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The Reality of Virtual Power

DAVOS – As Arab regimes struggle with demonstrations fueled by Twitter and Al Jazeera, and American diplomats try to understand the impact of WikiLeaks, it is clear that this global information age will require a more sophisticated understanding of how power works in world politics.

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. The transition of power from one dominant state to another is a familiar historical pattern, but power diffusion is a more novel process. The problem for all states today is that more is happening outside the control of even the most powerful of them.

As for power transition, much attention nowadays is lavished on a supposed American decline, often with facile historical analogies to Britain and Rome. But Rome remained dominant for more than three centuries after the apogee of its power, and, even then, it did not succumb to the rise of another state, but suffered a death by a thousand cuts inflicted by various barbarian tribes.

Indeed, for all the fashionable predictions that China, India, or Brazil will surpass the United States in the coming decades, the greatest threats may come from modern barbarians and non-state actors. In an information-based world of cyber-insecurity, power diffusion may be a greater threat than power transition.