As authoritarian regimes like Syria struggle with Twitter and Al Jazeera inflamed insurrections; Iran tries to cope with the cyber sabotage of its nuclear enrichment program; Russia witnesses demonstrations against Vladimir Putin; and China creates a great firewall to filter the internet, it is clear that smart policy in an information age requires a better understanding of power. America is wrestling with the implications of revolutions in the Middle East, as well as the rise of China in Asia, and the decline of Russia. We all need a better understanding of what it means to have power in world politics, and how that is shifting. Traditionally, the mark of a great power was the ability to prevail in war. But in an information age, success depends not just on whose army wins, but also on whose story wins.
That is the argument of my new book The Future of Power. Two types of 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 problem for all states in today's global information age is that more things are happening outside the control of even the most powerful states. In the words of Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, "the proliferation of information is as much a cause of non-polarity as is the proliferation of weaponry." The problem for all states in today's global information age -- democratic or authoritarian -- is that more things are happening outside the control of even the most powerful governments.
Information revolutions are not new in history, but the current revolution is based on rapid technological advances that have dramatically decreased the cost of creating, finding and transmitting information. Computing power doubled every 18 months for 30 years, and by the beginning of the twenty-first century it cost one-thousandth of what it did in the early 1970s. If the price of automobiles had fallen as quickly as the price of semiconductors, a car would cost five dollars. The key characteristic of this current information revolution is not just the speed of communications, but the enormous reduction in the cost of transmitting information that has reduced the barriers to entry.
What this means is that world politics will not be the sole province of governments. Individuals and private organizations, ranging from hackers to corporations to NGOs to terrorists to spontaneous societal movements are all empowered to play direct roles in world politics. The spread of information means that power will be more widely distributed and informal networks will undercut the monopoly of traditional bureaucracy. The speed of Internet time means all governments have less control of their agendas. Political leaders enjoy fewer degrees of freedom before they must respond to events, and then must communicate not only with other governments but with civil societies as well - witness the difficulties of the Obama Administration trying to fine tune its responses in the Middle East.
It might seem that the tasks of authoritarian governments are easier, but this is an illusion. Syria has learned to use Facebook to track and attack dissidents, but there is still plenty of outside information reaching people in Homs and Hama through cable tv as well as the internet. Even the great firewall of China leaks. Yes, the government can censor and arrest people, but at a cost. As the dissident artist Ai Wei Wei recently said, if China wants to be in the business of inventing the i-phone rather than just providing labor in its assembly, it will have to realize that censorship inhibits the creativity that is necessary for the next stages of China's development.
Regarding power transition, the other great historical shift, we have been misled by traditional narratives of a supposed American decline, and facile historical analogies to Britain and Rome. But Rome remained dominant for more than three centuries after the apogee of Roman power, and even then, it did not succumb to the rise of another state, but died a death of a thousand cuts inflicted by various barbarian tribes. Indeed for all the fashionable predictions of China, India or Brazil surpassing the United States in the next decades, the greater threats may come from modern barbarians and non-state actors. China has had remarkable and worthy economic success in the past three decades and in the years since the global economic meltdown of 2008, but that success plus a belief that the United States was in decline emboldened China to pursue an overly assertive foreign policy that resulted in worsened relations with nearly all its major neighbors over the past few years.
Today, it is far from clear how we measure a balance of power, much less how to develop successful strategies to survive in this new world. Most current projections of a shift in the global balance of power to China are based primarily on one factor - linear projections of growth in China's gross national product. They ignore the other dimensions of power that are discussed in my book, not to mention the policy difficulties of combining them into smart strategies. For example, while Hu Jintao told the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that China needs to invest more in its soft power, polls show that China's soft power is limited by a domestic authoritarian regime that arrests people like Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo and the blind lawyer, Chen Guangcheng. In an information age, the ability to mobilize networks of others through soft power will be as important as hard power. It is true that China is growing rapidly, but the diffusion of power may be as consequential as power transitions between major states. Foreign and domestic policy become difficult to disentangle. Contrary to the current conventional wisdom about the advantages of authoritarian states, American soft power and its open society may actually give the country new power advantages in the twenty-first century.