Friday, May 30, 2008

Global Power Evolving

The meaning and nature of power in global affairs is evolving rapidly, and our understanding of how is slipping dangerously behind the changing reality. The result is a rising tendency to use power in ways that turn out to be counterproductive…generating exactly the type of world we do not want.

Simplistically, the traditional and fairly accurate image of power used to be a hierarchical one: start with diplomacy; should that fail, try economic pressure; should that fail, use the military. By “accurate,” I mean very simply that it worked: if you had more military power and used it, generally, you won. The side with the most military power, no coincidentally, generally also had the most economic and diplomatic power.

Today, a much more sophisticated image of power is required in order to apply power effectively. The types of power are more varied. The relationship among the types of power are less predictable and certainly not necessarily hierarchical. Actors possessing one type of power do not necessarily possess the others. Even though military power is increasingly good at destruction, its ability to accomplish anything useful is declining. The categories of actor possessing significant power are multiplying.

One way to sort through this would be maps illustrating who possesses what amount of key types of power. I suspect the results would surprise most people. Judging from the policies of various countries, the results would apparently come as a shock to most decision makers as well. Of course, one really doesn’t ever know how much power any actor actually has or even in principle how to measure it. But mapping actors and their power, using the kind of maps made available by Worldmapper would nonetheless be an informative exercise.

Just imagine a world map of actors with the now critical power to influence the price of grain! Where would you rank Monsanto Corporation, in comparison, say, to the world’s major military powers?

Imagine a map of world actors in terms of the power of their ideas! How many actors would even make the list? And how many of them would be countries? Think of the changes in only the last 20 years - the power of the communist ideal today seems almost laughable. Now we have the power of jihad. And what has happened since 9/11 to the attractiveness of the idea of democracy?

Although technology makes the application of power more efficient, the rising confusion between application and result make the impact of that power less predictable. The impact on Ahmadinejad's career of the U.S. invasion of Iraq is a case in point. Failure to correct this mismatch is likely to make the world a very unpleasant place.

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