There is a wonderful expression in English called “The law of unintended consequences” which describes situations where you set out to achieve a particular objective and, whether or not you are successful, you also (or instead) get a different result.
In its most extreme form, the outcome is the opposite of what you set out to do, and this is known as “the cobra effect” apparently after introduction of a scheme in British India which promised a bounty for people who killed snakes led to quick-minded citizens breeding more snakes so as to claim the reward.
There are three striking examples of the cobra effect in the news recently. The latest was the sudden pledge by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the run up to the general election that there would never be a Palestine state during his time in office if he were returned. The statement was popular with some right wing members of the electorate and Netanyahu’s Likud party won the election.
Presumably these voters found the statement reassuring as a commitment to securing a safe future for the beleaguered country. But to many friends of Israel – your columnist included – the outcome is more likely to be the perverse situation of creating greater risk. In their and my view, Israel’s future can only be secure when a recognised Jewish state lives peacefully alongside an Arab one. Therefore the immediate consequence of the election gambit is likely to be growing pressure within European parliaments to formally recognise Palestine within its 1967 borders, as the Swedish government has already done and an approach the UK House of Commons – admittedly in a non-binding vote – has endorsed.
More sadly, a new cohort of Palestinian youth will have drawn the conclusion that there is no peaceful route to a reasonable outcome, and the only way their country can be established is through war. Has the election victory bought with this promise made Israel safer?
Another own goal has been scored by the United States Congress. Five years ago, agreement was reached on reform to the International Monetary Fund’s governing arrangements to grant recognition to the increased role played in the global economy by emerging countries such as China. But, apparently as part of an exercise to “contain” China in the economic sphere (as well as in the geopolitical context) Congress has sat on its hands and declined to approve the necessary changes.
After half a decade of waiting, China has not surprisingly lost patience and announced the formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank under its own leadership. Traditional American allies like Britain, Germany, France and Italy have rushed to join despite US pressure not to do so, and both Australia and South Korea are urgently reviewing their position. Japan is likely to do so too. So Mr Boehner (leader of the House of Representatives), how do you like them apples? Is that the outcome you were after?
Just to show that no-one’s record in this area is spotless, we should now consider China’s recent efforts to extend its sovereignty to virtually the whole of the South China Sea, irrespective of the traditional rights and boundaries of other countries, by turning submerged reefs into military airstrips and tiny barren islands into substantial occupied communities. Our country is undoubtedly the predominant power in the region, and its status should be recognised. Surely a better way to do this would have been to use its economic pre-eminence to achieve de facto control by agreement. By letting the military hawks in Beijing take the lead in what could have been a predominantly diplomatic exercise, all that has been achieved is that a country like Vietnam which fought a long and difficult war to get rid of the Americans now entertains the US fleet in its ports. The Philippines – a former US colony which closed all the American bases – is seriously considering welcoming them back. Is that what the generals wanted?
Opponents of our chief executive Leung Chun Ying should bear the cobra effect in mind. Attempts to use the health problems of one of his daughters as a stick with which to beat him were most unwise not to mention unethical. Already one columnist on this newspaper has expressed sympathy for Leung, as indeed many parents are likely to have done whatever they may think of his policies and performance in other areas. Snakes once reared can bite anyone.