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Monday, July 28, 2014

The Decline of Power

 This week I have finished a remarkable book, The End of Power, by a Venezuelan academic, Moisés Naím, who is now based at the Carnegie Endowment for international peace.  (For the record, I have not met Naím, and we share a publisher, but not an editor.)  The book is metahistory—not as ambitious chronologically as Strauss and Howe, since it really focuses on the last few decades, but more ambitious geographically, since it attempts to analyze changes in the entire world.  The author has evidently not encountered Strauss and Howe, and that is a pity, because they might have sharpened his thinking about the critical question of his book: exactly where the changes he observes are going to lead us.  Essentially the book is about the collapse of traditional large-scale authority in virtually every sphere of life and all over the globe, including religion, economic life, the use of armed force, and politics and government.  My regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I found this analysis congenial.  Naím understands the dangers our descent towards anarchy, but he attempts to remain guardedly optimistic.  His book is in any case informative and provocative, and although it was not that widely reviewed, it was blurbed by both former President Clinton and Francis Fukuyama.

Na[D1] ím argues that three revolutions are upending modern life, and names them More, Mobility, and Mentality.  By More he refers to rapid economic growth, particularly in the third world, which has created a large new and demanding middle class and, he thinks, has made people less willing to submit to arbitrary authority.  By Mobility he means both the mobility of people and the mobility of goods, bytes in cyberspace, and ideas.  By Mentality he means that ideas about authority are changing, that people have become less credulous, and that there is no longer any monopoly of opinion.  Having read Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century just a couple of months ago, I found it difficult to be quite as enthusiastic as Naím is about economic growth in the Third World.  Piketty’s tables showed that the vast masses of China, India, and even Latin America and Eastern Europe are living in poverty compared to the nations of the North Atlantic world, and inequality is also even worse in poorer countries than in rich ones.  I was also not convinced that economic power is truly becoming so decentralized, much less that the new competition of newer firms and kinds of financial institutions is helping the peoples of the world in general.  Nor am I convinced that the new economy of cyberspace is really based on sound foundations, and I will not be in the least surprised if the world economy is shaken by a great Facebook crash, when stockholders realize that the site is never going to generate large amounts of income.  I certainly agree that economic life is changing rapidly, but I cannot, as I say, be quite so optimistic about its results.  Naím also has a section on labor unions, but there he focuses more on decentralization than on their secular decline and its consequences.
There is obviously no arguing with the mobility revolution, which has sent millions of immigrants into all the advanced countries, none of which has been entirely successful in assimilating them.  Another difference between Naím and myself is this: he is focused on the whole world, while I am more concerned about the heartland of western civilization along the shores of the North Atlantic and in South America.   This leads me to his third revolution, in my opinion the most important. The Mentality revolution represents a gigantic change both in attitudes and loyalties.  Especially in the US, but also in Europe and much of the rest of the world, he notes, people trust their government less and less.  He realizes this represents a grave danger, insofar as it may make it impossible to get anything done (as has happened now in Washington), but he also still regards the shift as a good corrective to the authoritarianism of the past.  He still lauds the Arab spring, despite its exceedingly mixed results.  He is very concerned not only by gridlock in Washington, but by the rise of minority parties in nearly every democracy in the world.  There is hardly a country left, he points out, in which one party governs without coalition partners.  In addition, in many countries, again including the US, the courts are making more and more decisions, while elected governments fail to act.  Extremism is on the rise, compromise is on the decline, and international institutions like the European Union are finding it even harder to make decisions, since they often require unanimity.  Political parties have generally become much weaker and vulnerable to single-issue movements and populist uprisings like the Tea Party.

One of the more interesting sections deals with one of my own specialties, military power.  Na[D2] ím stresses that traditional large militaries—led, once again, by the United States—now have to cope with small, apparently weak but intractable opposition from terrorist groups, or NGOs as he sometimes calls them, and have a lot more trouble working their will.  He might have paid more attention to issues of scale.  The United States at the height of the Cold War had several million men under arms at all times; now the whole military establishment is under a million, while the population of regions like the Middle East has enormously increased.  That is one of the biggest reasons why our recent experiments in imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone so badly—and no other large nation mobilizes a very large percentage of its population, either.  Were he revising his book now, it seems to me, he would have to take notice of the larger and larger areas of the world that are governed by militias—including a good portion of Syria and Iraq.  He notes that governments have effectively given up on the Weberian idea of a monopoly of legitimate force, relying increasingly on contract troops, but he doesn’t spend much time on the increasingly powerful movement within the United States that calls on citizens to enforce laws themselves with guns.  The book was written, of course, before the bloodless annexation of Crimea by Vladimir Putin (whose imminent decline Naím rashly predicted), much less the cross-border uprising in Eastern Ukraine which threatens to detach that region.  Putin, in short, is showing how traditional authority might be revived.

