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America vs. The World

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Are you ready for some Worldball?

At bars, coffee shops and living rooms across America, few competitive events generate more buzz than the sport of geopolitical strategy.

Just kidding.

Let’s face it—Americans are a hundred times more likely to discuss football, baseball, basketball or hockey (well, maybe not hockey) than international affairs over a cold one. When it comes to hot streaks and bad runs, they’d rather review Duke than Denmark. When it comes to analyzing statistics, Mexico’s GDP doesn’t stand a chance against Maddux’s ERA.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If covered with comparable play-by-play and color commentation, the game of global politics should be followed with as much zeal as March Madness. And why not? Every element inherent to a popular competitive league is present and accounted for:

THE TEAMS YOU LOVE. The home team is currently enjoying one of the greatest runs in history, but how long will our American Dynasty last? And will you still buy the t-shirt made in China when first place is no longer a certainty?

THE RIVALS YOU HATE. Four out of five Bostonians hate the Yankees more than North Korea. Is Steinbrenner really that much worse than Kim Jong-il, or does he just get worse local press?

THE PERSONALITIES. Iran’s Ahmadnejad made his country a contender. Vladimir Putin is keeping Russia in the game, while Germany’s former Coach Schroeder kept his team out of it. And if Saddam knew how to run a bold pregame show, then surely Tony Blair is the master of the postgame news conference.

THE PARITY. Ok, so there’s no question of who’s seeded number one overall. But after that, the field gets blurred with no less than three future contenders and dozens of spoilers—and that always makes for an interesting season.

THE STAKES. They may not win a gilded cup or a diamond ring, but any nation that strives for a higher slot in the standings may look forward to territorial conquest, international prestige or an enhanced quality of life for its people.

Today’s geopolitical balance still largely reflects the outcome of WWII, the Super Bowl of wars. Between Stalin’s iron defense and Roosevelt’s sharp play calling, the Allies rallied in the second half to seal one of the most decisive victories in history.

And when the dust settled, the four victors plus France set up the United Nations with themselves as permanent members of the Security Council. To this day, the United States, China, Russia, Great Britain and France remain the only countries with the capacity to veto an international order and the permission to possess nuclear arms. These five combine with Japan and Germany—who have long since paid their dues—to dominate the global game as we know it today.

But that’s not to say the field is run entirely by seven countries. A lot has changed since 1945, and the UN has yet to catch up to reality. Up-and-coming franchises like India and Brazil have already come to dominate their regional conferences, and are starting to make themselves known on a larger scale. Quieter players like Italy, Canada, Australia and South Korea employ a softer economic strategy, while Saudi Arabia and Ukraine use their natural resources to make an impact.

And let’s not forget that every league has its spoilers. Wild cards like Pakistan and Israel make their way with carefully-chosen allies and controversial tactics, and may always be one assassination away from a reversal of fortune. Long-minded Turkey grinds it out on a slow but progressive path, while all-or-nothing Iran, North Korea and Venezuela follow a riskier gameplan for a shot against the favorites.

Keep in mind that not all nations are equally ambitious. Today’s bolder players take advantage of every available asset to stay ahead of the pack—political capital, conventional and nuclear might, economic influence. They form alliances and host summits and sign papers to stay at the heart of important global issues. Their names make up the roster of every key club in the world: the G8, the E3, the Madrid Quartet, NATO, OPEC. As a result, they warrant watching more closely than those who sit on the sidelines.

There’s no desire in this column to make light of the life-and-death competition for world domination that our leaders play. I’m aware of the everyday misery that dictates the lives of most human beings; there isn’t a square mile of inhabited earth that doesn’t have some story of starvation, murder, disease or corruption to tell. But it’s exactly that constant focus on the horrible that drives most Americans elsewhere for topics of interest. Disappointing, perhaps, but a reality nevertheless.

So instead of guilting you into following global events, I want to entice you with a fascinated view of our frightening world. I want you to forget how politically incorrect it is to see the world as a game, to detach yourself from the unthinkable consequences that come with keeping score with human life, and to try viewing geopolitics as entertainment.

After all, the cure for apathy isn’t guilt—it’s fun.

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Jeff Goldstein is a wanker.