The End of Power - Moisés Naím

The End of Power - Moisés Naím

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    " March 2014 The End of Power   by Moisés Naím Adam Moscoe, MA Candidate, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa Conversations about the future of global governance typically focus on who or what   holds power at a given moment in time. Discussions surrounding the hypothesized decline of the United States as a hegemon inevitably turn to the question of which actors will inherit the reigns of global order. While the majority of recent literature on global governance devotes attention to shifts in power, Moisés Naím – a former cabinet minister in Venezuela – argues in The End of Power that power is not merely shifting from State actors to non-State actors, but rather that power itself is mutating into a form as diffuse as it is destabilizing. Naím agrees with Zbigniew Brzezinski that we are living in a “post-hegemonic era” where “no nation has the capacity to impose its will on others in a substantial or permanent way” (131). Defining power as the “ability to direct or prevent the current or future actions of other groups and individuals” (16), Naím explores how individuals – healthier and better-educated than ever – are creating and joining niche networks that suit their unique preferences with respect to everything from national  politics to charitable giving. Traditional barriers to power, such as natural monopolies and government restrictions, are weakening in response to three revolutions: the  More revolution, which involves an increase in output and population and overwhelms barriers to power, making control and coordination difficult; the  Mobility  revolution, which is propelling unprecedented movement of people, goods, and ideas, and which circumvents barriers to  power, leaving megapowers without a defined constituency or captive audience; and the    #  Mentality  revolution, characterized by “major changes in mindsets, expectations, and aspirations” (11), including higher quality of life expectations among the middle class, that undermine barriers to power. These three revolutions are – perhaps irreversibly – constraining megapowers from exerting power through four interrelated channels: muscle (coercion), code (norms and moral obligation), pitch (the power of persuasion), and reward (the power of inducement). While muscle and reward can reshape incentives and the structure of a situation, pitch and code alter assessments and perceptions of a situation without changing incentives. Yet all four channels are weakened as barriers to power are lowered. Naím does not see megapowers – from the Republican Party to the Catholic Church – as disappearing, but he observes that decentralized organizations are denying them options for dominating and expressing power. Power decay allows smaller actors to challenge incumbents, yet it also risks bringing about Hobbes’ “war of all against all” (18), a “crippling paralysis” whereby untamed pluralism and unlimited niche organizations (micropowers) impede the formation of consensus on collective action to address the complex issues with which humanity is currently grappling.  Naím draws upon a rich array of empirical evidence to support his concept of  power decay, and his lucid writing illuminates trends in geopolitics, business, and several other fields. However, his case studies would be more useful were they more explicitly connected to the aforementioned three revolutions and four channels, as they are in chapter 5 in the discussion of national politics. One evidential problem is that he over-extends the concepts of market power – the ability of firms to charge higher than the marginal cost – and barriers to entry – such as economies of scale (in which larger firms are more efficient and smaller firms are less able to compete). While these concepts can    $  be easily employed to explain the rise of small businesses that use “disruptive technologies” (182), prioritize speed over scale, and take advantage of lower barriers to entry, he stretches these economic explanations to non-commercial arenas, such as international politics, without accounting for differences in institutional types. Moreover, the evidence Naím provides to explain power decay is often highly specific yet easily misread as foreshadowing the dissolution of megapowers entirely. He notes, for instance, that “the probability that a company will fall from its standing…has increased” (162), that union density has declined, and that security alliances are weakening while informal ‘coalitions of the willing’ (or of the ‘angry’) are becoming more prevalent. He stresses that decentralized groups – from Kickstarter to Pentecostal churches – are not replacing established megapowers but rather are constraining their options for exercising power. Yet considering he analyzes long-term phenomena and the transformation of social life, the evidence upon which he relies – plenty of annual reports and speculative magazine surveys – is often shallow. Where there is no shortage of evidence, however, is in the failure of the increasingly fragmented and paralyzed international community to address contemporary  problems, from curbing climate change to regulating asymmetric warfare. Power decay and the proliferation of niche actors decrease cooperation, exacerbate collective action  problems and weaken incentives to provide global public goods all while causing “disorientation and heightened anxiety” (231). Some of Naím’s judgements are questionable. For example, in contrasting “minilateralism” – where the smallest number of countries needed to make a change assemble to do so without the risk of veto by great  powers – from multilateralism, he romanticizes the extent to which the latter advanced    %  progress since the Second World War, from decolonization to nuclear deterrence, to the Millennium Development Goals. Furthermore, he does not adequately justify his lack of confidence in ‘minilateral’ initiatives – context-sensitive solutions designed by like-minded actors – to bring about tangible improvements in quality of life. Just because an increase in entropy due to decentralization will constrain authority and power projection does not necessary mean it will impede all forms of governance (140) and worsen global outcomes. Furthermore, Naím fails to justify his evident optimism for impending “positive political and institutional innovation” (243), as he offers no evidence to suggest the sordid alternative – growing extremism and polarization in national politics – can be mitigated. In spite of these limitations, Naím skilfully maps how the three revolutions – more, mobility, and mentality – are reshaping capacities and aspirations, sprouting niche organizations, and challenging incumbents and established megapowers. The End of Power raises a number of fascinating questions that Naím does not, and perhaps could not be reasonably expected, to resolve. First, are the three revolutions yielding power decay or rather the restructuring of power into formations that are more convenient for elites, such that everyone can be king of their own isolated castles? Are the power dynamics at play within  micropowers somehow more mild than those within megapowers? Second, at what point might the harm caused by political paralysis due to inaction on vital policy challenges – such as climate change – spur coalition building, compromise and collaboration? Third, what are the long-term implications of polarization and extremist politics, such that small actors can increasingly “take a stand on a  parochial, ideological, or even whimsical issue, often for short-term domestic political reasons rather than because of any defense of principle” (152)”? How will we respond to    & a state of enduring impasse? Fourth, what are the social-psychological implications of a world in which individuals interact almost solely with those who share their specific context and worldview, and in which no real negotiation or consensus is pursued with respect to the allocation of scarce resources? How might collective action problems be exacerbated in a world where everything seems tailor-made for our preferences and understandings? Fifth, assuming Naím is correct that megapowers are not on the verge of disappearing, is there a threshold point at which power decay might pose an existential threat to these megapowers? Sixth, is it possible to test whether the policy outcomes of minilateralism differ in any meaningful way from those derived through multilateralism (i.e. through the United Nations or other institutions)? Seventh, what is the marginal  benefit and marginal cost of pursuing consensus-based, universally-applicable solutions to global problems when such processes increasingly lead to the adoption of watered-down resolutions that meet the lowest common denominator (see the discussion of the Copenhagen climate summit, 152)? Eighth, how might we reconcile what appear to be two contradictory ideas: the need for stability and predictability (228) as well as for “risk-taking activism” (230)? Ninth, how can accountability be ensured in a decentralized distribution of power? To what norms or principles should diverse private actors be held accountable, and how and by whom? For example, Naím is enthusiastic about new and less cumbersome ways of managing foreign aid, from large private foundations to microloans, but he fails to address concerns regarding accountability, as discussed by Mazower in his conclusion to Governing the World.  Tenth, do smaller, decentralized organization have an advantage over megapowers in terms of legitimacy, since they more faithfully represent the views of their (smaller set of) members? For example, a common
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