The great game of global public goods provision

War is bad. Excuses should not be made for it. All sides should work to end this and every war as quickly as possible and shift to modes of bargaining and competition that are not profoundly destructive.

I. Cooperate to compete, compete to cooperate

We often think of competition and cooperation as opposites, but as Michael Frank Martin has pointed out, competition is very often just one way that we organize cooperation. The Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees compete vigorously, each team really wants to win, but the framework of competition itself is cooperatively maintained. If the Yankees could permanently dominate all challengers, the game would become boring and fans would bail. They would only “rule over the ashes”. In professional sports, vigorous competition is a positive sum game. Starting from a degree of balance, each team has strong incentives, a great deal to gain, from winning. But from a grander distance, all teams, and the world at large, depend upon maintaining balance and vigorous competition rather than allowing any team’s entrenchment as permanent victor.

Textbook economic competition is also a positive sum game, from the perspective of the world at large. Starting from a degree of balance, higher quality or more efficient production confers to winners abnormal profits, for a while, incentivizing the race. Competition by multiple firms to win these profits drives costs down and quality up for consumers. But when a single firm definitively wins, positive sum competition becomes negative sum stagnation as monopolists extract rents, directly via price or by imposition of more subtle costs on consumers and other stakeholders. In business unlike in sport, a definitive victor is perfectly content to permanently vanquish its rivals. But the rest of us see a positive-sum dynamic replaced with negative-sum exploitation. “Antitrust” is the (much too narrow) name we give to the socially essential function of maintaining economic competition, which is really a carefully structured form of cooperation. Just as sports leagues sometimes let losing teams get the first pick of new talent to help maintain balance, states must ensure among firms that new entrants and also-rans are never permanently out of the running, that in practice winners take turns. When balance is sustained, business competition can be a strikingly effective way to organize cooperation.

Not all competition can be reckoned a form of cooperation, however. War is competitive, but it is not cooperative. There is no positive sum aspect to war that would guide us collectively to encourage the practice indifferent to who wins or loses. On the contrary, it is a profoundly negative sum affair we correctly seek to discourage.

II. The world is lumpy

We are now living in a multipolar world. The moment when perhaps a consensus could have emerged around models of governance and international cooperation championed by “the West” has passed for the foreseeable future. China, in particular, is a peer power, confident in the effectiveness of its own quite different mode of governance, unwilling to defer to Western or especially American strictures. China, the United States, Europe, and other powers will compete for power and prestige.

The challenge before us is to structure that competition so that it is a positive sum form of cooperation, rather than a negative sum prescription for mutual isolation and military conflict.

A new cold war is a bad idea. We barely survived the old one. Even its echoes now threaten to see us off. Defining international competition as a contest between democracy and autocracy (from our side), or between common-good cooperativism versus corrosive, selfish liberalism (from theirs), is a terrible idea. We are not the good guys, they are not the bad guys, and vice versa. Singapore despite political illiberalism and, arguably, corrupt nepotism is in many respects an admirable polity, one that despite limited electora competition is extremely solicitous of citizen input and concern. Japan was a full-fledge member of the “free world” despite decades of single-party rule. China’s “autocracy” should be distinguished from Russia’s, in that it has delivered to its vast population remarkable improvements in human flourishing, despite ugly (from my perspective) restrictions on free expression, religious association, and political contestation. China’s treatment of the Uighurs is inexcusable. So was our invasion of Iraq. In practical terms, the response cannot be to try to extirpate regimes that do or have done bad things, but to work constructively to reduce the misbehavior, in large part by offering alternative means of addressing the perceived threats that provoke it. “Constructively” means not threatening or promoting regime change, however much and reasonably and sincerely we might hope for and desire it. Political change is the domestic choice of a polity. When we offer advice and criticism, we should do so overtly and respectfully for our counterparts to consider, accept or reject. Covert “foreign interference” is always weaponized by factions, often to immunize the worst aspects of the domestic establishment from useful critique. Would the Castros have been so long in power without our indefatiguable help?

This is hard for us. We are culturally primed to view international affairs in desperately moral terms. “Never again,” we say. How can we not cheer revolutions against oppressive regimes? Why shouldn’t we quietly help? When our military might prevent atrocity, is it really moral to refrain? But moral ideas cannot be divorced from their consequences and still remain moral. By the time we face a choice between atrocity or military intervention, we have already lost. Though there are important differences of degree, military intervention inevitably involves atrocity. Then, as we’ve seen in Iraq, Afghanisatan, Libya, the downstream consequences are often even worse.

