How Power Shapes our World

In these exclusive interviews, we speak to Moisés Naím (Distinguished Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former Minister of Trade and Industry for Venezuela and Executive Director of the World Bank) and Admiral James Stavridis (Dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University and former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO). We discuss the fundamental nature of power, how it shapes our world economically, politically, socially and how it impacts the lives of every single individual on the planet.

To understand the story of humanity is to bear witness to the story of its greatest paradox; power. This phenomenon creates the constraints in which we operate, yet is responsible for the structures that bind our society together.

The exercise and accumulation of power is endemic to humanity. In the 20th century alone, this phenomenon has been responsible for over 200 million deaths through war and oppression, and has concentrated over 50% of the world’s wealth into the hands of just 1% of the world’s population meaning that billions of our global family have been subjected to hunger, thirst and disease. Power has also enabled social movements that have brought rights, freedoms and opportunity to many billions more.

The unrelenting growth of technology in the past quarter-century has brought with it conceptually challenging notions to our incumbent ideas of power. Facebook, with more than 1.3 billion users is now (perhaps) as powerful as many sovereign states. Diffuse communications networks have also enabled hundreds of millions to come together in revolutions and acts of protest; in some cases, dismantling power structures that have been incumbent for hundreds of years. Even the most abstract seat of power- knowledge- is being challenged as the Internet democratises access to the total sum of human insight.

Technology has also allowed the world’s governments to infiltrate our lives ever more deeply; being able to monitor, analyse and consume unimaginable quantities of information on the daily lives of citizens and entities, and build weapons to destroy them in more astonishing ways. “We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world – or to make it the last.” – John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Regardless of whether we stand on the opposite plinths of that which is considered the moral good or evil, we must agree that every major advancement and challenge our species has experienced has been as a result of the ebbs and flows of the great forces power projects into our world. As Michel Foucault comments, “Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategic situation in a particular society.”

In these exclusive interviews, we speak to Moisés Naím (Distinguished Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former Minister of Trade and Industry for Venezuela and Executive Director of the World Bank) and Admiral James Stavridis (Dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University and former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO). We discuss the fundamental nature of power, how it shapes our world economically, politically, socially and how it impacts the lives of every single individual on the planet.

[bios]Moisés Naím is an internationally-syndicated columnist and best-selling author of influential books including the recently-published The End of Power, a startling examination of how power is changing across all sectors of society, and Illicit, a detailed expose on modern criminal networks. In 2011, he launched Efecto Naím, an innovative weekly television program highlighting surprising world trends with visually-striking videos, graphics and interviews with world leaders which is widely watched in Latin America today. Dr. Naím gained international recognition with the successful re-launch of the prominent journal Foreign Policy and, over his fourteen years (1996-2010) as editor, turned the magazine into a modern, award-winning publication on global politics and economics.

His prize-winning work is highly influential in the world of international politics, economics and business. In 2005, Illicit was selected by the Washington Post as one of the best nonfiction books of the year; it was published in 18 languages and is the basis of an Emmy award-winning National Geographic documentary. Of his recent book, The End of Power, former US president Bill Clinton said it “will change the way you read the news, the way you think about politics, and the way you look at the world.

Dr. Naím’s columns and media commentary have a worldwide audience. He is the chief international columnist and “Global Observer” for El Pais and La Repubblica, the largest daily newspapers in Spain and Italy, a contributor to The Financial Times “A-list”, and an associate editor at The Atlantic. His columns are also carried by all leading newspapers in Latin America, and have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg Business Week, Newsweek, Time, Le Monde and Berliner Zeitung. In 2011, he was honored to receive the Ortega y Gasset prize, the most prestigious award for journalism in the Spanish language . In 2013, Naim was named one of the world’s leading thinkers by the British magazine Prospect and in 2014, Dr. Naím was ranked among the top 100 most influential global thought leaders by GDI Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute for his work on The End of Power.

Dr. Naím is a distinguished fellow in the International Economics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. He is the founder and Chairman of the Board of the Group of Fifty (G50), which brings together top-flight progressive Latin American business leaders, and a member of the board of directors of the National Endowment for Democracy, Population Action International, the Open Society Foundations as well as several global companies.

In the early 1990s, Dr. Naím served as Venezuela’s Minister of Trade and Industry, as director of Venezuela’s Central Bank, and as executive director of the World Bank. He was previously professor of business and economics and dean of IESA, Venezuela’s leading business school. Dr. Naím holds MSc and PhD degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He lives in Washington DC.

Admiral James Stavridis, is the 12th leader of The Fletcher School since its founding in 1933. He holds the title of Dean of The Fletcher School, Charles Francis Adams / Raytheon Dean’s Chair

A former Admiral in the U.S. Navy, he led the NATO Alliance in global operations from 2009 to 2013 as Supreme Allied Commander. He also served as Commander of U.S. Southern Command, with responsibility for all military operations in Latin America from 2006-2009. A Fletcher PhD, he won the Gullion prize as outstanding student and has published five books and over a hundred articles. His focus is on innovation, strategic communication and planning, and creating security through international, interagency, and public/private partnerships in this turbulent 21st century.

