Power and Information in Egypt -- and Beyond

02/09/2011 03:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Joseph Nye Distinguished Service Professor, Harvard University; Author, 'Is the American Century Over?'

Egypt is fascinating. The old view that we had to support the authoritarians or wind up with radical Islamists has been overtaken by the spread of information that has helped create and empower a new middle. There are more options now, but it is clear that smart policy in an information age will need a more sophisticated understanding of power. We have to deal both with governments and civil societies of other countries, thinking simultaneously in terms of hard power as well as the soft power of narrative and values.

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. Power transition from one dominant state to another is a familiar historical event, but power diffusion is a more novel process. The problem for all states in today's global information age is that more things are happening outside the control of even the most powerful governments. In an information-based world, power diffusion is a more difficult problem to manage than power transition.

At an even more basic level, what will it mean to wield power in the global information age of the 21st century? Conventional wisdom has always held that the state with the largest military prevails, but in an information age it may be the state (or non-states) with the best story that wins. Soft power becomes a more important part of the mix.

States remain the dominant actors on the world stage, but they are finding the stage far more crowded and difficult to control. A much larger part of the population both within and among countries 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. Revolutions are not new, nor is transnational contagion, nor non-state actors.

What is new -- and what we see manifested in Egypt today -- is the speed of communication and the technological empowerment of a wider range of actors. An information world will require new policies that combine hard and soft power resources into smart power strategies. This is proving a difficult task as the administration tries to walk a tightrope in the Middle East today.