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Power Has Become Easier to Get, Harder to Use and Easier to Lose

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Moises Naim, the former editor of Foreign Policy, is author of "The End of Power."

WASHINGTON -- In 2013, and for the first time in 700 years, the Pope resigned. At the time, Pope Benedict explained that he felt incapable of dealing effectively with all the challenges facing the Church. Also, in the past year The Washington Post was sold to the founder of and Mohamed Morsi was ousted. The US Government was forced to shut down and JP Morgan faced a cascade of enormous fines. The massacres in Syria continued, and no one seemed able to stop them. A lone government contractor, Edward Snowden, spilled some of the most secret information of the superpower. What is the common takeaway from all these recent events?

That power -- as we knew it -- is over.

The once uncontested leaders of every arena -- from religion to government and from military to finance -- are increasingly aware that they face unprecedented constraints in what they can do with the power they have. Power has become easier to get, harder to use and far easier to lose.

Big powers everywhere face a reckoning. As insurgents, fringe political parties, upstart citizen media outlets, leaderless young people in city squares, and charismatic individuals who seem to have "come from nowhere" shake up the old order, they are undermining and thwarting the once unquestioned megaplayers at every turn.

In many ways, this shift in power is good, and there is much to celebrate. Nimble start-ups are sneaking past corporate leviathans, bringing wonderful and new innovation to our world and the way live. Society is freer, and options are greater. Voters have more choice. Masses of individuals have a better chance of ousting a tyrant (as in Egypt) or protesting against a government that does little to improve terrible public services (as in Brazil).

Many of the people taking to the streets in these poor countries are members of a newly empowered middle class that is more prosperous, urban, educated and more capable of organizing outside the traditional political parties. Again: this is good news, even if these changes signal complex challenges for governments where popular demands grow faster than the state's capacity to respond to them.

But it's not all a rosy picture. The crisis of power is troubling, especially when it comes to tackling some of the world's most serious threats. There are a great -- and mounting -- number of issues that require collective international action. That means countries working together and synchronizing their polices at home and internationally -- an endeavor that, unfortunately, is never easy and in recent years has too often become an unattainable goal.

From global warming to the economic crisis and the proliferation of nuclear armed states or failed states, it is becoming clear that some global threats are spinning out of control, and no nation, international institution, group or individual leader seems to have the power to stop them.

While it may be true that heads of state and government ministers still gather for talks at hopeful summits, we also know these talks often end in stalemate. Social, political and academic leaders still come up with grand ideas for the world -- how to reduce poverty, stop organized crime or human trafficking, and how to curb greenhouse gases -- and yet, despite all the talk, substantial progress remains elusive. The difficulty of reaching agreements has a lot to do with the fact that the governments participating in negotiations are very constrained at home by a panoply of players that limit their autonomy. Very few national leaders have sufficient power to impose the fiscal sacrifices and other costs required to reach an agreement with other governments that are also asking their population to make sacrifices for the sake of the larger global good. Gridlock becomes routine. And watered-down decisions that are acceptable by all and reflect the minimum common denominator become the norm. Unfortunately, they are not enough to make a significant dent on the problem or let alone solve it.

The point is that we are living in a world where in the many arenas in which power matters, new actors are proliferating. Frequently each of these new actors has enough power to dilute or delay the decisions of others, or in some cases even stop the decision, but no single actor has enough power to push through an agenda. This is as true at international levels as it is at home. Take the case of Barack Obama, for example.

He threatened Syria not to use chemical weapons on its people, only for Bashar al-Assad to ignore the warning, thus revealing the fact that the U.S. president did not have the power to deliver on his threat. Thanks to a last-minute, face-saving diplomatic gambit engineered by Vladimir Putin, Obama was spared the embarrassment of seeing his threat annulled by a Congress that was likely to deny him the authorization to launch military strikes. He also discovered that he lacked the power to avert the shutdown of his government as a result of the veto power of the Tea Party-- a relatively small group of political insurgents. He was unable to persuade Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff from canceling a state visit to Washington once Edward Snowden's immensely consequential actions last summer revealed that the U.S had been spying on her telephone conversations -- or from joining Germany's Angela Merkel and other U.S. allies in condemning the espionage. The central point: this has less to do with Obama's personality and talents than it has with an institution -- the presidency -- whose power has become more constrained than ever.

Of course powerful people and institutions still abound, but the evidence shows that those in power today are more constrained than their predecessors. President Obama has less power than previous White House occupants. And so do the Pentagon, the World Bank, Goldman Sachs, The New York Times or political parties.

The end of power is a defining trend of our time. This trend has many positive consequences as monopolists and tyrants become easier to challenge. But it also makes our traditional ways of organizing politics and governing ourselves -- and the planet -- very inadequate, even obsolete. We can only hope that in the decades ahead, the wave of innovation that has revolutionized communications, business, social activism, medicine, and physics will also drastically transform the way we govern ourselves.