“Never again” is harder work than a Hollywood movie. We will never live up to the phrase just by standing up to current or imminent evildoing. “Never again” means prevention, and prevention by its nature must be forward-looking rather than reactive. “Never again” is the work of a State Department much more than of a Department of Defense, and when the work is done well the public may never notice that it has been done at all.

But publics also have a role to play, I think perhaps the most important. Goodwill to all, joyful intercourse across national lines on a human-to-human basis, resisting the impulse to turn nationalities into, and treat nationals as, two-dimensional villains or heroes — these things are crucial to the cause of peace. Of course it's not enough, good fences make good neighbors, we'll need our militaries and balances of power and deterrence and all of that ugly game theory. Weakness can be provocative, war must always be costly. But hard power games are very brittle. Without the soft flesh of human affection, all that will be left is bones, all of our bones. Love really is the answer, or at least an essential part of it.

III. Public goods provision as an arena of competition

Great powers will compete, for power and prestige. If that competition is mostly military, the result will be catastrophe. But the strongest governments gain their power, and fundamentally the consent of the governed, by effective provision of public goods. Great powers provide global public goods: they contribute to public welfare beyond the borders of their own state. Those public goods include military security, but also trade arrangements, development assistance, food security, disaster assistance, education, technology, and more. One silver lining of the (miserable, terrifying) Cold War was that the United States understood, while it ran, the importance of competing in the provision of global public goods. During its “unipolar moment”, undisciplined by competition, the United States succumbed to the temptations of a monopolist and began to shirk, doing less and charging more for support of other countries, demanding that they “pull their weight”. China, on the other hand, has increasingly understood that provision of global public goods is a core dimension of power, hypercharging development of ports and infrastructure throughout the erstwhile nonaligned world with its belt and road initiative. Western critics argue over the terms of the loans by which China finances that development — is it really so generous?. But fundamentally things are being built, trade and employment are increasing, in places neglected by American grandees except as objects of pity and charity. The West’s famous development institutions — the World Bank, the IMF — have grown worse than sclerotic. With some justice, they are perceived as predatory servants of Western creditors rather than enablers of public goods provision that domestic governments can’t manage on their own.

During this pandemic period, the West by now on its own could have produced and distributed, or assisted very capable countries like India and, yes, China, to produce and distribute, its highest quality mRNA vaccines to all of the inhabitants of the planet willing to take it. The cost would have been high, in absolute dollar terms, but small relative to the overall cost of stabilizing our domestic economies over the period. On humanitarian grounds, but not just on humanitarian grounds, the opportunity we have lost by failing to do that is absolutely extraordinary. Now that we are in a military crisis, would India be quite so nonaligned if we had more generously supported its health and welfare, commercial and other formalities be damned? Is it possible, if we had transferred this technology (that they will learn within a year or two regardless) that China might not treat us with such cold hostility? Iran? That perhaps even Russia, led by the man it is led by, would have been moved to a less bellicose posture. Perhaps not! Counterfactuals are unknowable. But in the broad scheme of things, how much would it really have cost? And regardless of its effectiveness as a charm offensive, how many lives might it have saved? On both political and humanitarian grounds, it was a foolish bet not to take.

Competing to provide of global public goods is a positive-sum way that great powers can vie for power and prestige. It’s effective. Powers that openly provide public goods that notably improve the welfare of others gain influence and opportunity. If this sounds hazy and hippie-dippie, look at the world in its current divisions. Why is India, the world’s largest democracy, hesitant to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine? Decades of cooperation and help, on security but not just, make a difference.

An irony of the United States during its unipolar period is that while consent of the governed is at the very heart of our ideological project domestically, in global affairs we've emphasized hard power, whether military or economic, rather than soft. But use of hard power is perceived as coercive and resented. Soft power is persuasion. It brings with it consent. Hard power is usually costly to exercise. Soft power, on the other hand, while is often free, as the people you would hope to influence choose to be helpful of their own free will. All durable and decent modes of authority rely much more heavily on the velvet glove than on the iron fist, even if hard metal must always exist buried at some level deep beneath. We broadly understand this with respect to domestic affairs. I submit that the same must be true of international affairs. International affairs are not in fact anarchic, except during tragic periods when architectures of cooperation break down. We are now witnessing the barest hint of what that might mean, and I hope we witness not a day more of it.

