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Opinion: Traditional Power in Decline

  • Pamela Dockins

What do Syria's crisis, Europe's economic woes and global warming have in common?

Moises Naim, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the answer is simple.

"All three are events that we need to stop," said Naim. But, "no one has the power to stop them."

On VOA's Press Conference USA, Naim said globalization and a deeper interdependence have caused the number of problems and challenges that cannot be solved by any one country to soar.

And, he said, the f," resulting in a decay of power.

Naim describes this phenomenon in his new book, "The End of Power." A former trade and industry minister for Venezuela, Naim said from battlefields to boardrooms, "being in charge isn't what it used to be" when it comes to making things happen.

Across the globe, he said, well-established governments and corporations are being upended by "micropowers," such as fringe political groups, insurgents or innovative start-up companies.

Naim said historically, powerful individuals or institutions had been able to protect or shield themselves from these rivals or challengers.

"Those barriers are now easier to overwhelm, easier to circumvent or undermine," he said.

As an example, he cited Eastman Kodak, a once-dominate U.S. photographic products company that filed for bankruptcy last year. He said Kodak had lost ground to online start-ups like Instagram, a photo-sharing and social networking service.

Researchers Diego Comin and Thomas Philippon reached the same, broad, conclusion in their New York University study, The Rise in Firm-Level Volatility: Causes and Consequences.

"The expected length of leadership of any particular firm has declined dramatically," they said, primarily because of increased competition in product markets.

Naim said increased competition has benefited consumers by giving them more choices and options.

However, he said it also had a downside - a dilution of power, especially in terms of governments.

A lot of groups, or in some cases individuals, now had enough power to block the initiatives of others, but no one had enough power to push through an agenda, Naim said. He cited "Washington gridlock" as an example of what he said had become a global trend.

Naim said the power shift is playing out differently in some parts of the world.

In China, he said, a profusion of products and wealth has resulted in a more informed and better connected population. Naim said the government, which in his view has been "stagnant," will have to adjust to address the needs of China’s dramatically transformed population.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Naim said, "life for autocrats has become deeply uncomfortable" as populations become better connected through social media.

Author Joseph Nye offers a similar world view on government authority in his book, The Future of Power.

"The problem for all states in the 21st century is that there are more and more things outside the control of even the most powerful states, because of the diffusion of power from states to non-state actors," said Nye.

Naim said that while it may not be possible to stop the erosion of traditional power, there are things that can be done to lessen the negative effects.

In his book, Naim suggests working to restore trust in institutions, which, he said, will result in more effective collaboration.

He also said traditional political parties should work to broaden their appeal and platforms - especially to young voters - so that potential supporters are not swayed by fringe groups.