The Reality of Virtual Power:Freedom of Information

Kota Kinabalu, SABAH

February 3, 2011

The Reality of Virtual Power: Freedom of Information

by Joseph S. Nye*

As Arab regimes struggle with demonstrations fueled by Twitter and Al Jazeera, and American diplomats try to understand the impact of WikiLeaks, it is clear that this global information age will require a more sophisticated understanding of how power works in world politics.

That is the argument of my new book, The Future of Power. Two types of power shifts are occurring in this century – power transition and power diffusion. The transition of power from one dominant state to another is a familiar historical pattern, but power diffusion is a more novel process. The problem for all states today is that more is happening outside the control of even the most powerful of them.

As for power transition, much attention nowadays is lavished on a supposed American decline, often with facile historical analogies to Britain and Rome. But Rome remained dominant for more than three centuries after the apogee of its power, and, even then, it did not succumb to the rise of another state, but suffered a death by a thousand cuts inflicted by various barbarian tribes.

Indeed, for all the fashionable predictions that China, India, or Brazil will surpass the United States in the coming decades, the greatest threats may come from modern barbarians and non-state actors. In an information-based world of cyber-insecurity, power diffusion may be a greater threat than power transition.

What will it mean to wield power in the global information age of the twenty-first century? Which resources will produce power?

Every age produces its own answers. In the sixteenth century, control of colonies and gold bullion gave Spain the edge; seventeenth-century Holland profited from trade and finance; eighteenth-century France gained from its larger population and armies; and nineteenth-century British power rested on industrial and naval primacy.

Conventional wisdom has always held that the state with the largest military prevails. In an information age, however, it may be the state (or non-state) with the best story that wins. Today, it is far from clear how to measure a balance of power, much less how to develop successful survival strategies for this new world.

Most current projections of a shift in the global balance of power are based primarily on one factor: projections of countries’ GDP growth. They thus ignore the other dimensions of power, including both hard military power and the soft power of narrative, not to mention the policy difficulties of combining them into successful strategies.

States will remain the dominant actor on the world stage, but they will find the stage far more crowded and difficult to control. A much larger part of their populations than ever before has access to the power that comes from information.

Governments have always worried about the flow and control of information, and the current period is not the first to be strongly affected by dramatic changes in information technology. What is new – and what we see manifested in the Middle East today – is the speed of communication and the technological empowerment of a wider range of actors.

The current information age, sometimes called the “Third Industrial Revolution,” is based on rapid technological advances in computers, communications, and software, which in turn have led to a dramatic fall in the cost of creating, processing, transmitting, and searching for information of all kinds. And this means that world politics can no longer be the sole province of governments.

As the cost of computing and communication comes down, the barriers to entry decline. Individuals and private organizations, ranging from corporations to NGOs to terrorists, have thus been empowered to play a direct role in world politics.

The spread of information means that power will be more widely distributed, and informal networks will undercut the monopoly of traditional bureaucracy. The speed of Internet time means that all governments will have less control over their agendas. Political leaders will enjoy fewer degrees of freedom before they must respond to events, and then will have to compete with an increasing number and variety of actors in order to be heard.

We see this as American policymakers struggle to cope with today’s Middle East disturbances. The fall of the Tunisian regime had deep domestic roots, but the timing caught outsiders, including the US government, by surprise. Some observers attribute the acceleration of the revolution to Twitter and WikiLeaks.

As the Obama administration formulates policy towards Egypt and Yemen, it faces a dilemma. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime has provided important assistance in dealing with the threat from Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorism. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s rule helped to moderate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and balanced Iranian power in the region. Simplistic endorsement of democracy by George W. Bush’s administration was costly both in Iraq and in Gaza, where elections gave rise to a hostile Hamas-led government.

In an information age, smart policy combines hard and soft power. Given what the US is, the Obama administration cannot afford to neglect the soft-power narrative of democracy, liberty, and openness.

Thus, Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have issued public as well as private appeals for reform and change in Egypt and the wider Arab world, while also urging limits to violence by all parties. Moreover, they have aligned themselves with freedom of information in the face of efforts by the Egyptian regime to block Internet access.

How events in the Middle East will play out is anyone’s guess, but in today’s information age, upholding the freedom to access it will be an important component of smart power.

Joseph S. Nye, a former US Assistant Secretary of Defense, is a professor at Harvard and the author of The Future of Power.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

11 thoughts on “The Reality of Virtual Power:Freedom of Information

  1. Tunisia, followed by Egypt.
    And now … Yemen, Jordan, even the Sudan!

    Even the Syrians are stirring in that nasty police state.

  2. “..the Obama administration cannot afford to neglect the soft-power narrative of democracy, liberty, and openness.”

    Could I replace “Obama” with “Najib”?

    Unless Najib’s loosens up, this regime will fall. It has to fall. It’s only a matter of time. He cannot prop up the government on raw police might, intimidation, racism, judicial abuse , civil service and media and monarchy support.

    The regime will crumble like a house of cards.

    The entire nation is fully aware of the lives of our corrupt leaders and how they flaunt their ill- gotten gains. (Sarawak CM, hear, hear).

    It is said the pen is mightier than the sword.
    Shall I say the internet is even mightier than the gun!!

    The internet will bring down corrupt regimes and determine a new World Order. Let’s wait for that day. Amen.

  3. When ther eis no evolution there will be revolution. Now who was the wise person who said that? It is time for moslem people to live properly and show gratitude for this life gifted to them by demanding respect and basic human dignity for the most vulnerable.After all wasnt that the message given to them some 1,500 years ago which has been unheeded?

  4. what happened last night in Egypt foretells the scenario that would play in Malaysia in case of a mass protest. the smuggling and buying of handweapons by the Government(!) is probably for the purpose of maintaining the umno/bn’s stranglehold on Malaysia. the bloated number of rela and other subpolice forces would wreak havoc just like what the pro-Mubarak forces are doing now.
    Malaysia is not far from Egypt now. it is only a matter of time.

  5. Phua

    Yep. It’s a Jewish surname. I had some Jewish classmates who told me it’s considered high-class Jew.
    Cohen means priest and it means they are of priestly class.

  6. ” …. when there is no evolution there will be revolution…” : when there is an expansion at an alarming rate, but the masses are not sufficiently prepared or equipped, it will slowly but surely lead to a crunch : the unavoidable eruption !

    That’s what is happening in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt…and very soon may be Algeria, on to Pakistan…Afghanistan…?

    The trouble is, so-called ” powerfull ” people in their regimes are one-celled amoebas, they have not evolved ! Constantly looking which way to go, not knowing what principles to follow and which not to follow…

  7. Now Grand Ayattollah Khomenei says to the effect : The uprising in the Arab World is a sign of Islamic awakening !

    I sometime wonder whether they fully realise what they are talking about ?

    True they rose up against the Shah of Iran in the fifties….but in the spate of these 4 to 5 decades, their Islamic Republic itself has shown to so brutal in their power game, that they persist in ” stonning people to death ” for offences concerning MORALITY !

    I wonder then, how ” moral ” are these self-styled moral people, to the extend they can MEASURE how less moral are immoral people ? Or, themselves how much more ? ?

    They must be Angels on earth ! !

  8. “Liberty, democracy and openness”? Think again… With a population close to seven billion and our current rates of consumption, all existing theories or models of government/control will be obsolete.. GROWTH is the enemy of humankind and if we do not tackle this we are doomed. With the number of hungry rising alarmingly, who will care about the information age, soft or hard power…?

    And when discussing “control” why doesn’t anybody talk about biological weapons?

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