Political leaders, meanwhile, are finding their war powers constrained by constituents who are less tolerant of military casualties, as we saw during France’s precipitous troop withdrawal from the Afghan war in November after a series of deadly insurgent attacks.
It’s not just the supposed “democratizing” and “empowering” force of the Internet that is eroding power. New information technologies are tools — important ones for sure — but to have impact, tools need users, and users need direction and motivation. Facebook, Twitter and text messages were fundamental in empowering the Arab Spring protesters. But the circumstances that motivated them to take to the streets were local and personal conditions: unemployment and the rising, unmet expectations of a fast-growing, better-educated middle class. Moreover, the same technologies that have empowered citizens have created new avenues for state surveillance and repression, helping Iran, for example, identify and imprison participants in its stillborn Green Revolution.
Nor is the decay of power related to the supposed decline of America and rise of China — one of the most useless and distracting debates of our time. When the Taliban is able to deny the world’s mightiest military a victory, when Somali pirates with rickety boats and AK-47s thumb their noses at the most modern multinational fleet ever assembled, when European leaders fail to stem the economic crisis that started in Greece’s minuscule economy and when the world is incapable of agreeing on how to curb carbon emissions, it becomes clear that something is happening to global power that transcends any zero-sum, Sino-American rivalry.
The biggest challenges to traditional power have come from transformations in the basics of life — how we live, where, for how long and how well. These changes can be encapsulated in three simultaneous revolutions: the More, Mobility and Mentality revolutions.
The More Revolution. The 21st century has more of everything, from people to literacy to products on the market to political parties. The global middle class is expanding, and by 2050, the world’s population will be four times larger than it was 100 years earlier. According to the World Bank, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty plunged over the past decade, the first time that has happened since statistics on global poverty became available, and since 2006, 28formerly “low-income countries” have joined the ranks of “middle-income” ones.
An impatient and better-informed middle class that wants progress faster than governments can deliver, and whose intolerance for corruption has transformed it into a potent force, is the engine driving many of this decade’s political changes in the developing world. India’s expanding middle class, for instance, helped catapult the largely unknown anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare to fame by flocking to him in 2011 after he launched a hunger strike.
The Mobility Revolution. Not only are there more people today with higher standards of living, but they are also moving more than at any other time — and that makes them harder to control. The United Nations estimates that there are 214 million migrants across the globe living somewhere other than their country of origin, an increase of 37 percent in the past two decades. Ethnic, religious and professional diasporas are changing the distribution of power within and among populations. An interesting case: In 2007, a Nigerian-born man was elected in Portlaoise, Ireland, a commuter town west of Dublin, as that country’s first black mayor.