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The Perils of a Split-Screen World

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Diana Casey
In today’s geopolitical landscape, the conventional wisdom that economic nationalism and zero-sum strategic competition can coexist with ample international cooperation on existential global issues is a dangerous illusion. Looking back from 2050, historians may view the zero-sum rivalry among the United States, China, and Russia as a posthumous chapter in Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly.”
Would the world have been better prepared for the pandemic of 2033 if global public health cooperation had not been obstructed by geopolitical competition? Would the Great Depression of 2031 have occurred if great power blocs had not fractured the regulation of global trade and finance? Could the chain of failing states across Africa and the massive surge of economic refugees to Europe in the late 2020s and early 2030s have been prevented? Would parts of Miami and Manhattan be underwater in 2050 if there had been robust cooperation to achieve the Paris Climate Accord goals?
Decision-makers in major powers appear to overlook the costs and consequences—both human and planetary—of zero-sum, great power competition. This scenario may seem like a dystopian sci-fi novel, but it reflects the potential futures shaped by the current split-screen dynamic. Major powers are allocating resources to arms races, fostering strategic rivalries that distort the global economy, and promoting inward-looking nationalisms. This trajectory makes cooperation on existential global challenges increasingly elusive.
The reality is that zero-sum great power competition is overshadowing efforts to meet global challenges. Today’s conventional wisdom asserts that economic nationalism and zero-sum strategic competition can coexist with ample international cooperation on existential global issues. This is an illusion. The data and trends suggest that global cooperation is required now more than ever to address pressing problems vital to sustainable economic growth, mitigating the impacts of climate change, coping with pandemics, reforming outdated institutions, and finding a stable global equilibrium.
Contrast the present world situation with the Cold War’s U.S.-Soviet bipolar stability, albeit fragile. The current zeitgeist of zero-sum U.S. competition with China and Russia’s exclusion from Europe entirely leaves the world in uncharted waters, resembling the erosion of the international order that characterized the 1930s.
The fear of igniting a nuclear holocaust during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis also motivated U.S. and Soviet leaders, President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev, to compromise. Today, many of these stabilizing factors are absent, and level-headed decision-making has become scarce.
The human and planetary costs of the current split-screen dynamic are grave. Global cooperation, not zero-sum competition, is essential for a sustainable future. Major powers must overcome their rivalries and work together to address the world’s most pressing challenges before it’s too late.