Following is the essay you can designate as Volume 10, Number 21 of
This Week’s Clue, based on the e-mail newsletter I have produced since
March, 1997. It would be the issue of May 21.
The great crisis of our time is a dispute over two ways of resolving tensions, conflict and consensus.
How can consensus overrule conflict? The same way the Internet does. By routing around it, pretending it doesn’t exist, and turning the other cheek. The more conflict gets up in your grill, and the more you’re able to avoid it, the less powerful conflict becomes, and eventually it gives up. We’re not talking Gandhi-ism here, but the old Rope-a-Dope.
The job of conflict in this case is to be essential, to force itself, to demand the satisfaction of a final confrontation.
Right now, after 40 years in which American politics have been defined by conflict, and 65 years where world affairs have been a non-stop conflict, analysts can’t conceive of consensus winning anything. Strangely enough many of these same analysts call themselves Christians.
Rather than talk about Bush, the American elections or the War on Terror, I’d like to illustrate the point by looking at three completely different situations — Russia, France and Microsoft.
It’s clear now that Vladimir Putin is trying to re-create the old
Soviet Union. He is using all the old Soviet tricks. He jails his
political opponents, he keeps people from demonstrating. People die. He
bullies his neighbors.
While a previous generation of Soviet leaders assured conflict
because they had nuclear weapons, Putin seeks to assure conflict, on
his terms, by using the country’s vast oil and gas reserves. He has
steadily re-nationalized those reserves, he has deployed them as
diplomatic weapons against his nearest neighbors, and he had them
behind his back when he confronted EU leaders this week.
What is Europe doing in response? Rather than confront Putin
directly leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel have launched a War Against Oil.
They never mention Russia when they talk about alternative, renewable
energy sources, about conservation, about efficiency. They talk instead
about global warming, about the environment.
They’re behaving just as you see the Internet behave. They are
routing around the trouble. They are trying to pretend it does not
exist, although it’s clear their policies are meant to reduce demand
for what Russia sells. When pressed they back down, as little as
possible, and without acknowledging there was a conflict to begin with.
Putin’s response is to press harder. He is explicitly threatening Estonia, an EU member. Yet rather than engaging in confrontation over that issue, Merkel talks about consensus values like democracy,
which only seems to enrage Putin more. Her aim is to isolate him, to
buy time, and to use the implied threats as a spur to investment in
renewables and in conservation.
Can this passive-aggressive approach work? I don’t know. But consider the alternative. Compare it
to the decades-long conflict the United States is engaged in with the
Middle East, which at its heart is a similar problem with resources,
markets and power. Hundreds of thousands have died as the U.S. military
tries to assure a steady flow of oil at a reasonable price. Is the
price reasonable? Are we winning?
Merkel, it should be noted, was elected as a conservative leader.
Her Christian Democrats are the conservative party within Germany.
Nickolas Sarkozy is also leading a conservative government, in France, and
American reporters cheered his election last week. But in fact he is
seeking to lead by consensus, bringing in nominal political opponents
to his 14-member cabinet, including seven women. Rachida Dati, a Muslim woman, will be Justice Minister. A Socialist, Bernard Koucher, will be the foreign minister. Is he going to be a Bush conservative or a Merkel conservative?
This idea of a conservative being someone who seeks to maintain
peace, with other nations or within society, to conserve, is foreign to American
ears. But before the present era of conflict began with World War II,
this was the nature of conservative leadership. British leaders like
Stanley Baldwin, and American conservatives like Alf Landon, sought to
avoid conflict, to smooth it over, seeing World War I as a cautionary
tale to be avoided.
This did not work with Hitler, and American conservatives have spent
the last 65 years shouting "Munich, Munich, Munich" at every
opportunity. But is Putin really Hitler? Is every opponent we face in the world always Hitler? Would Putin really stand a chance
if war came? And if he does start rebuilding his forces, that can be
met, through consensus. Deal with that when it comes.
Now that I’ve given you something foreign to think about, let me return to my regular beat of computing, and Microsoft’s battle against open source.
Microsoft is threatened by open source and has chosen the path of
conflict. It’s waving around patent claims just as Joe McCarthy did
lists of Communists in the State Department. Its goal is to intimidate
large companies into peace agreements that acknowledge the legitimacy
of those claims, and then to use those agreements to force compliance
from other enterprises.
Microsoft’s entire corporate history is based on conflict, so it
should be no surprise that it claims consensus is impossible, that all
intellectual goods are property which must be paid for. When I wrote
about this case, and its implications, on my ZDNet blog this week, I got an historic number of responses, many of them angry, some of them calling me a radical, a liberal, or a fanatical criminal.
Yet I’m convinced that, over time, the consensus will win through, in
part because they have a powerful ally behind them, IBM. IBM has
successfully fought SCO’s insistence that it owns Linux, and it will
certainly not back down before Microsoft.
By forcing a price, any price, upon Linux, based on its claims to
patent rights over the technology, Microsoft would not only blackmail
the entire computing universe, but allow itself to continue
blackmailing it, raising its price constantly until open source, as a
computing model, is gone.
IBM doesn’t want that, any more than America wants to be dominated
by Putin or Middle Eastern oil sheiks. But it faces a choice, what we
might call the Merkel-Bush choice.
It can keep quiet, resisting only when confronted directly, and then
as lightly as possible. Or it can confront Microsoft directly, suing to
see the 235 patents Microsoft claims to have.
So far, it’s taking the Merkel approach, the consensus approach.
In the end, I believe, that approach will win. And that is the most important story of these times.