Joseph Nye: All the world's a crowded stage in information age

As ARAB regimes struggle with protests fuelled by Twitter and al-Jazeera, and US diplomats try to understand the impact of WikiLeaks, it is clear the global information age requires a more sophisticated understanding of how power works.

Two types of power shifts are occurring - power transition and power diffusion. The transition of power from one dominant state to another is a familiar historical pattern, but power diffusion is more novel. The problem for states 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 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 1,000 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.

Conventional wisdom has always held that the state with the largest military prevails. In an information age, however, it may be the state (or non-state) with the best story that wins. Today, it is far from clear how to measure a balance of power, much less how to develop successful survival strategies for this new world.

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Most current projections of a shift in the global balance of power are based primarily on one factor: projections of countries' GDP growth. They thus ignore the other dimensions of power, including both hard military power and the soft power of narrative, not to mention the policy difficulties of combining them into successful strategies.

States will remain the dominant actors on the world stage, but will find the stage far more crowded and difficult to control. A much larger part of their populations than ever before has access to the power that comes from information.

Governments have always worried about the flow and control of information, and the current period is not the first to be strongly affected by dramatic changes in information technology. What is new - manifested in the Middle East today - is the speed of communication and the technological empowerment of a wider range of actors.

The current information age, sometimes called the Third Industrial Revolution, is based on rapid technological advances in computers, communications, and software, which in turn have led to a dramatic fall in the cost of creating, processing, transmitting, and searching for information.And this means that world politics can no longer be the sole province of governments.

As the cost of computing and communication comes down, the barriers to entry decline. Individuals and private organisations, ranging from corporations to terrorists, have thus been empowered to play a direct role in world politics.

The spread of information means power will be more widely distributed, and informal networks will undercut the monopoly of traditional bureaucracy. The speed of internet time means that all governments will have less control over their agendas. Political leaders will enjoy fewer degrees of freedom before they must respond to events, and will have to compete with an increasing number and variety of actors in order to be heard.

We see this as US policymakers struggle to cope with Middle East disturbances. The fall of the Tunisian regime had deep domestic roots, but the timing caught outsiders, including the US, by surprise. Some observers attribute the acceleration of the revolution to Twitter and WikiLeaks.

In an information age, smart policy combines hard and soft power. Given what the US is, the Obama administration cannot afford to neglect the soft-power narrative of democracy, liberty, and openness.

How events in the Middle East play out is anyone's guess, but in today's information age, upholding the freedom to access it will be an important component of smart power.

• Joseph Nye, a former US assistant secretary of defence, is a professor at Harvard and author of The Future of Power.