“The End of Power” by Moisés Naím

 

The three revolutionary changes that define our time are as follows: the More revolution, which is characterized by increases in everything from the number of countries to population size, standards of living, literacy rates, and quantity of products on the market; the Mobility revolution, which has set people, goods, money, ideas, and values moving at hitherto unimagined rates toward every corner of the planet (including those that were once remote and inaccessible); and the Mentality revolution, which reflects the major changes in mindsets, expectations, and aspirations that have accompanied these shifts.

 

Moisés Naím is convinced that being in charge is more difficult, less rewarding, and easier to fall out of than ever before in history. While technology is an obvious scapegoat for this, Naím proves that at its core this phenomena is rooted in the fact that “we are far more numerous on the planet; we live longer; we are in better health; we are more literate and educated; an unprecedented number of us are less desperate for food and have more time and money for other pursuits; and when we are not satisfied with our present location, it is now easier and cheaper than ever to move and try somewhere else.”

This book is an exploration of why people in power are having a more difficult time than ever exercising their authority. His anecdotes and quotes are convincing, and he makes his point from an exhaustive number of angles. Just take it from Bill Clinton’s quote on the cover: “The End of Power will change the way you read the news, the way you think about politics, and the way you look at the world.”

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Highlights
Fernando Henrique Cardoso——the respected former president of Brazil and founding father of that country’s success——summed it up for me. “I was always surprised at how powerful people thought I was,” he told me when I interviewed him for this book. “Even well-informed, politically sophisticated individuals would come to my office and ask me to do things that showed they assumed I had far more power than I really did. I always thought to myself, if only they knew how limited the power of any president is nowadays. When I meet with other heads of state, we often share very similar recollections in this respect. The gap between our real power and what people expect from us is the source of the most difficult pressure any head of state has to manage.”

The demolition of the power structure of world chess also stems from changes in the global economy, in politics, and in demographic and migratory patterns. Open borders and cheaper travel have given more players the chance to play tournaments anywhere in the world.Higher education standards and the spread of literacy, numeracy, and child healthcare have created a bigger pool of potential Grandmasters. And today, for the first time in history, more people live in cities than in farms——a development that, along with the prolonged period of economic growth enjoyed by many poor countries since the 1990s, has opened new possibilities for millions of families for whom the fame of chess was an unaffordable or even unknown luxury. But it is not easy to become a world-class chess player if you live on an isolated farm in a poor country with no electricity, or lack a computer, or spend many hours each day procuring food——or carrying water to your home. Before the internet can deliver its empowering magic, many other conditions must be in place.

Indeed, when nation-states go to war theses days, big military power delivers less than it once did. Wars are not only increasingly asymmetric, pitting large military forces against smaller, nontraditional ones such as insurgents, separatist movements, and militias. They are also increasingly being won by the militarily weaker side. According to a remarkable Harvard study, in the asymmetric wars that broke out between 1800 and 1849, the weaker side (in terms of soldiers and weapons) achieved its strategic goals in 12 percent of cases. But in the wars that erupted between 1950 and 1998, the weak side prevailed more often: 55 percent of the time. For a variety of reasons, the outcome of modern asymmetric conflicts is more likely to be determined by the interplay of opposing political and military strategies than by blunt military force.

Dictators and party bosses, too, are finding their power diminished and their numbers depleted. In 1977, a total of eighty-nine countries were ruled by autocrats; by 2011, the number had dwindled to 22.

