Secret of winning lies in tic-tac-toe

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Do you remember when you were a child at school and you used to play noughts and crosses? (Or, as the Americans call it, tic-tac-toe?)

And then, suddenly, you stopped. Do you remember why you stopped?

The answer, if you have since forgotten, is that you could only keep winning if the other person did not understand the game. Once your opponent recognised the patterns, every game thereafter ended in stalemate.

Neither party could win, so you both stopped playing.

Real life negotiations are a lot like that. As long as there is a power imbalance, the person who has the upper hand usually wins. This has driven our progress as a species. Across the eons, civilisations have risen and fallen based on their control of the balance of power, generally as a result of technology used in war. Think of the wheel, the horse, the elephant, the longboat, the sailing ship, the railway, the steamship, the aeroplane, the helicopter, the submarine, and the rocket.

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It's easy to be a winner when you hold all the cards, but the true test of leadership comes when there is a balance of power. You are forced to deal with the other person as an equal, and the only way for you to win is for both of you to win.

A week ago, I sat up through the night tracking the US presidential election. And when the news came through at around 6am that Barack Hussein Obama had beaten Mitt Romney, I suddenly realised that I had let out a sigh of relief.

You see, good and evil are relative concepts. I have lived through four Republican presidencies, and each of those has been accompanied by death and destruction rained upon those who did not hold the balance of power.

I was a child during the Nixon presidency; which saw American soldiers raping Vietnamese women before executing them and their children at the My Lai Massacre, secretly bombing Laos and Cambodia in violation of international law, and using chemical warfare against Vietnam in the form of Agent Orange.

I was 18 years old when Reagan ascended to the presidency and mined the waters of Nicaragua's harbours, invaded Grenada, and funded brutal counterinsurgency forces around the world: the Contras in Nicaragua, Unita in Angola, and Renamo in Mozambique.

George Herbert Walker Bush followed in his footsteps, invading Iraq using depleted uranium bullets against the Iraqis. In his final days in office, Bush Snr once again bombed Iraq as a parting shot (because God told him to, he claimed).

His son George W Bush then invaded Afghanistan, and then Iraq – wars which continue to this day. He then established a detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to interrogate and torture prisoners of those wars outside of the jurisdiction of US courts.

(Wait a second, you may ask, isn't Cuba a sovereign state? How does the US military have a base there? Sorry, that's a story for another day.)

It's against that backdrop that you must understand why the re-election of Barack Obama is such a pivotal event in our history.

I was born in the year when Dwight D Eisenhower stepped down as president of the US and in his closing speech issued a warning: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Mitt Romney was an unabashed apologist for the military-industrial complex as was every Republican contender that preceded him. Their fervent desire to see him return the world to the Bush era saw them pouring an unprecedented amount of money into his presidential campaign. For four years building up to the election, Romney's party had set as their task not the rebuilding of the nation's devastated economy but rather the singular goal of ensuring Obama would not get a second term in office.

Obama first came to power because he was not tied to those vested interests. He took power using new technology not controlled by the military-industrial complex – the power of the Internet and social media. In so doing, he displaced many who were more favourably placed to win the nomination – such as Hilary Clinton.

Today, the Republicans are licking their wounds and wondering what went wrong. It's simple. They haven't yet learned how to play tic-tac-toe.

As Obama said on his victory: "It doesn't matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or who you love. It doesn't matter whether you're black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you're willing to try."

The same rules apply to the Internet. And the only way the Republicans can gain currency in that space is when they develop values of honesty and transparency and engagement with all of those groups they fought so hard against over the past four years.

That's a win-win situation to me.