Over the course of his protean career, Moises Naim has oscillated between being a student and practitioner of power. At the precocious age of 36, he was appointed Venezuela’s minister of trade and industry and subsequently served as a director of Venezuela’s Central Bank and executive director of the World Bank. He has been a professor of economics, a prolific columnist, an author of multiple books on international affairs and an editor of Foreign Policy magazine. A frequent speaker at elite gatherings from Davos to Bilderberg to Sun Valley, Naim exerts the sort of intellectual influence that shapes opinion among the powerful in the worlds of government, finance and media.
Over time, Naim arrived at an arresting and provocative thesis, captured in his analytically sophisticated new work, “The End of Power.” The observation that “power is shifting from one continent or country to another, or that it is dispersing among many new players, is not enough,” he asserts. “Power is undergoing a far more fundamental mutation that has not been sufficiently recognized and understood.” Naim renders an original and ultimately well-substantiated conclusion: “Power is decaying,” he insists. “From boardrooms and combat zones to cyberspace, battles for power are as intense as ever, but they are yielding diminishing returns. Their fierceness masks the increasingly evanescent nature of power itself. Understanding how power is losing its value — and facing up to the hard challenges this poses — is the key to making sense of one of the most important trends reshaping the world in the twenty-first century.”
Wherever Naim trains his eye along the global horizon, he observes a discernible erosion of power. In the political arena, he sees power progressively declining in national governments and among political parties around the world, no more so than in Washington, where he is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Voters gave the Republicans control of both Congress and the White House in 2002 and 2004 and then took it away from them in 2006 and 2008 — only to restore control of the House of Representatives to them in 2010,” he reminds us. “Previously, in the five elections from 1996 to 2004, the biggest gain in House seats by any one party was nine; in 2006, the Republicans lost thirty seats and in 2008 the Democrats won twenty-one, and in 2010 the Democrats lost sixty-three.”
This new era of political instability creates seemingly insurmountable obstacles to consensus, as weakened leaders on both sides of the aisle, unable to impose their will, consistently fail to avert a relentless series of fiscal and budgetary showdowns, among other areas of consequential disagreement. Naim sees more ineffectual governance and turbulence in the future. “More frequent elections, more referenda, more scrutiny, and more contenders,” he predicts. “All of these trends point to the same direction: the redistribution and scattering of power from established players to more competitors.”
In the military sphere, Naim regards the leverage of large armies applying overwhelming conventional-force supremacy as an increasingly finite component of strategic power. “In 2008, US defense secretary Robert Gates observed that of all the many deployments of US forces over more than four decades since the peak of the Vietnam era, only one intervention — the Gulf war of 1990-91 — was a ‘traditional conventional conflict.’ ” Naim notes that the other projections of military power during this period, “from Grenada and Lebanon to Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan involved counter-insurgency, anti-terrorism or political or humanitarian intervention rather than a sustained duel of command-and-control armies.”
Nonetheless, in an ironic discontinuity between threats and corresponding resources, he notes that the U.S. defense budget in 2012 was more than $700 billion, accounting for roughly half of the world’s military spending. In contrast, according to Naim’s analysis, “Al Qaeda spent about $500,000 to produce 9/11, whereas the direct losses of that day’s destruction plus the costs of the American response to the attacks were $3.3 trillion.”
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?”
THE END OF POWER
From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be
By Moises Naim
Basic. 306 pp. $27.99