Power becomes entrenched as a result of barriers that shield incumbents from rivals. Such barriers not only prevent new competitors from growing into significant challengers but also reinforce the dominance of entrenched players. They are inherent in everything from the rules that govern elections to the arsenals of armies and police forces, to capital, exclusive access to resources, advertising budgets, proprietary technology, alluring brands, and even the moral authority of religious leaders or the personal charisma of some politicians.
Over the course of the last three decades, however, barriers to power have weakened at a very fast pace. They are now more easily undermined, overwhelmed, and circumvented. As our discussion of domestic and international politics, business, war, religion, and other areas will show, the causes underlying the phenomenon are related not only to demographic and economic transformations and the spread of information technologies but also to political changes and profound shifts in expectations, values, and social norms. Such information technologies (including but not limited to the Internet) play a meaningful role in shaping access to power and its use. But the more fundamental explanation as to why barriers to power have become more feeble has to do with the transformations in such diverse factors as rapid economic growth in many poor countries, migratory patterns, medicine and healthcare, education, and even attitudes and cultural mores—in short, with changes in the scope, state, and potential in human lives.
After all, what most distinguishes our lives today from those of our ancestors is not the tools we use or the rules that govern our societies. It is that fact that we are far more numerous on the planet; we live longer; we are in better health; we are more literate and educated; an unprecedented number of us are less desperate for food and have more time and money for other pursuits; and when we are not satisfied with our present location, it is now easier and cheaper than ever to move and try somewhere else.

The three revolutionary changes that define our time are as follows: the More revolution, which is characterized by increases in everything from the number of countries to population size, standards of living, literacy rates, and quantity of products on the market; the Mobility revolution, which has set people, goods, money, ideas, and values moving at hitherto unimagined rates toward every corner of the planet (including those that were once remote and inaccessible); and the Mentality revolution, which reflects the major changes in mindsets, expectations, and aspirations that have accompanied these shifts.

The decay of power does not mean the extinction of those megaplayers. Big government, big armies, big business, and big universities will be constrained and confined as never before, but they will certainly stay relevant and their actions and decisions will carry great weight. But not as much as before. Not as much as they would like. And not as much as they expected. And though it may seem to be an unalloyed good that the powerful are less powerful than before (after all, power corrupts, doesn’t it?), their demotion can also generate instability, disorder, and paralysis in the face of complex problems.

Moreover, the cumulative effect of these changes has accelerated the corrosion of moral authority and legitimately writ large. The well-documented decline of trust in the professions and in public institutions is one manifestation of that trend. Not only are society’s leaders seen as more vulnerable, but those over whom they once held uncontested sway are more aware of different possibilities and more attuned to their own personal fulfillment. Today, we ask not what we can do for our country, but what our country, employer, fast-food purveyor, or favorite airline can do for us.

The aim is to understand what it takes to get power, to keep it, and to lose it. This requires a working definition, and here is one: Power is the ability to direct or prevent the current or future actions of other groups and individuals. Or, put differently, power is what we exercise over others that leads them to behave in ways they would not otherwise have behaved.

For power to operate requires an interaction or exchange between two or more parties: master and servant, ruler and citizen, boss and employee, parent and child, teacher and student, or a complex combination of individuals, parties, armies, companies, institutions, even nations. Just as the players move from situation to situation, the ability of one to direct or prevent the actions of the others——in other words, their power——also shifts. The less the players and their attributes change, the more stable the particular distribution of power becomes. But when the number, identity, motivations, abilities, and attributes of the players change, the power distribution will change as well.
This is not just an abstract point. What I mean is that power has a social function. Its role is not just to enforce domination or to create winners and losers: it also organizes communities, societies, marketplaces, and the world. Hobbes explained this well. Because the urge for power is primal, he argued, it follows that humans are inherently conflictual and competitive. Left to express that nature without the presence of power to inhibit and direct them, they would fight until there was nothing left to fight for. But if they obeyed a “common power,” they could put their efforts toward building society, not destroying it. “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war,” Hobbes wrote, “and such a war as is of every man against every man.”

