Power and Interdependence in the Information Age

Courtesy Reuters


Throughout the twentieth century, modernists have been proclaiming that technology would transform world politics. In 1910 Norman Angell declared that economic interdependence rendered wars irrational and looked forward to the day when they would become obsolete. Modernists in the 1970s saw telecommunications and jet travel as creating a global village, and believed that the territorial state, which has dominated world politics since the feudal age, was being eclipsed by nonterritorial actors such as multinational corporations, transnational social movements, and international organizations. Likewise, prophets such as Peter Drucker, Alvin and Heidi Toweirder, and Esther Dyson argue that today's information revolution is ending hierarchical bureaucracies and leading to a new electronic feudalism with overlapping communities and jurisdictions laying claim to multiple layers of citizens' identities and loyalties.

The modernists of past generations were partly right. Angell's understanding of the impact of war on interdependence was insightful: World War I wrought unprecedented destruction, not only on the battlefield but also on the social and political systems that had thrived during the relatively peaceful years since 1815. As the modernists of the 1970s predicted, multinational corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and global financial markets have become immensely more significant. But the state has been more resilient than modernists anticipated. States continue to command the loyalties of the vast majority of the world's people, and their control over material resources in most wealthy countries has stayed at a third to half of GDP.

The modernists of 1910 and the 1970s were right about the direction of change but simplistic about its consequences. Like pundits on the information revolution, they moved too directly from technology to political consequences without sufficiently considering the continuity of beliefs, the persistence of institutions, or the strategic options available to statesmen. They failed to analyze how holders of power could wield that power to shape or distort patterns of interdependence that cut across national boundaries.

Twenty years ago, in our book Power and Interdependence (1977), we analyzed the politics of such transnational issues

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