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).

  • Michael Katcher

    I’d have to disagree. I believe firmly in the disaggregation of content control (is that a real phrase) that is noted and commented upon on this site. But I think it’d be a mistake to equate that to a de-centralization of geopolitical power.

    The reason that the disaggregation of content control can occur is the loss of traditional media’s guarantor of power: a small supply of distribution channels. When distribution was centralized, the big companies who controlled that distribution could control content. With decentralized distribution comes a decentralization of the control of content.

    The guarantor of a nation’s power is still military might. It always is and always will be. Now you could certainly argue that military strength is, in the long run, determined by relative economic power, and given the decentralization of economic concentration there will come a decentralization of military power. That’s a valid argument to make. But to suggest that a nation’s power stems from anything other than military power and the ability to project that power to areas of national interest would be incorrect. That is why America is the most powerful nation on Earth. We have the most advanced armed forces in the world and control the world’s oceans and thus are capable of projecting power wherever we see fit.

  • South Orange Guy

    I think this observation is correct and insightful. We are increasingly living in a “post-national” world…individuals seem to have more power to good things (and bad things), and governments seem to have less ability to influence through coercive power.

    Look at the US’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan — a classic example of the LIMITS of military might. When facing “atomized & distributed” threats (eg: insurgents or terrorists), you cant simply bomb people into submission. our military strength seems to work as a disadvantage…in many places, we are perceived as bullies and the terrorists are viewed as “freedom fighters.”

    Our military strength is important….when deployed as a guard against potential national threats (eg: preventing China from invading Taiwan or India, or Russia from invading Georgia or one of the “Stan’s”).

    In our “post national” world, an individual’s identity is defined and people are organized in different ways – by workplace, industry, interest, hobby, neighborhood, ethnicity, lifestage, etc, etc….because online, we can find people literally across the globe who share our identity in these different ways, I think our “national identity” as “americans” becomes less and less relevant.

    The big question, though, is whether or not this “atomization” is good or bad…does it give people a sense of purpose, or does it isolate them? Who gets left behind, and how do they adapt? I think these are big questions we have to wrestle with….

  • Doug

    The End of History, Post-National, yada, yada, blah, blah.

    Don’t forget the Internet was created by man and is controlled by man. He merely perceives the world through it. (Blake’s “mind forg’d manacles”). The physical world is a different matter altogether. We have little or no say in that matter and Nation States are in many cases intertwined with this immutable fact. Whether England is ruled by Common Law or Sharia, it is still an Island and a unique entity.

    Don’t build your own Tower of Babel.

  • This thought thread is only 9 years behind the times.

    Back in 1999 a document called the ClueTrain Manifesto was released that discusses 95 theories of how the world of communication between customers and business has changed. See:

    It is inevitable that the same change would occur in Politics. Evetually, there would be a change as more and more people realized the power of conversation that is open to them today fueled by the inexpensive and ‘free’ tool available to them online today. Today, there is no need for people to ‘get their message’ from the media, just as there is no longer a need for politicians to pander to the same MSM to ‘get their message’ out – everyone is empowered to ‘go direct’ to the masses, or the masses direct to you.

    ‘Politics 2.0’ is no longer about one to many conversations, its now about one to one conversations occuring many many times in many many places, sometimes all at once. The message is the media.

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  • okcin

    Book burning proved friutless. Perhaps the next order will be try computer destruction to regain power.