We all know that too much concentration of power results in social harm, not least in those realms that ostensibly focus on doing good——witness the scandals that have afflicted the Catholic Church. And what happens when power is radically scattered, diffuse, and decayed? The philosophers already knew the answer: chaos and anarchy. The war of all against all that Hobbes anticipated is the antithesis of social well-being. And the decay of power risks producing just this scenario. A world where players have enough power to block everyone else’s initiatives but no one has the power to impose its preferred course of action is a world where decisions are not taken, taken too late, or watered down to the point of ineffectiveness. Without the predictability and stability that come with generally accepted rules and authorities, even the most free-spirited creators of art, music, and literature will lack the ability to lead fulfilling lives, beginning with the ability to subsist on some consistent, systematic way of the fruits of their own labor (i.e, with some form of intellectual property protection). Decades of knowledge and experience accumulated by political parties, corporations, churches, militaries, and cultural institutions face the threat of dissipation. And the more slippery power becomes, the more our lives become governed by short-term incentives and fears, and the less we can chart our actions and plan for the future.

Whether the challenge is getting a raise or a promotion, doing our job a certain way, pushing an elected official to vote for a bill we favor, planning a vacation with a spouse, or getting a child to eat right, we are always, consciously or not, gauging our power: assessing our capacity to get others to behave as we want. We bridle at the power of others and its irritating and inconveniencing effects: how our boss, the government, the police, the bank, or our telephone or cable provider induces us to behave in a certain way, to do certain things, or to quit doing others. And yet we often seek power, sometimes in very self-conscious ways.

Although predicting specific power shifts is a fool’s errand, understanding the trends that alter either the distribution of power or its very nature is not. The key is to understand the barriers to power in a specific arena. What technology, law, weapon, fortune, or unique asset makes it hard for others to gain the power enjoyed by incumbents? When such barriers go up and stay up, incumbents become entrenched and consolidate their control. When they go down or stay down, new players gain an edge and can challenge the existing power structure. The more drastic the erosion of any given barrier to power, the more unusual or unexpected the new players, and the faster they may attain prominence. Identify the barriers to power and whether they are coming up or going down, and you an solve a large part of the puzzle of power.

Ultimately, barriers to power are the obstacles that stop new players from deploying enough of the muscle, the code, the pitch, and the reward, or some combination thereof, to gain a competitive hold; and, conversely, that allow incumbent companies, parties, armies, churches, foundations, universities, newspapers, and unions (or whatever other type of organization is involved) to maintain their dominance.

What Weber saw in America confirmed and strengthened his ideas about organization, power, and authority——and he would go on to produce a massive body of work that would earn him the reputation of “father of modern social science.” Weber’s theory of power, laid out in Economy and Society, began with authority——the basis on which “domination” was justified and exercised. Drawing on his encyclopedic command of global history, Weber argued that, in the past, much authority had been “traditional”——that is, inherited by its holders and accepted by the holders’ subjects. A second source for authority had been “charismatic,” in which an individual leader was seen by followers to possess a special gift. But the third form of authority——and the one suited to modern times——is “bureaucratic” and “rational” authority, grounded in laws and wielded by an administrative structure capable of enforcing clear and consistent rules. It rests, Weber wrote, on the “belief in the validity of legal statute and functional competence based on rationally created rules.”

In short, transaction costs determine the contours, growth patterns, and, ultimately, the very nature of firms.

The idea that transaction costs determine the size and even the nature of an organization can be applied to many other fields beyond industry to explain why not just modern corporations but also government agencies, armies, and churches became large and centralized. In all such cases, it has been rational and efficient to do so. High transaction costs create strong incentives to bring critical activities controlled by others inside the organization, thereby growing it.

Though not commonly thought of as such, transaction costs are indeed determinants of an organizations size, and, often, of its power. And as discussed below, since the nature of transaction costs is changing and their impact is dwindling, the barriers that used to shield the powerful from their challengers are falling.

The decoupling of power from size, and thus the decoupling of the capacity to use power effectively from the control of a Weberian bureaucracy, is changing the world. And this decoupling invites a disquieting thought: if the future of power lies in disruption and interference, not management and consolidation, can we expect ever to know stability again?

We often find it hard to resist the urge to attribute a period of great flux to a single cause.

