June 7, 2011


The Future of Power (Joseph S. Nye Jr., 6/05/11, The Chronicle Review)

Two great power shifts are under way—power transition and power diffusion. Power transition from one dominant state to another is a familiar historical process, and many analysts explain it with a narrative of American decline, replete with historical analogies to Britain and Rome. But Rome remained dominant for more than three centuries after its apogee, and even then it did not succumb to the rise of another state, but died a death of a thousand cuts inflicted by internecine conflict and external attacks by barbarian tribes. Indeed, for all the fashionable predictions of China's, India's, or Brazil's surpassing the United States in the next decades, the greater threat may be modern barbarians and nonstate actors.

The second shift is power diffusion. While states will remain the dominant actors on the world stage, that stage will become more crowded and difficult to control. More and more people have access to more and more information. What we see in the Middle East today is an example of how fast and affordable communication technology can empower previously disenfranchised elements in societies. International affairs are no longer the sole province of governments. Individuals and private organizations—corporations, NGO's, terrorists—now play a direct role in world politics.

Today, global power resources are distributed in a pattern that resembles a three-dimensional chess game. On the top chessboard, military power is unipolar, and the United States will remain supreme for the foreseeable future. But on the middle chessboard, economic power has been multipolar for more than a decade, with China, Europe, Japan, and the United States as the major players. The bottom chessboard is the realm of transnational relations, where multinational corporations transfer vast sums of money, terrorists transfer weapons, and hackers threaten cybersecurity. There is also the challenge of pandemics and climate change. On this bottom board, power is diffused, and it makes no sense to speak of unipolarity, multipolarity, hegemony, or empire.

Just as Rome shifted East, to Constantinople, for awhile, it later shifted West, to London and Washington. If we disregard the technical questions about whether America is a physical empire, it is obvious that we are an ideological one. The universal enfranchisement of the global population -- in politics, religion, and economics -- is a simple function of the Christian and republican ideals that were born in Rome but ultimately vindicated and extended by the Anglosphere.

Physical power is not, and will not be, distributed equally among all nations or all peoples, but that, of course, is not the goal of the Anglo-American model. We care only about liberty, in keeping with out Roman antecedents. It was the French/continental model that was concerned with equality and it was a miserable failure.

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Posted by at June 7, 2011 6:13 AM

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