Book review: “The End of Power” by Moisés Naím

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Moisés Naím: The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be. Basic Books. March 2013. R$ 20,50 (www.amazon.com.br)

Global Change, Peace & Security: formerly Pacifica Review: Peace, Security & Global Change

DOI: 10.1080/14781158.2016.1140636

Published on: 5 February 2016

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14781158.2016.1140636

“Being in charge isn’t what it used to be”, principally due to the “decay of power”, Moisés Naím writes in his latest book. Power is now easier to obtain but harder to keep and to use. Traditional centers of power (governments, large private corporations, etc.) are increasingly facing more nimble "micropowers" such as hackers, single-issue activists and political fringe parties. The established actors now face the challenge to deal with the threat micropowers pose.

The title of the book is misleading: power is not about to end. Rather, according to the author, it will be increasingly diffused and ephemeral, and those who hold it must act quickly to achieve their goals.

As Naím shows, the average tenure of CEOs and state leaders is shrinking and power changes hands more often. Companies are less likely to dominate their markets for a long time. Those in power are often constrained by competing actors. Furthermore, citizens are increasingly able to influence issues without an expensive support network. It remains somewhat unclear why the author insists on rejecting the importance of the internet in all this - he may be right in that technology is not the decisive factor, but it surely is a crucial one.

For many readers from countries that have recently experienced mass protests, all this will feel intuitively correct. And yet, that main argument in The End of Power that things have changed radically is not entirely convincing. While the rise of fringe parties, hackers and protests by leaderless youths is indeed fascinating, it is not yet clear whether and how they change underlying power dynamics. After all, what have the Tea Party in the United States or the Pirate Party in Germany actually achieved? Did anything change fundamentally in Brazil after the historic protests in 2013? How do today's protests differ from those in the 60s? Looking merely at the diffusion of power, how does the rise of pentecostal churches and the decline of Catholicism in Brazil fundamentally differ from, say, the Protestant Reformation in Germany in the 16th and 17th century? How are modern NGOs different from the global movement that ended slavery over a century ago? Are terrorist non-state actors such as Al Qaeda really new? And, more importantly, do they matter as much as Naím implies? 

The author may be right that businesses rise and fall faster than before, but the same cannot be always said of politics. Most leading foreign policy advisors in the United States have been around for decades, and even those who supported disastrous policies (such as the Iraq War) continue to wield power. Barack Obama cares about what Henry Kissinger says, who already advised President Nixon forty years ago. A similar situation can be observed in many other countries, where political elites remain in power for a long time.

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Naím cites former leaders such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Bill Clinton who say that they had far less power than people thought they had. Yet was that really fundamentally different for leaders in the 19th or early 20th century? History suggests that even absolutist rulers faced potent constraints as unpopular policies could lead to their overthrow. After World War II, US GDP made up 50% of global GDP, providing the United States with seemingly unlimited power - and yet, throughout the Cold War, other countries were able to effectively constrain the US or establish considerable autonomy from US influence.

Finally, decreasing social mobility in the United States and a growing concentration of resources may suggest that power is not as ephemeral as Naím suggests. Today's Ivy League Schools are stuffed with students whose parents either donated millions or attended the same schools (or both). The same is true in emerging powers like Brazil or China, where family ties continue to matter greatly.

Nonetheless, Naím points to a series of fascinating questions that deserve reflection, and he is fundamentally right in his claim that the more diffuse power is, the harder it will be to solve global challenges such as climate change.

Those who care about international affairs are likely to skip several chapters that focus on business issues. Chapters 7 and 11, on the other hand, are interesting. Naím writes that "It may seem that no one is in charge. That feeling, and the trends that provoke it, will continue." He also predicts that in the 21st century “power is becoming easier to disrupt and harder to consolidate,” predicting a troubling trend of a far less resilient global system with weaker national and international institutions. If “the future of power lies in disruption and interference, not management and consolidation,” Naim writes, “can we expect ever to know stability again?” He thus embraces the dominant view that the only alternative to US preponderance is chaos. While the current situation in Ukraine, Iraq and Syria may seem to prove his point, the author may underestimate the potential benefits of a more multipolar order, which provides emerging powers with a greater say.

Read also:

How Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula worked together to woo George W. Bush

The US Should Celebrate Its Decline

Book review: “The Great Convergence” by Kishore Mahbubani