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How to Avoid Sinking Ships from Dragging Us All Down
The future vs. the past remains the main competition in the world
The flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, a missile cruiser named Moskva, sank this week, an event that was both an actual military blow for Russia in its war against Ukraine as well as a loss heavily laden with symbolism. A ship named after Russia’s capital is now at the bottom of the sea, foreshadowing Russia’s continued sinking fortunes so long as Vladimir Putin remains the captain.
The incident brings to mind a number of sinking ships in the world today, both in the world and at home here in America. Ships go down for a number of reasons – a bad captain or crew, a leaky hull, or stormy seas. Or in the case of this Russian ship, it gets lost in a war.
When a ship goes down, one possible risk is that a vortex forms that sucks others who are nearby down beneath the waves. A fundamental challenge in geopolitics today, mirrored in many ways in America’s domestic politics, is how to avoid the sinking ships from dragging us all down.
Navigating a world and a political landscape of sinking ships
In addition to Russia, there are a number of other sinking ships in the world. Sometimes it is difficult to discern which ships are steaming ahead and which ships are on the verge of listing because a lot happens beneath the surface that’s not apparent at first glance. Take China today, for instance – it looks like its economy is growing and its global reach is expanding. But the country has a lot of internal problems with how it runs its own system, as the recent outcries in Shanghai over the communist regime’s pandemic response vividly show.
One simple rule of thumb is to look to those countries and political forces that have a clear vision for the future versus those who are deeply stuck in the past with a narrow, blinkered worldview.
Another key indicator is how these ships actually operate. If they are powered by inclusion, innovation, and tolerance, they stand a better chance of staying afloat than those that are driven by division, rigidity, and past-focused fanaticism.
To mix metaphors a bit, the sinking ships of today’s world operate like termites on the global order and international system, chipping away at systems that promote cooperation on transnational challenges like pandemics, climate change, and global migration. One big termite chipping away at the international system over the past ten years was the Islamic State, but it ultimately faced a reckoning and got some of the comeuppance it was due, if only narrowly and perhaps temporarily.
Another sign of sinking ships are those governments that harshly suppress dissent and freedom at home while serving as threats to their neighbors. The regimes in Iran and North Korea today epitomize this type of sinking ship. It may take a while for those two ships to sink, but they are both structurally unsound because they don’t provide for their people and also weaken and detract value from the global system in terms of overall security and prosperity.
Here at home, the sinking ships inside of America’s politics are harder to identify in part because our vision is clouded by our own narrow partisan and ideological predispositions. Furthermore, the current political and media landscape incentivizes bitter discord rather than coalition-building.
But the same general rule for the world applies for those looking to evaluate domestic political dynamics dispassionately and clinically: who has a clearer view of the future and offers a practical pathway for bringing the greatest number of people along towards that future?
The forces on the right and left that advance a narrow “us versus them” identity politics agenda might achieve some limited gains in the short run, but they aren’t forces that are likely to take root and flourish in the long run. The ones that offer a clearer vision for what’s ahead and bring together a larger coalition together will ultimately win the future.
Looks like we need a bigger boat
2022 so far has highlighted the extreme uncertainty in the world and inside of America’s politics. A lot has gone wrong in the past few years, and there seem to be some more tough times ahead. Russia’s war against Ukraine seems like it will grind on and have wider implications for the world, and more troubles in Asia and the Middle East lurk.
In America, there doesn’t appear to be any major policy or political gains on the horizon. The two main political parties are poised to duke it out against each other in midterm elections, even as both parties face major internal divisions that will likely produce even more fragmentation.
But in the bigger picture, keep in mind the key lesson from the last few years: those societies and leaders that have forward-looking agendas and look to build coalitions them have the best chance of staying afloat in stormy seas.