Power is also eroding in the zone of corporate and business competition, Naim suggests, as established incumbents fall with staggering speed to adroit challengers. While it is not a principal focus of his account, Naim’s thesis applies persuasively to the rapid and dynamic change evident in the global technology industry. Reigning champions such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have consolidated dominant market positions with staggering speed while former industry juggernauts have been crushed. Nokia and RIM, maker of the once-ubiquitous BlackBerry, have seen their share prices collapse by more than 90 percent — and Yahoo shares have declined by more than 80 percent — at the same time that their rivals achieved dominance.
What accounts for the apparent fragility and evanescence of political, military, commercial and other forms of power in this young century? Naim approvingly cites the brilliant strategic thinkerZbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. national security adviser, who in the early 1970s correctly predicted Moscow’s difficulties with modernizing its industrial-era economy and, in the 1980s, presciently anticipated a growing crisis in Soviet power. The world has entered a “post-hegemonic era,” Brzezinski argues, in which, contrary to the experience in the Cold War, “no nation has the capacity to impose its will on others in a substantial or permanent way.”
The new era of fragmenting power, according to Naim’s assessment, features a more compressed and multitudinous world in which each year 65 million people with vastly contrasting aspirations are added to the global urban population — the equivalent of the city of Chicago seven times over. It is a world of hyper-connectivity and ubiquitous global communications, transformed by the phenomenon of the Internet and the explosion of mobile telephony, which today exceeds 6 billion individual phone subscriptions, or 87 percent of the world’s population. And it is a world in which the interplay of demography, technology and other variables increasingly correlates to the realm of commercial competition, in which structural or strategic barriers to entry are declining, creating new challengers to the power structure, that Naim calls “micropowers.”
The new breed of micropowers is opportunistically exploiting the weakness of entrenched but declining incumbents in disparate arenas. “Insurgents, fringe political parties, innovative start-ups, hackers, loosely organized activists, upstart citizen media, leaderless young people in city squares” and others “are shaking up the old order,” Naim concludes.
Is there a unified theory at the heart of Naim’s highly original, inter-disciplinary meditation on the degeneration of international power? An early chapter in his work posits three expansive “revolutions” in world politics that intersect with and transform four traditional “channels” of power. The ensuing discussion may be tough going for general readers, while the political science crowd may pick at his causal model and lament the absence of detailed case studies. Ultimately, these concerns are superfluous. “The End of Power” makes a truly important contribution, persuasively portraying a compelling dynamic of change cutting across multiple game-boards of the global power matrix.
While the redistribution and decay of power pose profound challenges for domestic politics and national leadership, it is in the domain of global cooperation that Naim sees the greatest risks. “From climate change to nuclear proliferation, economic crises, resource depletion, pandemics, the persistent poverty of the ‘bottom billion,’ terrorism, trafficking, cybercrime and more, the world faces increasingly complex challenges that require the participation of ever more diverse parties and players to solve.”
Yet if Naim is correct, in the 21st century “power is becoming easier to disrupt and harder to consolidate,” presaging a troubling trend of a far less resilient global system filled with weaker national and international institutions. If “the future of power lies in disruption and interference, not management and consolidation,” Naim asks, “can we expect ever to know stability again?”
Gordon M. Goldstein
is a managing director at Silver Lake, a global technology investment firm, and the author of “Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam.”