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MALEEHA LODHI
PERSPECTIVE

Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani envoy to the US and UK.

Diffused power makes collective action difficult

“Humanity must therefore find new ways of governing itself.”

Moises Naim

ant to understand why governance is much tougher than it has ever been in the past? Why governments and companies find it harder to take timely and effective decisions? Why national and global problems have become more complex but the means to address them are significantly diminished?

A new book by Moises Naim, the former editor of Foreign Policy magazine, provides a compelling answer. The author challenges readers to review the way they think about power in the light of profound and rapid changes underway in every area of human life. His central thesis is that power is not merely shifting and dispersing, but also becoming ephemeral, feeble and harder to exercise. "Those in power are more constrained in what they can do with it", he writes.

His book is an important contribution to the debate on power that has long preoccupied thinkers and philosophers and accounts for a vast body of scholarship. Among the most influential figures in the contemporary debate is Joseph Nye, whose seminal book in 1990 introduced the notion of "'soft' power" — the idea that attraction of a country's ideas and culture is as important as the "hard power" of military or economic assets. This not only entered the lexicon of international politics but also the practice of statecraft and diplomacy.

Naim doesn't just join the conversation about the changing nature of power. He seeks to reframe it by arguing that perspectives about whether "soft" power is displacing "hard" power are incomplete. They obscure understanding of how power itself is diluting or "slipping way" — easy to obtain but harder to keep and exercise. He challenges another perspective. "We know that power is shifting from brawn to brain, from north to south, west to east, from old corporate behemoths to agile start-ups, from entrenched dictatorships to people in town squares and cyberspace". But he posits that this is inadequate to describe present reality. Power is going through a more fundamental mutation — "it has more competitors and challengers and greater constraints." The book's pivotal point is that once powerful big players are under challenge from newer, more numerous and smaller players, in politics, business, the international arena and areas of war and peace. The anti-establishment thrust of these "micropowers" is responsible for ousting authoritarian rulers, dismantling monopolies, denying victory to large militaries and opening unprecedented opportunities. But this is also producing chaos and paralysis.

The End of Power

Why has power eroded? What is behind what the author provocatively dubs the "decay of power"? The barriers to power have crumbled at a very fast pace in the last three decades. The biggest challenge to power in our time, he writes, comes from myriad changes in the landscape: demographics, improved levels of education, health and living standards, patterns of migration, families, and attitudes, which are the "reference point for our aspirations." All this means that "the clearly defined centres" of past power no longer exist. Instead a "cloud of players" has replaced the centre, each with some power to shape outcomes but none with enough to unilaterally determine them. He applies this hypothesis to national politics, global geopolitics, business and other fields of life.

At the global level, the acquisition and use of power has also undergone sweeping transformation. In an echo of Ian Bremmer's depiction of a "G-Zero World", Naim asks if anyone is in charge. He answers that no nation, regardless of its military and economic assets, is immune to the "loss of power". And he writes with great insight that "the growing capacity of small states to ward off the designs of large ones is part of an overall shift that has empowered a much broader range of actors in international affairs". That is also why aid doesn't translate into influence over a recipient nation any more.

From a rich cross-sector analysis, Naim determines that "the powerful are more constrained today than in the past, their hold on power less secure and their tenures shorter". This he says is welcome news, but there is a disturbing downside. Political paralysis and "overdose" of checks and balances that is producing national gridlock. Arguably, the greatest challenge of power diffusion is that it is making collective action harder at both national and international levels. "Humanity must therefore find new ways of governing itself", he concludes.

Moises Naim, The End of Power, From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why being in charge isn't what it used to be (New York: Basic Books, 2013)

 
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