Admiral Stavridis served as Supreme Allied Commander, NATO and commander of U.S. European Commander (2009-2013) and is currently Chair of the Board, U.S. Naval Institute (2013-present). He led U.S. Southern Command in Miami (2006-2009), served as Senior Military Assistant to Secretary of Defence and Secretary of the Navy and was first commander of Navy’s “Deep Blue” strategic and tactical think tank after 9/11 Pentagon attacks (2001-2002).

Admiral Stavridis is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards including Intrepid Freedom Award, Athenagoras Human Rights Award, Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, Alfred Thayer Mahan Award, John Paul Jones Award, Arleigh Burke Award, 38 US and international military medals and the Gullion Prize (Top in class), The Fletcher School, Tufts University

He holds a PhD and MALD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University and a BS from the U.S. Naval Academy. Stavridis is also a Member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

In 2014, he released a book of his story, “The Accidental Admiral: A Sailor Takes Command at NATO“[/bios]

Q: What are the dynamics that influence power?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] The sources of power have changed, and the ability of incumbents- those who already have power- to maintain it, is diminishing. Power is decaying because it has become easier to acquire, much harder to use, and thus easier to lose.

Q: Is it inevitable that power will concentrate?

[Admiral Stavridis] Today, sociologically speaking, we are seeing a broad diffusion of power. Look at the way that individual ideas, groups and individual people are able to exert power using communications technology. This could be violent or extreme groups, and also groups who are doing wonderful things for sustainability, the environment and ecology. Groups are forming, and power is diffusing away from nations and moving more toward sub-groups. The recent referendum in Scotland, the potential Catalonian split and the break-apart of Ukraine are all examples of power diffusions. Counterbalancing this, it’s worth pointing out that power is concentrating in Europe; through the European Union. I believe this is in a state of tension however; and generally power is diffusing.

The most important form of power is human capital, people.. and their education. In today’s world it is easier for people to amass education and communicate their ideas than it has ever been before. Education is still withheld from vast portions of the globe, but these individuals will get there. Today, education constitutes around 10% of what moves the internet. When that number moves up to 20, 30 or even 40%, more people will be educated and have access to technology. Over time, this will cause power to diffuse even more.

New corporations such as Google and Facebook are also examples of power diffusing from nation states and moving to new forms of entities. Technology will only accelerate this trend.

Q: What are the instruments used to maintain power?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] The instruments to maintain power vary between sector and activity. If you are a church, power sits in the number of your followers… If you are a political party, power sits with the scale of your voters and your ability to fundraise… If you are a company, power is your balance sheet, your brand, your unique selling points and technology… If you’re an army, power is your resources; your troops, ships, tanks and technology and if you are a nation, power is a combination of demographics, resources, military capability and so on.

Q: How do those with power defend their positions?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] The Historically, size was very important. We came to equate power to size; the larger your balance sheet- for example- the more difficult it was for challengers and rivals to displace your market dominance. If you were an army and had huge expenditure, budgets, weapons and technology- it was difficult for others to fight you. Now everything has changed. In the case of the military, we have relatively small groups like Al Qaeda, The Taliban and the Islamic State who are capable of challenging the mightiest and most advanced militaries of the world. In the commercial space, we have also seen how small start-ups are able to contest- and even displace- the dominance of centuries-old multinational corporations. We have also seen how new churches are attracting believers that have traditionally been faithful of other religions. Size continues to be important, but is no longer the main factor shielding the powerful from the challenges of newcomers and new arrivals.

Q: How can power be dismantled?

[Admiral Stavridis] How power can be governed is one of the most fundamental questions of the 21st century. Most of what passes for crises is- in reality- about governance and the ability of some entity (usually a nation) to contain and shape behaviours by sub-groups; some very small violent extremists, or large corporate entities.

If nations are not going to be able to exert governance, who will? The answer to this question is unclear, and whether this Westphalian state that emerged in the 1600’s will continue to be the dominant governance structure of society is in doubt. Long term, my intuition is that society will have different organising features. Just think about this… What is a global citizen? We think today about passports, and we treasure our individual national passports that allow us to stride boldly from country to country, and yet in a century it may be more important to understand what it means to be a global citizen. I suspect that Bitcoin or some variant of it may have grown to become a global currency; and by that time, technology will allow us to speak commonly- although we may hang onto the precious nationalism of our languages for a long time. All these trends will slowly start to create the idea of global citizenship as distinct from what we think of today, which is state sovereign citizenship.

