Power Failure?

Issue Date January 2014
Volume 25
Issue 1
Page Numbers 166-173
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The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be by Moisés Naím.

Power is an integral part of human experience. Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan famously describes as “a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” And here is a pithy definition of power given to us by political scientist Robert Dahl: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.” Indeed, whether by authority, influence, persuasion, or outright coercion, governments, militaries, corporations, churches, and NGOs—not to mention each and every one of us as individuals—are all somehow involved in the exercise of power.

In The End of Power, columnist, former Foreign Policy editor, and onetime Venezuelan trade minister Moisés Naím argues that the gaining and wielding of power are becoming increasingly complex and elusive. Power, he says, is diffusing and decaying. In a nutshell, his thesis is that power is more readily available than ever before: “Micro players” are increasingly in a position to challenge—or at least constrain—”mega players.” Moreover, even after power is gained, it is becoming harder to use and to preserve.

About the Author

Jeffrey Gedmin is president and CEO of the London-based Legatum Institute and a former president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

View all work by Jeffrey Gedmin


Naím starts with chess. It turns out that there are now far more grandmasters—a title first officially awarded by the World Chess Federation in 1950—than ever before, about 1,200 today compared to 88 in 1972. [End Page 166] What is more, today’s grandmasters hail from far more diverse backgrounds, include more young people among their ranks, and once on top suffer defeat with ever greater frequency. The digital revolution has been a big driver of this, observes Naím. The Internet opens up opportunities and offers resources (computer games, chess websites) that were simply unimaginable just a few years ago.

But more than new computer technology has been involved. Globalization—and with it affordable travel, poverty amelioration, and the spread of education and literacy—means that the pool of potential grandmasters has been growing rapidly.

Naím is right. The last half-century has brought unprecedented prosperity, as Princeton University economist Angus Deaton shows in The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality (2013). “Since 1960,” he informs us, “nearly all countries have become richer and their residents longer lived.”

This is a stunning fact, and it is central to Naím’s thesis. In The End of Power, he advances the basic idea that size no longer carries the sway that it once did. In military affairs, his message is “great powers beware,” for asymmetrical warfare is changing the nature of armed conflict in ways that do not favor large military forces. In business, big, vertically integrated companies are facing a competitive environment that is fiercer and more fluid than ever. Newcomers abound, and come from such unlikely places as Estonia (Skype) and India (Mittal Steel). As a result, the days when amassing power was mainly a matter of getting big (think Red Army, General Motors, IBM, or Catholic Church big) are past.

And if you are “Mister Big,” Naím adds, your days at the top are numbered. Being a corporate CEO, for instance, is not what it used to be. Turnover among chief executive officers in the United States was higher in the 1990s than in the two previous decades, and the rate at which these business moguls are finding themselves replaced has kept on rising through the early twenty-first century, not only in the United States but around the world. Even at very high income levels, there is unprecedented volatility. Billionaires, like chess grandmasters, now number more than 1,200 worldwide—a figure that has soared relative to the recent past. And the member of this exclusive club who gained the most wealth between 2007 and 2008, Indian industrialist Anil Ambani, was also the leading loser of wealth in 2009.

How do we sort through these dizzying changes? Naím points to three ongoing “revolutions” in human affairs. The first is the “More” revolution—more people living longer lives are harder to regiment and control. The second is the “Mobility” revolution—”more people are moving than at any other time in world history” (59). And the third is the “Mentality” revolution, which unfolds as people’s standards and expectations change. [End Page 167]

Take youth and its well-known instinct for questioning and even defiance. As Naím notes:

The propensity of the young to question authority and challenge power is now amplified by the More and Mobility revolutions. Not only are there more people than ever under thirty, but they have more—prepaid callingcards, radios, TVs, cellphones, computers, and access to the Internet as well as to travel and communication possibilities with others like them at home and around the world (66).

Nor have we seen the end of technology’s leveling power. One wonders what the effect will be when an easily accessible and affordable app soon provides simultaneous interpretation and a young, illiterate Afghan girl in a remote mountain village—equipped with a donated solar-powered tablet and voice-recognition software—can communicate suddenly with children her age virtually anywhere on the planet.

Let us turn to the subject likely of keenest interest to readers of this journal: What might the “end of power” mean for governance and democratic prospects around the world?

“Dictators and party bosses, too,” writes Naím, “are finding their power diminished and their numbers depleted.” China expert Minxin Pei tells him how Chinese Politburo members now openly admit that maintaining control is harder when bloggers, hackers, empowered activists, or transnational criminals can boldly act to shape events.

Naím recounts how the ranks of democracies have grown over the last four decades, and he is right to note that levels of totalitarian control are lower. North Korea, thankfully, is an outlier today.

But are authoritarians really in retreat, as Naím suggests? Tyrants may well have less absolute power, as they too must contend with the More, Mobility, and Mentality (3M) revolutions. But we should not underestimate their resilience and ingenuity, for reasons that Naím himself lists early in his book. Power is primal (he cites Hobbes approvingly on the matter). If this is true, then presumably the “end of power” will mean the end of power as we know it, but not the end of power as such. There will be permutations and innovations, and dictators may well stay in the game by becoming shrewder and more sophisticated.

Naím does not deny any of this. In fact, he wants to make us think about these very things. But if his book has a flaw, it is its lack of depth in instances where the story starts to get truly interesting. Perhaps the 3M revolutions really will overwhelm the bad guys some day. In the meantime, however, it would have been useful to hear more about how regimes in China, Iran, and Russia are working to regain the initiative. Certainly all three seem to be skilled at adaptation and gifted at coming up with new forms of repression and control.

Democracy activists may love Facebook and Twitter, but Beijing, Moscow, and Teheran are learning to use them as well. And must we [End Page 168] not grudgingly give Vladimir Putin and his crew high marks for the patience, flexibility, and skill with which they have applied the dark arts of intimidation, deception, and disinformation? Soviet totalitarianism may be gone, but are the power and appeal of Putinism shrinking?

I recall from my time at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty how the health inspector, the tax collector, the fire marshal, and the anticorruption police—coupled with Kremlin-subsidized competition and state-sponsored confusion in the media market—could make it difficult to operate inside the new Russia. I also remember how the Iranian regime would skillfully use social media to plant endless fake stories, hoping that our Persian-language journalists would bite, at great cost to their credibility. The bad guys have so far been dismayingly good at reading trends and responding to developments with agility and imagination.

Naím writes that the 3M revolutions will affect the democracies as well. He suggests tantalizingly that we may soon see an acceleration in political innovations that challenge elected governments across the West, thanks in part to the spread of movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. He predicts that humanity will find itself pressed to discover “news ways of governing itself,” without saying much about what these new ways might be. And as with any grand theory of change, one wonders what we are not seeing that might interrupt and reverse seemingly unstoppable trends. Are there health or demographic developments—be they “known unknowns” or those real black swans, “unknown unknowns”—that could interfere with Naím’s largely linear projection? Is there nothing on the horizon—including in the area of technology—that might end the “end of power”?

Moisés Naím has put forward an intriguing argument. His book is chock full of facts and factoids, and features fascinating passages on institutions such as religion, the media, the military, business, politics, philanthropy, and unions. The End of Power is an intelligent and provocative read.

Yet let us not be surprised if, in the end, the future surprises us. The struggle over power and control will not draw to a close anytime soon. And let us recall that, while big may be bad at the moment, human history is a tale of inconvenient detours and epic comebacks.