The progress of the poor countries stands in clear contrast to the recent situation in Europe and the United States, where a middle class that enjoyed decades of growth and prosperity has been losing economic ground and shrinking as a result of the financial crash. Nevertheless, the overall picture of humanity living longer and healthier lives, with basic needs far better addressed than ever, is crucial to understanding today’s shifts and redistributions of power——and to putting into perspective more fashionable explanations of current events. Yes, the Arab Spring and other recent social movements have made often spectacular use of modern technologies. But they owe even more to the rapid rise in life expectancy in th Middle East and North Africa since 1980; to the “youth bulge” made up of millions of people under thirty who are educated and healthy, with a long life span ahead of them, yet have no jobs or good prospects; and, of course, to the rise of a politically active middle class.

When people are more numerous and living fuller lives, they become more difficult to regiment and control.

Immigrants also send billions of dollars in remittances to their home countries, promoting economic growth and development. Worldwide, they wired, mailed, or carried home $449 billion in 2010. (In 1980 remittances totaled just 37 billion.) Nowadays, remittances are more than five times larger than the world’s total foreign aid and larger than the annual total flow of foreign investment to poor countries. In short, workers who live outside their home country——and who are often very poor themselves——send more money to their country than foreign investors, and more than rich countries send as financial aid. Indeed, for many countries, remittances have become the biggest source of hard currency and, in effect, the largest sector of the economy, thereby transforming traditional economic and social structures as well as the business landscape.

“The American National Elections Studies group has been asking Americans the same question roughly every two years since 1958: “Do you trust the government in Washington to do what is right, all or most of the time?” Until the mid-sixties, 75 percent of Americans answered yes. A slide then began and continued steeply downward for fifteen years, so that by 1980, only 25 percent said yes. In the interim, of course, were the Vietnam War, two assassinations, Watergate and the near-impeachment of the president and the Arab oil embargo. So there were plenty of reasons for people to feel estranged, even antagonistic. But what matters most is that the trust did not recover. For the last three decades, the approval level has bumped around in the region from 20 to 35 percent. The trust percentage fell below half in about 1972. This means that anyone under the age of forty has lived their entire life in a country the majority of whose citizens do not trust their own national government to do what they think is right. Through four long decades, none of the massive changed Americans have voted for in leadership and in ideology have changed that. Think what it means for the healthy functioning of a democracy that two-thirds to three-quarters of its people do not believe that their government does the right thing most of the time.” ——Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Coercion, of course, is the bluntest exercise of power——whether exercised through laws, armies, governments, or monopolies. But as the three revolutions progress, organizations that rely on coercion face ever-increasing costs simply to maintain control over their domains and patrol their boundaries.
The inability of the United States or the European Union to curb illegal immigration or illicit trade is a good example. Walls, fences, border controls, biometric identification documents, detention centers, police raids, asylum hearing, deportations——these are just part of an apparatus of prevention and repression that has thus far proven to be extremely expensive, if not futile. Witness the failure of the United States to curb the inflow of drugs from Latin America despite its long-standing and enormously expensive “War on Drugs.”

The More revolution is creating better-educated and better-informed pools of constituents who are less likely to passively accept government decisions, more prone to scrutinize authorities’ behavior, and more active in seeking change and asserting their rights. The Mobility revolution is making the demographics of the constituency more diverse, fragmented, and volatile. In some cases it may even be creating interested players who are able to affect the debate and influence voters from faraway locations——indeed, from a different country. The Mentality revolution breeds increasing skepticism of the political system in general.

It may be easier to invent a package of benefits that does a good job of achieving the enthusiastic consent of a smaller group than one that does a mediocre job of attracting a larger population. The more advantage of size and scale diminishes, the more niche marketing and single-issue politics, for example, stand to benefit.

By no means is big power dead: the big, established players are fighting back, and in many cases they are still prevailing. Dictators, plutocrats, corporate behemoths, and the leaders of the great religions will continue to be an important feature of the global landscape and the defining factor in the lives of billions of people. But these megaplayers are more constrained in what they can do than they used to be in the past, and their hold on power is increasingly less secure.

