One definition of insanity, it is said, is doing the same thing the same way over and over again and expecting a different outcome.
Yet tuning in to the news cycle of depressing political events that seemingly repeat themselves unchecked can lead to the sensation that we are stuck in a perpetual rerun of Groundhog Day.
BP’s oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico is reminiscent of the gas explosion in Bhopal, for which Union Carbide has still not been held fully accountable. The United Nations was steamrolled as the United States led the war against Afghanistan, then the war in Iraq. Now America is sending worrying signals of similar action against Iran. And the Israeli attack on the recent Gaza flotilla, followed by a barely lukewarm condemnation from the US, echoes the Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2008 and Lebanon in 2006.
If the same old responses create the same old outcomes, is it insane to suggest we should try new approaches? Whatever out-of-left-field solutions I can offer, will they be any less sane than what we have now?
Well, perhaps, but here we go.
The World Cup, that arena of nationalistic pride, could become a possible forum for international relations. Although in footballing terms the UK vs US match may have been a disappointing draw for England, the final result shows that England is not the puny side-kick, but very much on a par with America.
It’s a shame that neither the Saudis nor the Iranians made it through on this occasion, otherwise 90 minutes on the pitch could have been a much more amicable way to decide who is champion in the Middle East league. If we’d followed the World Cup model for power politics in 1998, when Iran defeated the US 2-1, then we could avoid the possibility of another Middle Eastern war. And perhaps North and South Korea could settle their dispute with a penalty shoot-out.
Maybe football isn’t your thing, or you think it is too sexist in its exclusion of women – although, to be fair, serious international problems such as war and conflict, like football, do seem to be a male preserve. So what about Facebook as a talking shop instead of the UN?
The Irish comedian Patrick Kielty imagines international relations according to Facebook going something like this: “America and South Korea are now friends. China likes this.”
“Hizbollah has poked Israel. Would you like to poke Hizbollah back?”
“America and Pakistan have gone from ‘In a relationship’ to ‘It’s complicated’.”
For the more culinary-inclined, we could have a cook-off in the form of an international Masterchef competition with nations cooking up their traditional cuisine. At least the audience would have something to eat afterwards, which might make negotiations more congenial.
Perhaps Turkey and Greece would make some happy discoveries: “This hummus, and these vine leaves – the same! We’re brothers! What have we been fighting for?” And perhaps India would be able to annexe the UK by dint of the fact that chicken tikka masala is Britain’s most popular dish.
We could use a different technique to moderate the scramble for Africa between China and the US. Play Monopoly, with the streets replaced by the African countries – first to arrive can buy; otherwise, you pay rent.
I wonder if we can apply this process to other international questions facing us today? Here are four big issues that need resolution:
First up, it’s the United Nations. When it comes to the structure of the UN Security Council, there is little that can be done about the five permanent members. As international relations theorists point out, their presence does not mean they are forces for good; rather it is to rein in the greatest potential to wreak havoc on Earth. But what about the remainder of the 15 council members? There is always a tussle over who should be appointed, but does it really matter? We could use a simple method to identify those with most cunning and savvy – rock, paper, scissors. In successive rounds of play-offs, the most adept at beating their opponents make it on to the council.
Next on my list is the global recession. Should we bail out every country on the verge of bankruptcy, or should we be more discerning? Perhaps Simon Cowell and his Got Talent TV format could help decide who is in and who is out. Picture Spain up first, a matador flapping his red cloth in front of a raging bull. Cowell bleats with his usual disdain: “I’m not convinced and not everyone’s going to like you, but at least you know who you are, and you’ve made it your own. We’ll see you in the next round.”
Next up is Greece, with a play about Socrates and Plato. Cowell’s verdict? “Yeah, it’s well done, but it’s not really contemporary, is it? A bit out of date, all this historical stuff. And the audience is asleep. It’s a ‘no’ from me.”
Then comes climate change. How can we get a speedy international consensus on reducing harmful activities and a commitment to more environmentally friendly approaches by our governments? Maybe the game of Twister is the solution. Each spin of the wheel means each country has to manoeuvre its activities into a different circle – all trying in theory to reach the green dots. I fear we might see a bit of wriggling around to get out of the targets, though.
Climate change isn’t the only threat to long-term human and planetary well-being. I for one still worry about the threat of nuclear weapons. But how do we first get full international commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and then real action towards disarmament?
Today’s current situation feels more like playing Cluedo – who’s got the weapon, and where are they hiding it? (“Colonel al Qa’eda, in the caves of Afghanistan, with the enriched uranium.”) Maybe Scrabble is the solution. If you can spell the names of all the components correctly with the letters you’ve already got, then you get to keep them.
I know that some reading my analysis of these issues will not find my commentary comedic. Well, I don’t find the solutions offered by today’s world leaders very funny either. Can we really solve climate change by trading in fictitious carbon-production commodities? Can the global recession really be resolved by reviving the same banking system that created the mess, and allowing corporations such as BP to play havoc with our environment as long as large US shareholders get paid their dividends?
I think you’ll find that it’s not me who’s the comedian.
Of course, none of my suggestions is meant to belittle the terrible crises going on in the world and the genuine efforts being made and that are necessary to put an end to poverty and war and to create stability, justice, freedom and peace.
But maybe, just maybe, by looking at some crazy but very human ways that we’ve developed to manage relationships, we might realise that we don’t need to be bound by the same failing paradigms. We might realise that by doing things differently we are no longer beholden to insanity, but we actually have cause for hope.
* Published in the UAE's THE NATIONAL on June 25.