Four years later, even easy seems impossible. “Let’s agree right here, right now, to keep the people’s government open, pay our bills on time and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America,” Obama pleaded during his State of the Union address.
By having to exhort Congress to execute even the most basic functions of government, Obama — fresh off the “fiscal cliff” fight and facing yet another showdown with lawmakers over massive automatic spending cuts — revealed just how limited the powers of the highest office in the land have become.
Washington hardly has a monopoly on political paralysis. The Syrian uprising will reach its second anniversary on March 15, reminding us that the international community has failed to take action that could stem the bloodshed. Italy’s election stalemate has driven the country into yet another bout of political and economic uncertainty. And the latest round of U.N. climate talks has brought the world no closer to tackling global warming.
The world over, power no longer buys as much as it used to. In fact, power is eroding: It is easier to get, but harder to use and far easier to lose. A businessman can become chief executive, only to discover that a start-up is upending the business models in his industry. A politician can become prime minister, only to discover that she is tied down by myriad minority parties that can veto her initiatives. A general can become military chief, only to discover that the mighty weapons and advanced technology at his disposal are ineffective in the face of homemade explosives and suicide bombers. And a cardinal can become pope this month, only to discover that new preachers in Africa and Latin America are pilfering his flock.
“One of my biggest shocks was the discovery that all the imposing government palaces and other trappings of government were in fact empty places,” Joschka Fischer, one of Germany’s most popular politicians and a former vice chancellor and foreign minister, told me. “The imperial architecture of governmental palaces masks how limited the power of those who work there really is.”
Why is power increasingly fleeting?
First, there is more competition for it. The number of sovereign states has nearly quadrupled since the 1940s, from 51 to 193, and they contend not just with one another but also with agencies such as the International Monetary Fund — and hedge funds, and international drug cartels — as well as with transnational activist groups such as the Sierra Club and Amnesty International.