Naím concludes with some recommendations for the future, similar in some ways to Strauss and Howe’s guidelines in 1996 at the end of The Fourth Turning.  To begin with, he says, commentators and nations should stop focusing on which nations are rising and which are falling and focus on the common problems of governing that they all increasingly share.  With this I heartily agree, although I would go even further and suggest that the examples of Libya and Iraq have shown that there are things worse than authoritarian governments, and that we should not be so quick to demand their overthrow.  He warns about “terrible simplifiers,” or ideologues, who unfortunately, as I argued last week, are likely to gain ground in times like these.  He asks the world to “bring trust back,” a noble thought, but one that will be very difficult to achieve.  He wants to strengthen political parties and increase political participation.  And in his last pages, he declares that all the innovations that have transformed the rest of our lives are bound to create new and more effective political institutions as well—although how, and what they will look like, is more than he can say.

I am afraid, for reasons that I discussed last week, that these tasks may be much harder than he believes.  As I have said many times, the civilization of the last two centuries grew out of the Enlightenment, which by 1900 had no serious ideological rivals.  Now religion has made an extraordinary comeback in various areas of the world, science has lost a good deal of its prestige, and universities pay much less attention to our intellectual and cultural heritage.  More importantly, trust and consensus, history tells me, can only be built up by a massive common national enterprise.  This need not be a war, but it obviously requires a widespread consensus to make this happen.  Such consensus can either be imposed by authoritarian governments—something which I do not think has become impossible by any means, as Putin seems to be showing us now—or developed by inspiring politicians in action such as Bismarck, Franklin Roosevelt, or Charles de Gaulle.  None such have popped up on our horizon.

Naím has written an important book because the problems he identifies are very real ones.  It is not clear, however, that any book can have real policy impact in a major nation, much less in the world, in an age of cyberspace. (The furor over Capitalism in the 21st Century seems to have subsided quite rapidly.)  Nor is it clear that real consensus can be established in a world of talk radio and inflammatory web sites.  There is a good possibility, as he acknowledges at one point himself, that only Hobbesian necessity will force us to accept more authority again.



Bozon said...


Great post. I very much think so, too: a general decline in power, everywhere.

This was, unfortunately, at least in my review of the past 300 or so years, one legacy, in part, among many, of The Enlightenment itself.

There were, of course, other cross currents running along the eddies.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

Hobbesian necessity indeed. Materialist rationalism leaves a big hole in the heart unless you are deeply grounded in philosophy which is equally challenging intellectually so that simple belief in god is better alternative for common man. The hobbes part reminds me of basic reason Hitler had to expand eastward. In WWI Germany hungered as autarchy did not work, the population growth in 19th century made self sufficiency impossible. Hitler needed Ukraine as breadbasket. Essentially earth as a whole is coming to this point but there is nowhere left to get the extra food and population keeps growing so wars expand.This is the Hobbesian mecessity we ser onthe Middle Esatern people's rebellionns ogf the lst fee years due to bread and fuel prices. Ukraine goes from decade to decade in a worse situation, like Weimar on steroids crossed with a corrupt 3rd world regime. After some months, food, water, heating, electrity will al be rationed and violence from varrious groups one against another normal and war effort and govt collapse. This is Hobbes. ISIS type movement will then be seen as saviour like Hitler or Napoleon. This type of desperation is becomint normal as in Japan economic madness. Give it a few years. To quote sci-fi author Gibson on the negatibe sense, "the future is already here, just not so evenly distributed."

Unknown said...

Good Morning:

Thank you Professor. Another fine piece of work.

I must make a simple remark. I read occasionally the thought that when energy gets short, Our thoughtful government will simply ration it. Sorry but that is not the American way.

Our Environmentalists think if we can just suddenly run out and buy solar panels then we can all make fudge together and be happy. Sorry, that's not what will happen.

If energy is suddenly short, the lower economic classes will simply not have any. Heat or fuel. Anyone lucky enough to live within walking distance of their job may keep it, at least for a little while. The rest will lose theirs in short order and then that will spread to the others. Next the elites that have money will lose their income as the economy collapses.

Every group will never think of sharing but will instead protect their own advantage for as long as possible.

Sharing has not been the American way for many, many years.


Gary Bryson said...

Dear Professor Kaiser,
Please forgive me for breaking in on your comments section, but I’ve been unable to find another way to contact you.
I’m a producer with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, based in Sydney. As part of our Great War Centenary programming, I’m currently making a radio feature about the idea of war, partly a discussion on the philosophy of Clausewitz and Jomini, and partly a look at the pacifism of Leo Tolstoy – a kind of ‘War and Peace’ in radio form, if you like, though certainly much less ambitious! My hope is to give our listeners an insight into war and peace as philosophical ideas.
I recently found your article on ‘Clausewitz and the First World War’ (Infinity Journal Special Edition, February 2012), and wondered if you may be interested in talking to us about some of the ideas you put forward there, and also more generally about Clausewitz and his relevance today. This would involve a radio interview from an NPR station near you at a time that suits. The interview is recorded for later editing, and would run for 30-40 minutes.
Please let me know if you can help, and if so, we can then perhaps arrange a time and date, or I’d be happy to call you at some convenient time to discuss the matter further.
Gary Bryson
ABC Radio National

Unknown said...


Regarding Mr. Bryson's ideas on the radio program, please let us know when it will air as many of us will want to find a way to listen to the program.

It sounds fascinating.

Thanks to Mr. Bryson.