The essence of politics is power; the essence of power is politics. And since the Ancients, the classic path to power has been the pursuit of politics. Indeed, power is to politicians what sunlight is to plants. What politicians do with their power varies; but the aspiration to power is their essential common trait. As Max Weber put it almost a century ago: “He who is active in politics strives for power, either as a means in serving other ends, ideal or egoistic, or as ‘power for power’s sake,’ that is, in order to enjoy the  prestige-feeling that powers gives.”

The number of American voters registered as independents now regularly exceeds the number who align with Republicans and Democrats.

As Lena Hjelm-Wallen, Sweden’s former deputy prime minister, minister for foreign affairs, minister of education, and, for many years, one of her country’s leading politicians, told me: “I never cease to be amazed at how much and how fast political power has changed. I now look back and marvel at the many things we could do in the 1970s and 1980s that are now almost unimaginable given the many new factors that reduce and slow down the ability of government and politicians to act.

This chapter aims to provide proof that in many (and increasingly more) countries, the clearly defined power centers of the past no longer exist. A “cloud” of players has replaced the center, each with some power to shape political or governmental outcomes, but none with enough power to unilaterally determine them. That might sounds like healthy democracy and desirable checks and balances, and in some measure this is the case. But in many countries, the fragmentation of the political system is creating a situation where gridlock and the propensity to adopt minimalist decisions at the last minute are severely eroding the quality of public policy and the ability of governments to meet voters’ expectations or solve urgent problems.

Even autocracies are less autocratic today. According to one study of the world’s democratic electoral systems, Brunei may be the only country where “electoral politics has failed to put down any meaningful roots at all.” With far fewer repressive regimes in the world, one might have expected the holdouts to be places where freedom and political competition are increasingly suppressed. But in fact the opposite is true. How? Elections are central to democracy but they are not the only indicator of political openness. Freedom of the press, civil liberties, checks and balances that limit the power of any single institution (including that of the head of state), and other measures convey a sense of a government’s grip on society. And the data show that on average, even as the number of authoritarian regimes has gone down, the democracy scores of countries that remain politically closed have gone up. The sharpest improvement occurred in the early 1990s, suggesting that the same forces that pushed so many countries into the democratic column at the time had profound liberalizing effects in the remaining nondemocratic countries as well.

Across Europe, an array of left-wing, right-wing, ecologist, regionalist, single-issue, and, in some cases, downright eccentric parties like the Pirate Party International have taken advantage of new arenas to gain respectability and take votes away from the traditional players. A vote for them is no longer wasted; their small sizes or outlier stances are no longer an obstacle to relevance. These “fringe” parties can spoil, distract, retard, and even veto the decisions of the larger parties and their coalitions. The small “pirate” parties have always existed, but nowadays there are more of them and their ability to limit the choices of the megaplayers is felt in most of the world’s democracies.

More nations, more governments, more political institutions and organizations reflect and shape our opinions, choices, and actions than ever before. Migration and urbanization have created new political, social, cultural, and professional networks, concentrating them in urban nodes invested with new and growing power. Global norms have achieved a new reach, and individual aspirations and expectations have been turbocharged by social media, fiber optics, satellite dishes, and smartphones.

As Lena Hjelm-Wallen, Sweden’s former deputy prime minister and foreign minister, told me, with a combination of exasperation and resignation in her voice: “People are mobilized more by single issues that affect them, rather than by the abstract, overarching ideologies espoused by parties.” New forums and platforms direct public support to political leaders or deliver back benefits and accountability without the need for a political party to serve as go-between. In a landscape of fragmented votes and parliaments, dominant political parties have lost much of their appeal. Joining, voting for, or even forming a new small party carries much less cost than before. Crucially, supporting one of theses new parties carries less of an opportunity cost as well; in other words, we now forsake less by voting or supporting a small party instead of a big one, or by participating in the political process through other methods altogether. Large, well-established political parties continue to be the main vehicle for gaining the control of government in a democracy. But they are increasingly being undermined and bypassed by new forms of political organization and participation.

