Information Revolutions: Joseph Nye of Trilateral Commission on 'The Future of Power'

London, UK - 2nd February 2011, 00:01 GMT

Dear ATCA Open & Philanthropia Friends

[Please note that the views presented by individual contributors are not necessarily representative of the views of ATCA, which is neutral. ATCA conducts collective Socratic dialogue on global opportunities and threats.]

Do the accelerating information revolutions signal the beginning of a new age? Some key questions which have emerged out of the recent Socratic dialogue:

1. Jordan's King Abdullah dismisses government, names new prime minister amid protests. What next?

2. Balance of power shifts. Game changer is that Egypt's army decided not to stand in the way of a million-strong protesters. Will other Arab armies follow that example?

3. Oil drops from two year high: Are markets expecting a reasonably smooth transition to more democratic and therefore more stable governments?

4. UN human rights chief is deeply alarmed by sharp rise in casualties recently, which may be as high as 300 in Egypt. Will bloodshed increase?

5. Egypt is significant: a real trend-setter in the Arab world. Should other Arab regimes watch out, is there a revolutionary wind headed their way?

6. Speak-to-tweet system is live. Google and Twitter have launched a new service via phone which circumvents the ban on net services in Egypt. Switch off voice too?

7. How plausible is it that the Arab revolutions in North Africa will spread to petro-regimes like Saudi Arabia and its GCC neighbours?

8. How do you feel about the revolution-in-air events in Egypt, Tunisia and now Jordan? Where is this headed not just in the Arab world but worldwide?

We look forward to your views in regard to these questions.

Information Revolutions: The Future of Power

We are grateful to Dr Joseph Nye, chairman, Trilateral Commission, North America for his submission to ATCA in response to Lord Howell, Hervé de Carmoy and our original briefings on digitally driven leaderless revolutions and self-assembling dynamic networks. He writes:

Information Revolutions and The Future of Power

As authoritarian Arab regimes struggle with Twitter, Facebook and Al-Jazeera inflamed demonstrations; Iran tries to cope with the cyber sabotage of its nuclear enrichment program; and American diplomats try to understand the impact of Wikileaks, it is clear that smart policy in an information age will need a more sophisticated understanding of power in world politics.

Power Transition and Power Diffusion

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 states. In the words of Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations -- and once a faculty member at the Kennedy School -- “the proliferation of information is as much a cause of nonpolarity as is the proliferation of weaponry.”

Barbarians and Non-State Actors

Regarding power transition, much attention is lavished on a supposed American decline, and facile historical analogies to Britain and Rome. But Rome remained dominant for more than three centuries after the apogee of Roman power, and even then, it did not succumb to the rise of another state, but died a death of a thousand cuts inflicted by various barbarian tribes. Indeed for all the fashionable predictions of China, India or Brazil surpassing the United States in the next decades, the greater 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.

Soft Power: Best Story

At an even more basic level, what will it mean to wield power in the global information age of the 21st century? What resources will produce power? In the 16th century, control of colonies and gold bullion gave Spain the edge; 17th century Netherlands profited from trade and finance; 18th century France gained from its larger population and armies; while 19th century British power rested on its primacy in the industrial revolution and its navy. 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.

GDP Growth v Smart Strategies

Today, it is far from clear how we measure a balance of power, much less how to develop successful strategies to survive in this new world. Most current projections of a shift in the global balance of power are based primarily on one factor -- projections of growth in the gross national product of different countries. They ignore the other dimensions of power that are discussed in my book, not to mention the policy difficulties of combining them into smart strategies. For example, while Hu Jintao told the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that China needs to invest more in its soft power, polls show that China’s soft power is limited by a domestic authoritarian regime that puts people like Liu Xiaobo in jail.

Combining Hard and Soft Power Resources

Nation states will remain the dominant actors on the world stage, but they will find 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 the Middle East 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.


Joseph S Nye, Jr is chairman, Trilateral Commission, North America. He is university distinguished service Professor at Harvard University and from 1995 to 2004 was dean of the Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to assuming the deanship he served as US assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, in which position he won two distinguished service medals, and was chair of the National Intelligence Council. Dr Nye originally joined the Harvard faculty in 1964, serving as director of the Center for International Affairs and associate dean of arts and sciences. In a 2008 poll of international relations scholars, he was rated the sixth most influential scholar in the field over the past 20 years and the most influential on American foreign policy.

From 1977 to 1979, Dr Nye was deputy to the undersecretary of state for security assistance, science, and technology and chaired the National Security Council Group on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Nye's most recent books are The Paradox of American Power (2002), Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004), The Power Game: A Washington Novel (2004), and The Powers to Lead (2008) and The Future of Power (2011) which The Economist called “rigorous and convincing.” Nye received his bachelor's degree summa cum laude from Princeton University. He did postgraduate work at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship and earned a PhD in political science from Harvard. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an honorary member of The British Academy. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy, the American Academy of Diplomacy, and an honorary fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. He is the recipient of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson Award, the Charles Merriam Award from the American Political Science Association, and various honorary degrees.

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