Q: How is power changing in our world?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] The definition of power has not changed, but the ability of those who have it to retain it, and the ability of those who want it to acquire it has changed. The common wisdom says that these changes have mostly occurred due to the Internet; personally, I question that. I don’t doubt that technology has an important role, but I believe that role is far less defining.

The barriers to entry that have previously defended the incumbents are getting significantly less protective. The forces that are weakening those barriers are many, manifold and diverse- but I group them in three large categories. The ‘more’ revolution, the ‘mobility’ revolution, and the ‘mentality’ revolution.

The ‘more’ revolution tries to capture the fact that ours is an age of profusion. There are more people, countries, cities, political parties and armies. There are more goods and services, and more companies selling them. There are more students, and more terrorists, more preachers and more criminals, more medicines and more food. The world’s economic output has increased five-fold since 1950, income per capita is 3.5x greater than it was then. There are also two billion more people than just two decades ago. By 2050, the world’s population will be 4x larger than a century before. The ‘more’ revolution has progressed in the face of terrorism, repression, earthquakes, economic recession, repression, civil wars and environmental threats. It’s much easier to wield power into smaller and less-educated, less nourished, populations than to apply it to larger- better educated- and better informed peoples.

The ‘mobility’ revolution looks at the fact that not only do we have more of everything, but… we move more. Products, goods, services, ideas, criminal entities, terrorist enterprises, religions, political parties, universities, companies… they are all moving more. Borders are no longer the limits in which activities take place, everything is going global. Power needs a captive audience, and given the erosion of distance- and the lower costs of communication, coordination, transportation and interaction- the ‘mobility’ revolution has an impact on weakening historically strong barriers. Here; the Internet and communications revolution play a part, but they are just one factor.

The ‘mentality’ revolution is important. We live in a world where the aspirations, expectations, assumptions and values of populations change. People no longer stay in the religion of their fathers or forefathers, ideologies are no longer stable, and traditional sources of power such as the assertion that, ‘you do this because it’s always been done this way…’ no longer hold water. The traditional psychological forces have weakened, and people are more willing to question authority and less willing to tolerate the behaviours and obligations that were expected of them in the past.

The ‘more’ revolution overwhelmed the barriers that protect the powerful, the ‘mobility’ revolution helped people circumvent those barriers and the ‘mentality’ revolution undermines the barriers themselves. Together these forces interact to create a situation where power is easier to acquire, harder to maintain and easier to lose.

Q: How will our notions of leadership and diplomacy change in the future?

[Admiral Stavridis] My hope is that the future will see more of what I have coined ‘Open Source Security.‘ Over time, the answer is collaboration. At the moment, collaboration is primitive; it’s NATO, alliances, coalitions such as those we have in Afghanistan and loose partnerships. Over time, this idea of global citizenship and collaboration will lead us to a very different kind of governance construct; the trends are already pointing in this direction.
Asserting control by letting-go may sound paradoxical, but societies that try to exert enormous levels of control will create bodies that will blow them apart. Nations that embrace the idea of open-source diplomacy, collaboration and sublimation of nationalism to larger ideas and causes will be the nations that have a better chance at attaining and maintaining the loyalty of their citizenry.

China is a prime example of a nation that has a better chance of succeeding by easing back on the throttle of control. Whether they do that or not remains to be seen!

Q: What is the power of the illicit economy?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] I was previously the Editor in Chief of Foreign Policy Magazine. The remit of this publication is to understand the consequences of globalisation, and to detect the unintended consequences and surprises from the new ways in which the world is connected. That role led me to discover that international traffickers of money, people, drugs, weapons, human organs, counterfeits and so-on are at the frontiers of globalisation. These transnational networks are faster and more effective than anyone else in detecting and exploiting the new opportunities created by globalisation.

There are significant asymmetries faced by traditional Weberian bureaucracies when they have to confront and compete with decentralised fast-moving networks. Governments therefore face huge challenges (which they often lose) when tackling these transnational criminal networks. Interestingly however, the same challenges to power faced by governments, and other institutions, are also faced by transnational criminal networks. If you look at the traditional Russian mafias, the Yakuza, the Columbian drug-traffickers… there’s no doubt they still wield power. There is no doubt that huge drug cartels exist in Mexico, and it’s common knowledge that Russia is deeply penetrated by organised crime and that China and Japan, criminal organisations hold significant sway. If- however- you look in detail at who they are, how they work, and their challenges- you discover that they are also part of the story… They have more contestants, more challenges and the barriers that gave them power are no longer as protected as they used to be.