The challenge for traditional military powers such as the United States is not just a new set of enemies but the transformation of warfare itself, driven in no small part by the darker side of the More, Mobility, and Mentality revolutions. The IEDs that have become the weapon of choice in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and myriad other sites of conflict rely not on plutonium or complex alloys but, rather, on household or agricultural ingredients and consumer goods manipulated and assembled into bombs designed by those who have benefited from the spread of education——both fruits of the More revolution. Like the pirates who use fiberglass skiffs, cheap AK-47s, and rocket-propelled grenades to hijack huge multimillion-dollar ships, the terrorists who attacked Mumbai drew on the ready availability of weapons and communication technologies——byproducts of the More and Mobility revolutions that include the GPS that helped them navigate through Indian waters as well as the satellite phones, cellphones, and BlackBerries they relied on throughout the attacks to coordinate with one another, monitor the police, and transmit messages of their heinous deeds to the outside world. Thanks to the ease of travel and communication, even a lone terrorist can mount the kind of high-impact strike on a faraway target that once required bomber jets or missiles——think of “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and “underwear bomber” Umar Abdulmutallab, both of whom almost succeeded in bringing down aircraft. By raising aspirations and expectations that are often cruelly unmet or easily distorted, the Mentality revolution has helped to recruit a pool of dissatisfied zealots, criminals, and would-be revolutionaries. And perhaps just as importantly, the lesson that a lone attacker or a small band of committed fighters can inflict severe damage on a major power has entered into the minds of millions of people and won’t be unlearned.

Smaller forces are proving successful with increasing regularity, at least in terms of advancing their political goals while surviving militarily. The Harvard scholar Ivan Arreguin-Toft analyzed 197 asymmetric wars that took place around the world in the period 1800-1998. They were asymmetric in the sense that a wide gap existed at the outset between the antagonists as measured in traditional terms——that is, by the size of their military and the size of their population. Arreguin-Toft found that the supposedly “weak” actor actually won the conflict in almost 30 percent of these cases. That fact was remarkable in itself, but even more striking was the trend over time. In the course of the last two centuries, there has been a steady increase in victories by the supposedly “weak” antagonist. The weak actor won only 11.8 percent of its conflicts between 1800 and 1849, as compared to 55 percent of its conflicts between 1950 and 1998. What this means is that a core axiom of war has been stood on its head. Once upon a time, superior firepower ultimately prevailed. Now that is no longer true.

Later in the twentieth century, new conflicts brought forth the third generation of warfare in earnest. Nimbleness and flexibility became increasingly valuable. Sophisticated equipment like surface-to-air missiles grew more portable, allowing local commanders to make more consequential decisions. Still, the polarization of the Cold War, the arms race it prompted, and the hovering threat of classic interstate conflict meant that the world’s main armies continued to emphasize scale over other priorities——as military theorist John Arquilla put it, “a reliance on a few big units rather than a lot of little ones.” In the case of the US military, Arquilla noted, “its structure changed little from the Vietnam ear to this day. The US military, he added, “has a chronic ‘scaling problem,’ I.e. the inability to pursue smaller tasks with smaller numbers. Added to this is the traditional, hierarchical military mindset, which holds that more is always better——the corollary belief being that one can only do worse with less.”

Moreover, it is not as if the arguments for traditional military buildup with advanced technology and superior firepower have vanished. The scholar Joe Nye, who coined the concept of “soft power,” argued that military power “still structures expectations and shapes political calculations.” Even when a controversial military is not deployed in active conflict, its deterrence role remains important. “Military force, along with norms and institutions, helps to provide a minimal degree of order,” Nye wrote. But if brute military force is no longer enough to ensure dominance, the question then becomes one of how resources are allocated among traditional vectors of power and their new, relatively untried alternatives. No one thinks terrorists can stop great powers from existing, but surely they can affect their behavior and deny them options that they used to take for granted.

