Molecularization: The open marketplace of influence

Richard Haass has a brilliant essay in Foreign Affairs, just out, arguing that we are moving from a world structure of multipolarity and bi- and unipolarity — that is, the Cold War and its aftermath — to an age of nonpolarity — that is, nobody’s in charge.

We are entering an open marketplace of influence. I think of this as a molecular era, when any of us are atoms that can attract and repel from other atoms around any common interests. The internet — read: Google — makes it possible for us to broadcast our interests and then to find, coalesce around, organize, and act in concert around them. One no longer need control institutions to control agendas, for the institutional structure is fading as are the institutions themselves: Haass chronicles the dilution of governments and other static bodies. I regularly follow the crumbling of the power of the fourth estate, the press. See also the fall of the firm. And add to that the long-ago decline of the first estate, the church. You could say that this is the day of the third estate — the rise of the people — which might otherwise be seen as anarchy except for the internet’s power to enable organization. But that organization is ad hoc; molecules can dissipate as quickly as they come together. We are still organized, only differently. We can organize ourselves even around old borders and rules. (See Andrew Tyndall’s ideas for how such organization can work.)

At last, here’s Haass setting forth is theory of unipolarity:

Today’s world differs in a fundamental way from one of classic multipolarity: there are many more power centers, and quite a few of these poles are not nation-states. Indeed, one of the cardinal features of the contemporary international system is that nation-states have lost their monopoly on power and in some domains their preeminence as well. States are being challenged from above, by regional and global organizations; from below, by militias; and from the side, by a variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and corporations. Power is now found in many hands and in many places.

Besides six major world powers, he lists regional power; organizations (the powerful alphabets: UN, IMF, EU, OAS, OPEC, WHO); nation-states (e.g., California); companies; global media outlets (as opposed to declining local ones); militias (as he calls them); terrorist organizations; NGOs (he uses the Gates Foundation as an example).

“Today’s world,” he says, “is increasingly one of distributed, rather than concentrated, power.”

This includes, of course, media: “Alternatives to U.S.-produced and disseminated television are multiplying. Web sites and blogs from other countries provide further competition for U.S.-produced news and commentary. The proliferation of information is as much a cause of nonpolarity as is the proliferation of weaponry.”

Globalization and the falling of borders to many flows — “rom drugs, e-mails, greenhouse gases, manufactured goods, and people to television and radio signals, viruses (virtual and real), and weapons” — also has an obvious impact:

Globalization reinforces nonpolarity in two fundamental ways. First, many cross-border flows take place outside the control of governments and without their knowledge. As a result, globalization dilutes the influence of the major powers. Second, these same flows often strengthen the capacities of nonstate actors, such as energy exporters (who are experiencing a dramatic increase in wealth owing to transfers from importers), terrorists (who use the Internet to recruit and train, the international banking system to move resources, and the global transport system to move people), rogue states (who can exploit black and gray markets), and Fortune 500 firms (who quickly move personnel and investments). It is increasingly apparent that being the strongest state no longer means having a near monopoly on power. It is easier than ever before for individuals and groups to accumulate and project substantial power.

In the end, Haass argues that is is a more disorganized though not anarchic world: “With so many more actors possessing meaningful power and trying to assert influence, it will be more difficult to build collective responses and make institutions work. Herding dozens is harder than herding a few.” True, but I’d also argue that at a smaller scale level, it is easier to organize and influence than it ever was for those outside of institutions.

It’s the centralization of control that is really disappearing. Control moves to the edge. That does not mean the world is out of control (except to those who used to control it).