Q: Will the changes occurring in power impact our notions of sovereignty and identity?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] Just look back at the Summer of 2014, you see there is weakness everywhere. Analysis has shown that even Putin who is looking like Russia’s new Tsar- who has an ability to grab territory across borders and impose views- is experiencing weakness at home. He is using nationalistic land-grabbing and expansionary 19th century tactics to boost popularity at home. He is succeeding, but just in the short term- he has brought sanctions against an already frail economy. He hated NATO- it was one of his most despised institutions and was (frankly) on its way towards irrelevance. Thanks to Putin’s moves in Crimea and Ukraine, NATO has a second lease of life and Putin has therefore revived his mortal enemy. He has created a more-unified set of alliances against Russia. This is a clear example of how power is changing political sovereignty; we also in this sense see the impact Islamic State is having in challenging the US government to re-enter conflict in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

Many have argued that technologies have created virtual environments capable of challenging the notion of statehood, but I am not in this camp. I do not believe the nation state will be in decline within the next 100 years. We will have states that must create new ways of relating to their citizens, new political institutions and changed interactions with the real and virtual economies. There are many challenges ahead, and many sovereignty eroding forces at work such as the creation of Bitcoin- the first time that the creation of money is delinked from central banks… and onwards to communication structures and even criminal and terrorist networks. The state is being pulled in all kinds of directions. Trends like decentralisation and fragmentation are very real in this regard; we are speaking today in the week that Scotland is voting for independence. Regardless of the outcome, this shows that power is eroding. Nation states are also pulled by supranational forces- that can guide them in many other directions. Unfortunately however, most states are unable to respond to these challenges- as governing structures are stagnating in terms of ideas, organisation and ways of operating.

Q: What are the opportunities created by changes in global power?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] Depending on the sector and country you’re in, the changes of power have created differing effects. For many people and many countries, it has created fantastic new opportunities for participation, economic growth and social creation, dynamism and more. In politics however, we have seen extreme polarisation, fragmentation and paralysis and gridlock.

We live in a world of innovation. For our waking hours, and even when we’re sleeping, our lives are touched every day by innovations of the past 20 years. Innovation has transformed our lives in almost every aspect- aside from how we govern. In government, politics and governance- innovation is stagnant- especially in political parties. We need to bring the spirit of innovation, disruption and empowerment into government and political parties.

Q: What will be the shape of our geopolitical landscape over the next quarter century?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] 25 years is a very short time in geopolitics. I do however think that China will have overtaken the USA in terms of GDP; but China will also exhibit deeper frailties and will be rocked by social and political upheaval in more ways than we have ever seen before. If you ranked countries in terms of where the more, mobility and mentality revolutions are happening in greatest effect? I will bet you that China is at the top of the list. This will have important consequences for the rest of the world. I feel will also see a Russia that will be beset by economic problems, and perhaps greater political frictions.

The two most powerful forces that will reconfigure the world over the next quarter century will be the energy revolution taking place in the United States and elsewhere. We are looking at an incipient new world energy order. The Summer of 2014 witnessed plummeting oil prices at a time when- historically- oil prices ought to have been soaring. Conflicts in the Middle-East, Russia, Ukraine and many other factors should have lifted oil prices and made them skyrocket. Instead of this, oil prices came down. This is because the United States is now the world’s largest producer of oil. July 2014 saw global production of oil reach the highest figure since 1987. We are looking at an incipient new global order where the key players in Carbon Energy may not be the usual suspects. The United States now produces more oil than Saudi Arabia and Russia for example. Just imagine a world over the next 25 years where oil- instead of being U$100 per barrel is in the band of U$80-70. That changes geopolitics and country interactions in profound ways. The other powerful reshaping force is climate change- which is giving us climate accidents, extreme weather and severe, often catastrophic, changes to our human environment.


Understanding power requires the same philosophical rigour we apply to the question of freewill. The author Sam Harris notes that, “The question of free will touches nearly  everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment – most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not ‘deserve’ our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high…” (Sam Harris, Free Will, 2012)

If we consider power through the lens of free will, we quickly start to understand its relative shape and form. On the (fair) assumption that we (as humans) are beings of (relatively) free will, we can see power in abstract as being the perimeter of the environment in which that will is allowed to exercise; or- to put it another way, power defines the boundaries in which we are allowed to be free.

For those wielding the power however, Newton’s second law (from his work Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica) is more relevant. Here, Newton states that F=ma where F is the vector sum of forces on an object, m is the mass of the object, and a is the acceleration of the object. Power, when applied in a sociological sense follows a similar structure whereby the amount of power exerted by an idea or ideology (F) is directly equal to the gravitas of those who support it (m) multiplied by the pace at which it is accepted (a). One need only look to the Arab spring as proof of this where a hugely influential public movement (m) spread the idea of freedom incredibly quickly through the population (a) and as a result had the power (F) to topple governments.

Ultimately we need to cease referring to power as being a phenomena that exists outside us, akin to the weather. Power is a human phenomena; it is the manifestation of our collective will, and a reflection of who we (as a society) want to be; and that’s profoundly impactful.

All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come”Victor Hugo

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.

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