Power Shifts

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As Americans wrestle with the implications of revolutions in the Middle East as well as the rise of China in Asia, we need a better understanding of what it means to have power in world politics. Traditionally, the mark of a great power was its ability to prevail in war. But in an information age, success depends not just on whose army wins but also on whose story wins.

Americans need to cope with two types of historical power shifts that 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 and more difficult to manage. The problem for all states in today's global information age is that more things are occurring outside the control of even the most powerful states.

Information revolutions have happened before, but the current revolution is based on rapid technological advances that have dramatically decreased the cost of creating, finding and transmitting information. Computing power doubled every 18 months for 30 years, and by the beginning of the 21st century it cost one thousandth of what it did in the early 1970s. The key characteristic of this revolution is not just the speed of communications but also the enormous reduction in the cost of transmitting information, which has reduced the barriers to entry into the information marketplace.

What this means is that world politics will no longer be the sole province of governments. Individuals and private organizations — ranging from WikiLeaks to corporations to NGOs to terrorists to spontaneous societal movements — are all empowered to play direct roles in world politics. The spread of information means that power will be more widely distributed and informal networks will undercut the monopoly of traditional bureaucracy.

The speed of Internet time means all governments have less control of their agendas. Political leaders enjoy fewer degrees of freedom before they must respond to events, and then they must communicate not only with other governments but with those in civil society too: witness the difficulties of the Obama Administration in trying to fine-tune its responses in the Middle East. The Administration had to use its hard power of military aid to the army in Egypt while simultaneously promoting a soft-power narrative that appealed to the information-empowered generation of civil society. And next door, in Libya, it used hard, military power to generate a humanitarian narrative of protecting civilians.

When it comes to power transition —the other great historical shift — we have been misled by traditional narratives of a supposed U.S. 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 that China, India or Brazil will surpass the U.S. in the next few decades, the greater threats may come from modern barbarians and nonstate actors.

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 to China are based primarily on one factor: linear projections of growth in China's gross national product. They ignore the military and soft dimensions of power, 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, such power is limited by a domestic authoritarian regime that puts people like the dissident Liu Xiaobo in jail. In an information age, the ability to mobilize networks of others through soft power will be as important as mobilizing them through hard power. One cannot manage cybercrime or climate change with military means.

In the years to come, 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.

It is true that China is growing rapidly, but the diffusion of power may be as consequential as power transitions between major states. America's soft power and its open society may give the U.S. new power advantages.

Nye is a University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard and the author of The Future of Power