Global Power Perceptions: Part Two – The Fragmentation View

In the previous posting on global power, I examined power from an “empire” perspective. Empire implies concentrated power, usually for economic gain – not just for the acquisition of power per se. I speculated that in the 21st Century, China would replace the US as the global power.

Let us return to 1989. The world had just witnessed an intense country-to-country confrontation – during the Cold War, the question was whether the US or the Soviet Union would destroy the world with hydrogen bombs. It was a definite “empire” focus.

But even as we watched the US-USSR “empire” confrontation, things were happening to reduce the power of nation-states. Three new players had come on the scene:

  • international organizations, most of which had been created by the US at the end of WWII; but with the ending of U.S. dominance, these entities took on lives of their own;
  • multinational corporations which were shedding their national identities and becoming global (for an excellent pictorial history of multinationals’ evolution, see Medard Gabel & The Toynbee Prize Foundation, Global Inc., The New Press: New York, 2003);
  • special interest/cause groups which have been with us at least since the beginning of recorded time; they re-emerged with the name “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs).

By 1989, nation-states had not disappeared but they had to share power: they had to compete and collaborate with the three new players. I spelled this out in “The New Global Players: How They Compete and Collaborate”, World Development, vol. 19, no. 1, 1991.

More is needed on NGOs. NGOs are cause-oriented, where the cause at least initially is not to earn money. While I have founded four NGOs, the global history of cause-oriented groups is not altogether reassuring. These groups, from human rights advocates to self-proclaimed religious terrorists, are worrisome. In most cases, their “cause” withers and is replaced by self-aggrandizing drives for economic and political power. In  Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1992, Barbara Harrell-Bond documents just how far off track NGOs can get in competing for government grants. Eric Hoffer looks more broadly at cause groups in The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Harper Perennial Library: New York, 2002.

Hamas and Hezbollah are only the latest in a long line of religious cause groups. More than 2,000 years ago, the first acts of what we now describe as ‘terrorism’ were perpetrated by cause groups. Most of these had a religious cause stemming from Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity. Perhaps the best known were the “Crusades”, a series of wars between the 11th and 14th Centuries initiated by Christians to recover the Holy Land from Islam. The conflicts between the spiritual, political, and economic objectives of the Crusades were apparent from the beginning. Bruce Hoffman documented the bloodshed and havoc created by these organizations in Inside Terrorism, Columbia University Press: New York, 1998.

Some say a clear delineation can be made between good and bad NGOs. They point to NGOs that promote “Civil Society” as good. Proponents of Civil Society believe they have a way of life and mode of governance that would be just splendid for all of us. While details might differ, others have had similar beliefs: Plato (Republic), St. Augustine (City of God), Campanella (The City of The Sun), Bacon (The New Atlantis), Harrington (Oceana). See also the writings of Rousseau, Saint-Simon, Cabet, Fourier, Proudhon, and Owens. What was wrong with the utopias of these writers and perhaps the proponents of Civil Society? A mistaken view of human nature: they believe man would put societal goals ahead of his own self-interest, more narrowly defined. Societies based on this premise have always failed. Sooner or later, man puts his own self interest first.

I am not interested in conceiving a perfect society, but if I were forced to do so, it would be based on a realistic assessment of human nature and not on wishful thinking concerning the goodness of mankind. More generally, I would side with the Utilitarians who believed that societal rules/governance should be based a realistic assessment of what will result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Paley, Bentham, Hobbes, Mill, Spencer and Adam Smith have written extensively on this subject.

The proponents of Civil Society have done good in the world, as have multinational corporations, international organizations, and nation-states. But Machiavelli, Marx and Weber are right: these organizations are large and powerful, and they all need to be watched. We have to keep an eye on the deals that the nation-states, NGOs, international organizations and multinational corporations are making behind closed doors. We must watch how they compete and collaborate.

Since 1991, has anything happened to alter my view of the three new players sharing power with nation-states? Yes, most definitely: the information revolutionS. People talk generally about the information revolution, but there have really been a series of information revolutions with each having different causes and effects. Of greatest importance are the information revolutions that started to be implemented in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Many of these implementation efforts failed. In fact, the information revolution bubble in the early ’90s came from people appreciating what effect the information technologies could have but not yet knowing how to implement them.

But since the “info-bubble”, information revolutions have been successfully implemented. And they are fundamentally altering the global order. My list of the most important revolutions follows:

  1. Moving money globally – you can send money via the Internet almost anywhere;
  2. Making payments via banks – writing checks is cumbersome: “bill pay” is the future;
  3. Making payments in stores – cash registers and currency are nuisances; I don’t use cash for payments anymore;
  4. Retail with the exception of food is finished  – this means purchases of autos, real estate, clothing, travel, etc. will increasingly be made via the Internet;
  5. Legal agreements – the Bank for International Settlements reports there are derivatives of $684 trillion (notional amounts adjusted for double counting) outstanding; that means a lot of contracts had to be written and agreed to; this could not have happened before the Internet;
  6. Research – totally changed by the Internet, both the sourcing and exchange of information – libraries have become museums for books;
  7. Publication – newspapers, magazines, and books are “in transition”; digital transmissions are taking over;
  8. News – with few exceptions, governments, NGOs, international organizations and corporations can no longer get away with anything: news reporting is everywhere. Well, almost everywhere. The leaders of Myanmar have pretty effectively blocked Internet transmissions. And in so doing, they have returned their citizens to the Stone Age in terms of living and competing effectively in today’s world. With 50 million people, Myanmar is the 24th largest country in the world. The leaders of China faced the same issue a decade ago. They decided that even though they would be challenged if they allowed Internet access, they could not deny it to their citizens. The Chinese government is now very concerned about what the people think – maybe like the government of a democracy? A note on the US: when teaching in Argentina last November, I concluded that Al Jazeera was doing the best news reporting on the Middle East. I do not believe Al Jazeera is available on any US cable TV provider. Why? Probably because the carriers fear a public backlash from an uninformed US public;
  9. Personal communication – e-mail, cell phones, text messaging, Skype, etc.


What does all this mean for global power? It means it has been fragmented. The emergence of NGOs, multinational corporations and international organizations reduced the power of nation states, and the information revolutions have reduced the power of all of them. “Empire opportunities” have been greatly diminished:

  • Large organizations are carefully scrutinized; it is increasingly difficult for them to get away with anything;
  • The large military establishments of the world are losing power to smaller groups; new information technologies give smaller groups critical information, e.g., satellite images that previously were controlled by larger groups;
  • Other technological developments, such as the miniaturization of explosives, also favor smaller groups.

But it cannot be said that the information technologies are making everything better; witness what has happened in the financial markets. It has become so easy to buy, sell, and package financial assets. Everyone is seemingly in agreement that more regulation is needed. But the fragmentation resulting from the information revolutions will make it extremely difficult to regulate the global financial industry. Indeed, I am more concerned about another round of clumsy regulation than another credit freeze.

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