It is incumbent upon us all, in the United States, in China, in Europe, in Russia, to build an international system built upon respect rather than coercion. In a multipolar world, powers will compete. Overt, cordial, cooperative competition for influence and authority via the provision of global public goods allows great powers to compete in a way that serves humankind and sustains global peace. No power has a long-term interest in frequent bouts of military competition or economic blockade.

IV. Feed the world

Food security is a global public good and a humanitarian necessity. The war in Ukraine is threatening food security worldwide, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. As Matt Klein has pointed out, the United States, India, Europe, and China have the means to buffer that shock, if we cooperate competitively to make sure the world is fed and prevent the war from continuing indefinitely. We should share the goal of feeding the world, and cooperate to set up a framework under which we each compete to do the most.

No power will win that competition, and no power will lose, but each power will make genuine progress in gaining prestige and influence in the countries that they assist. The competition will be real. Its rewards can be very valuable going forward in undergirding patterns of future trade, choices about security arrangements, financial relationships, and influence broadly. Like a good sports league, we should try to work with our rivals to create conditions conducive to this form of competition continuing in perpetuity, without any power permanently dominating.

V. Conclusion

Nationalism and humility do not easily go together. But we are all deeply imperfect polities struggling to hold together internally in order to productively cooperate, and to prosper and protect our interests in the larger world. Military competition turns us all into cartoon jingoists spiraling towards catastrophe. Competing to help, and to influence by admirable example, leaves the world over which we are all competing better off, even as our share of it ebbs and flows over time. Better luck next season. There must always be a next season.

Update History:

  • 8-Jan-2022, 2:00 p.m. EDT: “Competing to provide of global public goods is a positive-sum way that great powers can compete vie for power and prestige.” (ht @tatere)
  • 14-Apr-2022, 1:40 p.m. PDT: “, while it ran,” (set off phrase with commas)

6 Responses to “The great game of global public goods provision”

  1. Rahul Basu writes:

    Thoughtful piece, thanks. Cooperating on food is so important. India already has experienced it with COVID, and now the world needs it with the war.

  2. Gary Schreiner writes:

    Thanks,made my day. A small candle flame can grow.

  3. Unanimous writes:

    Xi and Putin are criminal in their nature. They take what they feel they can. Generousity and attempts to cooperate will always be used for their own power.

    Cooperation is generally the best way for most people, including by competition within limits as you describe. And I agree that the West has not done enough in that regard.

    But there is in any society always a small portion of immoral people who will always do what they can get away with unless stopped by force. Unfortunately such people tend to rise to the top particularly of corrupt and criminal organisations, and are over represented in world governmental history.

    The rise of China with its non democratic form of government has inspired a trend throughout the world towards governance by criminals. They are all inspiring each other to do what they can get away with even if they only cooperate with each other when convenient – Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Syria, Venuzuela, etc. and politicians such as Trump and La Pen.

    China bribes and threatens politicians and governmental organisations in other countries to do its bidding. It funds, bribes and threatens media in the west to spread lies, and carefully controls the lies its own population has access to. No amount of goodwill behaviour by the west can win them over.

    We might in future get lucky with a leadership change in some of these countries. But criminals tend to rise to the top of criminal organisations.

    They need to be limited and ultimately stopped, and unfortunately only threat of force and occasional actual force can do it.

  4. Keith Newman writes:

    What a peculiar piece. Thoughtful but leading nowhere. Also devoid of facts. Your post previous to this one dealt with the reasons for the Russian invasion of Ukraine with It’s all so complicated and different people say different things. That was a cop-out. With respect to Ukraine, I recommend you listen to John Mearsheimer and Ray McGovern at With respect to international affairs I recommend you read Michael Hudson at

  5. rony writes:

    de alegrarme por la gran cantidad de torneos que hay al menos para escolares pero debo dejar en claro que dichos logros se han forjado no gracias a la actual junta directiva si no a pesar de ella.

  6. Mike Z writes:

    Great post. I agree that the world will be a lot better if great powers will compete instead on the provision of public goods, and this should be fundamental to each’s policy. One quibble I would add though is the need to put granular attention to whether a ruling elite in a beneficiary country will capture that public good for its purpose. Even actions with the best of intentions can have unintended consequences if it entrenches corruption.