The dispersion of economic power is even more pronounced when it comes to foreign investment. The days when the United Fruit Company acted as a transmission belt for US interests in the “banana republics” are well over. Multinational companies are no longer national champions for their home country, extending its interests and sometimes serving as more or less complicit agents in its foreign policy. Between the expansion of global markets, outsourcing and manufacturing facilities, the wave of mergers and acquisitions, and investment by individual tycoons, multinationals are as unmoored from the foreign policy of “home” countries as they have ever been. What specific national interest, for instance, would you attribute to the world’s largest steel company, Arcelor Mittal, given that it is based in Europe, its shares are listen in the stock exchanges in six countries, and yet it is owned primarily by an Indian billionaire?

Many long-cherished corporate names have performed sudden vanishing acts. Once-prestigious names in retail, banks, airlines, even technology——remember Compaq?——are receding into faint memories. On the other hand, some of the world’s most ubiquitous brands barely existed a few years ago, such as Twitter, founded in 2006.

In most countries, access to capital is no longer the insurmountable barrier to the creation or expansion of a new company as it once was.

Containerization has streamlined shipping and allowed efficient, reliable intermodal transportation of goods of all kinds. In 2010, the volume of container traffic was more than ten times that in 1980.
Almost all of the technologies that we either see in museums (the steam engine) or take for granted (the radio) represented a disruption in their time. But today’s technological revolution is unequaled in scope, touching almost every human activity in the world at dizzying speed.

The share of physical assets in the value of firms has plummeted across all industries. The material resources they control——factories and offices and all those other physical assets——bear a decreasing relationship to the price that these companies fetch when they offer shares on the market or get acquired. Today, scholars estimate, anywhere from 40 to 90 percent of a company’s market value comes from its “intangibles,” a category that includes everything from patents and copyrights to the way the company is run and the brand premium and “goodwill” it commands among its customers. Not all of these intangibles can be easily measured——which has not stopped economists from trying.

As I have argued when discussing the ascent of the micropowers in previous chapters, the point is not that these new challengers will dislodge the megaplayers. The point is that they will deny them options that in the past the big players could take for granted.

What are the social, political, and economic consequences of the fact that, in 1950, fewer than 10 percent of American households consisted of only one person whereas by 2010 that number had climbed to nearly 27 percent? Families are also power structures and there, too, power is decaying: those who have it (usually the parents, men, and older members) nowadays face more constraints. What does it tell us about trust in society that numerous social science studies have documented a decreased number of confidants among citizens in developed countries, as well as a corresponding rise in feelings of loneliness?

Charles Kupchan, a respected international relations theorist, argues that “the western order will not be displaced by a new great power or dominant political model. The twenty-first century will not belong to America, China, Asia, or anyone else. It will be no one’s world. For the first time in history, the world will be interdependent——but without a center of gravity or global guardian.” This is also the view of the author and business consultant Ian Bremmer, who called it”G-Zero: a world order in which no country or durable alliance of countries can meet the challenges of global leadership.” And both of these authors echo Zbigniew Brzezinski’s assertion that “we have entered a post-hegemonic era,” meaning that in the years ahead no country will be able to call the shots in global politics as much as some of the great powers did in the past.

Whether the United States is a hegemon, an indispensable power, or an empire at sunset, and whether China or some other rival stands to take its place, may be a debate that consumes international relations. But its terms are not adapted to a world where power is decaying——where unprecedented forms of fracturing are under way within each of these countries and across systems of trade, investment, migration, and culture. Identifying who is up and who us down is less important than understanding what is going on inside those nations, political movements, corporations, and religions that are on the elevator. Who is up and who is down will matter ever less in a world in which those who get to the top don’t stay there for long and are able to do less and less with the power they have while there.

The failure of political leaders to effectively collaborate with other nations is related to their weakness at home. Governments with weak or nonexistent mandates are unable to strike international deals as these often require commitments, compromises, concessions, and even sacrifices that their publics won’t allow them to make.

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