase from their memory. Our present policies are making permanent enemies for our country.

Whenever the radical idea of reducing competition is raised, we can expect strenuous objections. What about “defense?”

In passing it should be noted that one form of competition, team sports, do play an important role in the life of many nations because they represent an alternative to war. Their immense popularity, and the importance attached to winning, suggests that in almost all cultures, we have found a way to channel some of our aggression, patriotism, and skill into an arena where the result is far less devastating than war, yet provides some of the same satisfactions.

Speaking of war, there are many of us who think that World War II was the last legitimate and necessary war, and some would argue that even that war could have been prevented. Those who make that argument may refer to the rough treatment foisted on Germany after the First World War, which fed their anger, their pride, and their willingness to democratically elect a monster named Adolph Hitler as their leader. As for the Japanese, we must recall our economic policies affecting that country. For example, we refused them the scrap metal they sorely needed for their industrial machine; and some would say, interfered with their ability to import oil, neither of which they can produce.

For the sake of argument, however, let us grant that the Second World War was justified. That leaves the requirement to rationalize Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and our adventures against numerous small countries, all in the sixty some years since the 1945 armistice.

In almost every case, as time has passed, some of those who led or advised in favor of these wars have come forward, usually when they were approaching the end of their lives, to admit there were better options than those we chose. What a horrendous tragedy. Now we are talking about millions of dead and wounded, and trillions of dollars that could have otherwise been used to help solve the world’s pressing problems.

One would think we would have learned. Yet today, this country, under the leadership of a Democratic, allegedly liberal president, is moving rapidly toward a new disaster, this time in Afghanistan, and God forbid, maybe even North Korea or Iran. How could we even imagine that any of these adventures will make us more secure, or richer, or more admired? We realistically cannot, and the path we are on today is bound to carry us in the wrong direction, not for months or a few years, but according the experts who are free to talk, decades.

We have the intelligence to resolve all our international disputes without moving to the last resort—war. What we lack is the political will, the requisite compassion, and the imagination to use cooperation instead of competition.

Sooner or later, with respect to these and future adversaries, we will choose war or containment (as with the Soviet Union) or negotiations, which have the greatest potential for long range solutions. How much better it would be to move now to negotiations. This would mean, for example, sitting down with the leadership of Iran and the Taliban and asking them what they want. The normal human response to being treated in such a dignified way is to become less unreasonable. The risk of that approach is low.

None of this is to deny the necessity of maintaining a strong and flexible defense, but does that really require ten thousand nuclear weapons to defend against Russia’s fourteen thousand?

What will it take to wake us up—to inspire us to undertake the admittedly challenging task of a cultural shift toward cooperation? How many more deaths, dismemberments and financial waste?

According to Tom Hayden, writing in the Nov. 2, 2009, magazine The Nation, Dr. David Kilcullen says we should now be prepared for a fifty-year war against al Qaeda, or even 100 years! No ordinary policy wonk, Dr. Kilcullen was a senior adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, and now serves in a similar position advising Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Finding a man with these views in a position of such influence serves as evidence of the magnitude of the challenge facing those who believe there is an alternative to war.

Let us hope that whatever arguments are raised against moving toward cooperation, and there are significant ones to which we must respond, they will not be sufficient to allow this country to continue on its present path for very much longer. It is a course we cannot afford, financially, politically, militarily, or morally.

This is a call for action, for those with political or economic power to reconsider how they want that power to be applied. There is power in numbers, but it must be expressed where it counts — in periodicals, and most important, in communication with congressional leaders. Consider the alternative.

Maxwell D. Epstein is dean emeritus of international students and scholars at UCLA. Email mde@ucla.edu.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2010


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