Joseph Nye on the future of power

I’m a bit of a sucker for the complimentary programme of public lectures that are staged at the London home of the RSA (that’s the Royal Society of the Arts, Science and Manufactures) which is why I’m sat in the Great Room waiting to listen to Professor Joseph Nye.

Prof Nye is the chap who coined the phrase ‘soft power’; an idea that was popular within the Clinton administration in the 1990s and – despite the hawkish interlude of the George W Bush presidency – has retained favour under Obama’s administration too.

He’s an influential policy thinker who, as well as enjoying a distinguished academic career, has also served as Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs in the Clinton Whitehouse (and was tipped to have become John Kerry’s choice for National Security Adviser had the Democrats successfully secured the Presidency in 2004).

So he knows his international relations onions, and he’s been thinking about the future of power and the dynamics that will affect it in the 21st century and beyond. In a 30 minute précis of his latest contribution to the debate, ‘The Future of Power’, Prof Nye talks about two significant trends affecting governmental power in the future: ‘power transition’ and ‘power diffusion’.

Power transition

Power transition, Prof Nye suggests, is historically familiar: the ebb and flow of the power relations between nation states, blocs and empires founded – historically at least – on the back of relative military and technological superiority and, more recently, though the deployment of ‘soft power’ (the degree to which values, culture, policies and institutions are employed to attain the outcomes which nations seek).

While Prof Nye accepts that the emergence of Asian global powers – i.e. China and India – will be a significant feature of the narrative of post-21st century historical analysis, he doesn’t readily subscribe to idea of an ‘absolute decline’ of US power as result. Instead, he sees a relative decline in US power in the face of these emerging powers and relative decline, he argues, does not amount to the same thing as absolute dominance of China.

Power diffusion

Now this idea really interests me because it is already confounding traditional models of international power relations and diplomacy.

Diffused power characterises the way in which individuals and non-governmental organisations can more easily gain access to technology and therefore consume, contribute and influence the global flow of information.

By harnessing access to ever cheaper means of communication – like mobile networks, networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, and media platforms like YouTube – geographically or socially dispersed individuals are able to congregate around ideas and events fomenting movements that acquire global influence and power.

The application of diffused power is diverse; its spectrum encompasses terror networks like Al Qaeda, hackers like Anonymous, freedom of information evangelists like WikiLeaks, activists like The Tea Party and globally networked business corporations.

The Arab Spring, Prof Nye argues, is an example of how near-universal access to communications technology helps transform a flashpoint event into an apparent social and political movement in a region of the World.

And this access, he suggests, has created an additional dimension in international power relations – a fluid, unpredictable and chaotic strata of non-governmental actors whose emerging influence on domestic and international relations is likely to perplex governments in the years to come.

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