As authoritarian Arab regimes struggle with Twitter and Al Jazeera inflamed-demonstrations; Iran tries to cope with the cyber sabotage of its nuclear enrichment program; and American diplomats try to understand the impact of Wikileaks, it is clear that smart policy in an information age will need a more sophisticated understanding of power in world politics.
That is the argument of my new book The Future of Power. Two types of power shifts are occurring in this century – power transition and power diffusion. Power transition from one dominant state to another is a familiar historical event, but power diffusion is a more novel process. The problem for all states in today’s global information age is that more things are happening outside the control of even the most powerful states. In the words of Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (and once a faculty member at the Kennedy School), “the proliferation of information is as much a cause of nonpolarity as is the proliferation of weaponry.”
Regarding power transition, much attention is lavished on a supposed American decline, and facile historical analogies to Britain and Rome. But Rome remained dominant for more than three centuries after the apogee of Roman power, and even then, it did not succumb to the rise of another state, but died a death of a thousand cuts inflicted by various barbarian tribes. Indeed for all the fashionable predictions of China, India or Brazil surpassing the United States in the next decades, the greater threats may come from modern barbarians and non-state actors. In an information based world of cyber insecurity, power diffusion may be a greater threat than power transition.
At an even more basic level, what will it mean to wield power in the global information age of the 21st century? What resources will produce power? In the 16th century, control of colonies and gold bullion gave Spain the edge; 17th century Netherlands profited from trade and finance; 18th century France gained from its larger population and armies; while 19th century British power rested on its primacy in the industrial revolution and its navy. Conventional wisdom has always held that the state with the largest military prevails, but in an information age it may be the state (or non-states) with the best story that wins. Soft power becomes a more important part of the mix.
Today, it is far from clear how we measure a balance of power, much less how to develop successful strategies to survive in this new world. Most current projections of a shift in the global balance of power are based primarily on one factor — projections of growth in the gross national product of different countries. They ignore the other dimensions of power that are discussed in my book, not to mention the policy difficulties of combining them into smart strategies. For example, while Hu Jintao told the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that China needs to invest more in its soft power, polls show that China’s soft power is limited by a domestic authoritarian regime that puts people like Liu Xiaobo in jail.
States will remain the dominant actors on the world stage, but they will find the stage far more crowded and difficult to control. A much larger part of the population both within and among countries has access to the power that comes from information. Governments have always worried about the flow and control of information, and the current period is not the first to be strongly affected by dramatic changes in information technology. Revolutions are not new, nor is transnational contagion, nor non-state actors. What is new – and what we see manifested in the Middle East today – is the speed of communication and the technological empowerment of a wider range of actors. An information world will require new policies that combine hard and soft power resources into smart power strategies.