February 28, 2022
KUALA LUMPUR – MOVING from a unipolar world to a multipolar world was always likely to be messy and risk-prone.
But few saw how fast we have moved from beating war drums to actual armed conflict between the Great Powers, the latest being Ukraine.
Are we on a march to folly to World War III or have key players lost sight of reality?
Lest we forget, the First World War (1915-1918) and Second World War (1939-1945) were fought to keep down rising powers, Germany and later Japan.
Russia and China suffered the most casualties in the Second World War, and both were allies against German Nazis and Japanese militarists.
The United States became the real winner but decided after World War II to contain communism in both the Soviet Union (USSR) and China.
Fifty years ago in 1972, US President Richard Nixon set aside enmity against China, restored US-China relations, and in one strategic stroke, isolated the Soviet Union, leading to its collapse two decades later.
The great achievement during the Cold War was the avoidance of nuclear conflict, with the 1961 Cuban missile crisis being a live test of brinkmanship.
Both sides climbed down when USSR removed missiles from Cuba, and the US quietly removed missiles from Turkey.
President Robert Kennedy understood that grandstanding on moral issues should be restrained because in a nuclear war, mutually assured destruction is madness.
After seven decades of peace, the Western media has been painting the multipolar world as a black-white conflict between good versus evil, democracy versus autocracy, without appreciating that the other side may have different points of view that need to be heard. By definition, a multipolar world means that liberal democracies will have to live with different ideologies and regimes.
Today, YouTube and the web provide a wealth of alternative views than mainstream media, such as CNN or BBC.
Chicago International Relations Professor John Mearsheimer, author of the influential book “Tragedy of Great Powers” offers the insight that the western expansion of Nato was the reason why Russia felt threatened.
The more the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) allies try to arm Ukraine, the more insecure Russia is.
In essence, Russia wants a buffer zone of neutral countries like Austria, which are not members of Nato but that does not exclude trade with all sides.
Carnegie Moscow Centre analyst Alexander Baunov described how “the two sides appear to be negotiating over different things. “Russia is talking about its own security, while the West is focusing on Ukraine’s.”
What he is describing are two sides each in their own social bubble or Virtual Reality (VR) metaverse, deaf to the other side’s views.
The term “metaverse” came from a 1992 dystopian sci-fi novel Snow Crash, where the metaverse is the virtual refuge from an anarchic world controlled by the mafia.
Today, metaverse is an online virtual world where the user blends VR with the real, flesh-and-blood world through VR glasses and software augmented reality.
In other words, in the metaverse, your mind is colonised by whatever algorithm and virtual information that you get, real or fake news.
Metaverse is escapism from reality, and will not help us solve real world problems, especially when we need to talk eye-ball to eyeball.
The metaverse designer is more interested in controlling or influencing our minds, feeding us what we want to hear or see, rather than what information we need to have to make good decisions.
The risk is that we think VR conflict is costless, whereas real war has real flesh and blood costs. In short, the more we look inward at our own metaverse, the more we neglect the collective costs to the world as it lurches from peace to war.
Surprisingly, I found the right-wing influential Fox commentator Tucker Carlson asking better questions than CNN or BBC commentators.
In his show Tucker Carlson Tonight, How will this conflict affect you?, he asked bluntly why should Americans hate Vladimir Putin and what will war costs to every American?
Carlson asked some really serious questions, even though his views are partisan – have the Democrats’ moral concern to hate Putin forgotten the big picture of war costs?
First, would Americans be willing to go into a winter war with Russia?
Second, would they pay much higher gas prices as oil prices have already hit above US$100 (RM420) per barrel?
Although economic sanctions are applied, even Europe will not be willing to risk cutting off gas supplies from Russia, since Russia accounts for 35% of European gas supplies.
Third, is Ukraine a real democracy?
Carlson’s 2018 book Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class Is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution is well worth reading to understand how conservative Americans think about elites who care about themselves more than society at large.
In summary, the decade of the 2020s may face a tough period of escalating conflicts at local, regional and global levels, with proxy wars that disrupt each other’s economies and social stability. If states fail and poor and hungry people migrate at a larger scale, even more border conflicts are likely, since most will want to go to the richer countries in the North, such as Europe and America.
There is no ideal world where everyone is good and the other side is bad.
In a multipolar world, there will be all kinds of people that we do not like, but we have to live with them.
A negotiated peace is better than mutual destruction.
In the metaverse, virtual life can be beautiful, moral and perfect, but the real world is lurching towards a collective nightmare. We should not kid ourselves that the metaverse VR of self-deception is the real world.
We either sleepwalk to war, or have the courage to opt for sustainable peace.
The real issue is who is willing to climb down and eat humble pie for the sake of peace?
Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.