In 2011, when the Arab Spring exploded, autocrats ruled 22countries, down from 89in 1977, highlighting how difficult it is these days to amass absolute power. And within countries, power is more dispersed. In 2012, only four of the world’s 34 wealthiest democracies had a president or a prime minister whose party also had a majority in parliament. Right now, those weakened heads of state include, among many others, Britain’s David Cameron, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and the next leader of Italy. In non-democratic countries that allow political parties — such as Jordan and Burma — the clout of minority parties is growing. Autocrats who in the past had little trouble crushing dissenting voices now have to tolerate them or, in some cases, succumb to them.
Power is crumbling in the world’s battlefields and boardrooms as well.
A 2001 study by political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft found that in the asymmetric wars that broke out between 1800 and 1849, the weaker side (in terms of armaments and troops) achieved its strategic goals in only 12 percent of cases. But in the wars of that kind between 1950 and 1998, the supposedly weaker side prevailed 55 percent of the time. Military might is no longer what it used to be.
Neither is corporate power. Remember when what was good for General Motors was good for America, or when IBM reigned supreme in the world of computers? In 1980, a U.S. company ranked among the largest 20 percent in its industry had only a 1-in-10 chance of falling out of that tier over the next five years. Two decades later, that chance grew to 1 in 4. According to management consultant John Challenger, the tenure of the average American chief executive has dropped from about 10 years in the 1990s to about 51
2 years more recently. Last year, Forbes emphasized that “churn” was the main characteristic of its latest list of the world’s billionaires, with almost as many members losing wealth (441) as gaining it (460).
Clearly, the presidents of the United States and China and the chief executives of JPMorgan Chase and Shell Oil still wield immense power; it’s just a lot less than their predecessors had. In the past, presidents and chief executives not only faced fewer challengers and competitors, they also had fewer constraints on how they deployed power — constraints that today are as varied as global financial markets, a more politically aware and demanding population, and the 24-hour glare of media scrutiny. As a result, power players now often pay a steeper and more immediate price for their mistakes.
The 2010 BP oil spill, for example, far eclipsed the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster not only in terms of financial and environmental costs but also in terms of the impact on the company’s brand and equity. One analysis found that Exxon shares lost 3.9 percent of their value in the first two weeks after the accident, while BP shares lost 13.1 percent in the seven trading sessions after the Deepwater Horizon spill, indicating that “the market reaction in BP shares has been far more swift and severe,” in part as “a function of the dramatically accelerated flow of information in the market.”