Is Ukraine a Metaverse Nightmare?
Moving from a unipolar world to a multipolar world was always likely to be messy and risk-prone. But few saw how fast we moved from beating war drums to actual armed conflict between the Great Powers, the latest being in Ukraine. Are we on a march of folly to World War III, or have key players lost sight of reality?
Lest we forget, World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) were fought to keep down rising powers—Germany and later Japan. Russia and China suffered the most casualties in WWII, and both were allies against German Nazis and Japanese militarists. The United States became the real winner, but decided after WWII to contain communism in both the Soviet Union (USSR) and China. Fifty years ago, in 1972, US President 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 Cuban missile crisis being a live test of brinkmanship. Both sides climbed down when the USSR removed missiles from Cuba, and the US quietly removed missiles from Turkey. President 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-and-white conflict between good vs evil, democracy vs 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. Prof John Mearsheimer, author of the influential book "The Tragedy of Great Power Politics," offers the insight that the Western expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) was the reason why Russia felt threatened. The more the Nato allies try to arm Ukraine, the more insecure Russia gets. 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 Center 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 that are 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 titled "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 (AR). In other words, in 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 eyeball 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, in the segment "How will this conflict affect you?" he asked bluntly why Americans should hate Putin and what the war will cost every American.
Carlson asked some really serious questions, even though his views are partisan—have the Democrats, with their 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 USD 100 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 percent 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 sum, the decade of 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 don't like, but we have to live with them. A negotiated peace is better than mutual destruction. In 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 question is: Who is willing to climb down and eat the humble pie for the sake of peace?
Andrew Sheng is adjunct professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing and the University of Malaya. He was formerly the chairman of the Securities and Futures Commission, Hong Kong.
Copyright: Asia News Network