Two important power shifts are occurring in this century - power transition and power diffusion. Power diffusion is a more difficult problem to manage than power transition
Egypt’s revolution is an event of great importance. In 18 days, a broad-based non-violent social movement overcame an entrenched autocratic government. However, Egypt is still in the first act of a long play. As President Obama noted in welcoming the revolution, non violent moral force “bent the arc of history,” but genuine democracy will require revising the constitution, carrying out elections that are fair and free, and building institutions that protect liberty and preserve the rule of law. The March referendum on the constitution was an important step, but it also raised a number of questions. Will early elections benefit only the existing parties and penalize the new generation that demonstrated in Tahrir Square and who have not had time to develop more formal organizations?
For now, the military and the new generation each have a different type of power. The military has the hard power of potential force as well as control of existing institutions. The demonstrators have the soft power of the narrative of democracy, and the potential to call demonstrations again that would put the military in a difficult position. From what we have seen thus far, it is unlikely that the Egyptian military would want to act like the Chinese at Tiananmen Square or the Iranian government in suppressing its opposition. The result is a situation where each side has bargaining power, but will the Egyptian army act like the South Korean military in the 1980s and usher in a genuine democratic process which undercuts their privileged position? And even if they do, could the process still be hijacked by well organized minorities as other revolutions have been in history?
Until recently, many outside observers of the Middle East argued that the United States had to support the authoritarians or wind up with radical Islamists. The old view of polar extremes has been overtaken by the spread of information that has helped create and empower a new middle ground in Egypt and elsewhere. The U.S. often felt that it had to choose between its values and its interests when formulating policy in the past. The recent events in Egypt bring the two into congruence, and a smart policy must now do everything possible to help Egypt succeed.
Whatever the outcome of this moment, Egypt illustrates the broader way that an information revolution is transforming world politics. That is the argument of my new book The Future of Power. Two important power shifts are occurring in this century - power transition and power diffusion. Power transition from one dominant state to another is a familiar historical event, but power diffusion is a more novel process. The military has the hard power of potential force as well as control of existing institutions. The demonstrators have the soft power of the narrative of democracy, and the potential to call demonstrations againThe problem for all states in today’s global information age is that more things are happening outside the control of even the most powerful governments. In an information-based world, power diffusion is a more difficult problem to manage than power transition. Conventional wisdom has always held that the government with the largest military prevails, but in an information age it may be the state (or non-states) with the best story that wins. The soft power of narrative becomes a more important part of the mix.
Governments remain the dominant actors on the world stage, but they are finding the stage far more crowded and difficult to control. A much larger part of the population both within and among countries has access to the power that comes from information as Egypt has shown. Governments have always worried about the flow and control of information, and the current period is not the first to be strongly affected by dramatic changes in information technology. Revolutions are not new, nor is transnational contagion, nor non-state actors. In 1848, a revolutionary wave swept over Europe, but the old order was able to prevail. What is new today is the speed of communication and the technological empowerment of a wider range of actors. One must hope that this new generation will quickly learn the importance of physical as well as virtual organization for democracy. It is crucial for the region and for the world that Egypt’s democratic generation succeeds.
Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard University and author of The Future of Power (2011)