Marginalizing the Superpowers

25 March 2022

PART I:  Three Liable Men, One Lethal Planet

Here’s how to start World War III. Keep doing what we’ve been doing, only more so. Putin attacks Ukraine, partly provoked by NATO, so extend the reach of NATO. And, in the process, increase military spending (it’s good for business), forcing him to follow suit. This will keep our sights firmly focussed on “us” versus “them”: we democrats versus those autocrats. Or is it these capitalists versus those populists?

Now Vladimir Putin is “them”. The Russian president gets away with murdering Ukrainian women and children because his country is supersaturated with nuclear weapons: he can blow us all to pieces. In other words, our survival depends on the will, whim, and sanity of this one man.

But not only. China, with its president “for life”—another one of “them”—marched in and took over Tibet. China has its own share of nuclear weapons. As for our side, the good guys, America is as supersaturated with nuclear weapons as Russia—indeed, was significantly responsible for the crazed nuclear arms race in the first place. If you wish to see the closest equivalent to what Russia is doing in Ukraine today, go straight back to what America did in Vietnam a half-century ago. That assault, initiated by its president–yes, clever Kennedy, on behalf of democratic America—became no less horrifying.  
Kennedy had his domino theory then, just as Putin does now.

Joe Biden seems to be a decent enough human being. The trouble is that he is a human being. He may be doing the right things under the circumstances, but are the circumstances right? And waiting in the wings is another human being who could make America the most dangerous superpower of all. Make America “them” again?

Accordingly, the fate of eight billion of us lies in the hands of three men—three liable men for this one lethal planet. We hardly needed this latest crisis to appreciate that, as they and their superpower go, so goes the world.

If Putin pulled out of Ukraine and declared victory, this, for once, would not be a complete lie: NATO would surely have learned its lesson, finally, about messing with him, and about inflaming the rivalries between the superpowers. But it would be a defeat for untold others, Russians included, who wish to live in a lasting peace.

No matter how clever or dumb, how stable or deranged, how decent or evil are these three men, so long as they clash with each other like adolescents in a schoolyard, we can be assured of eventual “mutual assured destruction.” Are you willing to bet the survival of those you care about on the impossibility of one mistake, one miscalculation, one psychopath in office? If not, then instead of expecting one superpower to contain the others, we shall have to marginalize the very power of the superpowers.

Is this unimaginable? Consider this message from the COVID experience. Sufficiently alarmed, we are capable of making changes that were previously unimaginable, indeed outrageous. Who would have thought that governments would act within weeks to lock down their populations and close so much of their economies? Well, now we are, or should be, even more alarmed by what is happening in Ukraine.

What if we stopped talking incessantly about thinking outside the box, and do some of it instead? No magic solution will pop up, but some feasible ones could come from consideration of how to get past superpower. In PART II, next week, if we are still able to plan that far ahead, I will suggest one place to begin.


© Henry Mintzberg 2022. No rights reserved: This is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.