Why Power Is Decaying in the Modern World

Scholar Moisés Naím explains how power is changing, and why it can hamper the ability to govern.

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The nature of power is changing around the world, from political protests against dictatorships to startup companies competing with large corporations. In "The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn't What It Used to Be," Moisés Naím, scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine, discusses what these power shifts mean for individuals and nations.

Naím recently spoke with U.S. News about how power is changing, why it affects geopolitics and boardrooms, and what it means for the world's current and future leaders. Excerpts:

What is power, and how is it decaying?

Power is the ability of one party to make another party do, or stop doing, something. Power is decaying because power in all human endeavors is easier to acquire, harder to use, and easier to lose.

Why are these changes happening now?

There are a variety of forces. I combined them in three categories that I call the "more revolution," the "mobility revolution" and the "mentality revolution." Together they erode the capacity of the barriers that shield the powerful. People, countries, organizations or institutions that have power are shielded [from] challengers that want to rival them and take away their power. The shields have become less protected because of the three revolutions.

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What do the three revolutions entail?

The "more revolution" is that we live in a world of more of everything, a world of abundance. There are not just more people, but there are more countries. There are more political parties. There are more foundations and philanthropies, also more criminal cartels. And if there's more of everything, it makes it harder for those in power to control others.

Not only do we have more of everything, but it moves more. So people, money, ideas, goods and services, pandemics and illnesses, ideologies and financial crises all move far more at greater speed and at lower cost. The "mobility revolution" is helping challengers circumvent the barriers. The "mentality revolution" is produced by the two other revolutions creating new ways of thinking, new mindsets, expectations, aspirations, behaviors and values. One interesting example of the mentality revolution is that divorce rates in India among the elderly are soaring, mostly initiated by the women. And that, I think, is related clearly to a change in mentality, but also the effects of the more and mobility revolutions.

So the "more" overwhelms the barriers, the "mobility" helps circumvent them, and "mentality" undermines them.

Is the way power is changing now different from previous power shifts in history?

Yes. Power has now become more transient. Those who have power today have less of it than those who had power in the same positions in the past.

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Are these changes all positive?

There is a lot to celebrate for the end of power as we knew it. We have more opportunities as voters, as entrepreneurs, as innovators, as citizens, as investors and consumers. It is good that dictators and monopolies are easier to challenge. But one needs to be careful when this trend hampers the ability of governments to govern. These are situations in which everyone has just enough power to be able to block others, but no one has enough power to push through an agenda.

What does this mean for national politics?

It means that we're seeing gridlock and paralysis in a lot of countries and the inability of governments to reach agreements and [move] forward any policies. We have seen it recently with the United States with the sequester and the inability of the political parties and Congress and the White House to agree on how to tax and spend. But we have seen the same trends around the world. In democracies, power is becoming much harder to wield.

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