Disclaimer: This probably deserves more than a blog post.
Power, geopolitical, economic, and democratic success of a country over the next century will not be determined by military power, oil exports, Wall Street, religion, or cash. The most powerful nations of next century will be determined within the next ten years by the technology access, freedom of information, and ideas. This is the dispersion of power which is shifting from centralised points –where we once saw monetary power and military power as the key indicators for success– to a more decentralised model which relies on what experts are calling “soft-power.” This soft power translates into something very real when harnessed, and the steps made over the next decade will echo in the next century as a precedent and foundation for success.
What is power? Power is the ability to make others do what you wish by exerting force of some kind. Power is having influence. Traditionally this force has been in the hands of militaries who threaten lives (the stick), or in the hands of the wealthy who pay for things to be as they wish whether it be through contributions, manipulation, or out-right bribes (the carrot). Soft-power is a different approach. Under this model the force of power is more subtle and a type of downstream engagement where power has a bottom-up effect. The top of which is the international arena. This power is in ideas which others can hear, convert to, and take action upon. The reason for this dispersion of power is overly blatant and obvious– the access to communication, technology, and the free net. Only a few decades ago if a person wanted to simultaneously communicate with all four hemispheres they could; however they had to be extremely wealthy or high up in the military to have access to the technology. Now a 14 year old girl can have millions that have access to her ideas and whom are actively engaged.
People assume that the shift in power will be linear, but history is not linear. History is made by a volatile plot line which has peaks and valleys. Our models for economic power also do not demonstrate the shifting geopolitical climate, elections, shifting policies, and external forces. For example China’s rise to power, if kept on a linear path, will outpace the United States financially in 10 years, and double the US in 20 years. While it is clear that China is rising, the interest of the Chinese government is not to increase it’s citizens’ GDP by a great margin. It is in the best interest of the Chinese centralised government to rise to be the greatest economic power, but not with a well-spread GDP which as history has shown leads to huge shifts in ideologies. The other barrier is their access to information. The Great Firewall of China is China’s worst kept secret. The interesting aspect to look at is the ingenious methods for which the Chinese have figured out how to circumvent this censored internet or post in it. The average Chinese person I’ve met in the last 5 years know’s how to secure VPN access and tunnel out of the Great Firewall. They also use an interesting combinations of onomatopoeias and alliterations so that banned words and phrases don’t get automatically flagged by censorship web-crawlers. Much like the Arab spring, the general populous is growing more restless with these measures and is having more access to new ideas. A decent spark would not be inline with the Chinese economic model as of now and would undoubtedly set them back from this linear path to #1.
This is not to say that China will have to become like the west to rise to power. China is not like the west, and will never be like the west. It is absurdly over-simplified when we in the west think that China’s greatness will be tied to their adoption of western culture and practices. China will rise to power quickly because of their technology access and infrastructure. Not without mention is the Chinese government’s commitment to investing in technology. What will stall them will be their freedom of information. This barrier may be lowered, but we won’t see a large change in this area for at least another 5 years. This will continue to be the Chinese version of a father’s sin. Every super-power comes with their fathers’ sins, and this is undoubtedly China’s. They will continue to pay for this and see the effects echo into the next 25 years.
Access to information and a better educated demographic begets better decision making. The record speaks for itself. The very obvious ones seem more foreign like the recent reelection of Hugo Chavez. Decidedly poor choice given Chavez’s inability to keep his people safe, a widening class gap, devaluation of their currency, and wide-spread crime. Yet even with these facts, the lower-class still voted for Chavez because of no access to free information. Access to television, controlled by Chavez, and state-run newspapers is where the majority of people living in low-income barrios get their information. People in Venezuela with more access to free information (the Internet) and who are monetarily gaining from Chavez decidedly voted for the inspiring opponent, Henrique Capriles. This location and election may seem a bit distant and unrelatable to some though, but the record speaks for the United States as well where low-income families gathering most of their information from the television and radio shows in 2004 reelected George W. Bush who had clearly shown his distaste for lower-class citizens.
So what’s the solution? Clearly dispersion of power makes most governments nervous, but everyone wants to be at the top. We know that the wheels are already in motion, but most governments don’t know what to do. The solution isn’t to fight the power shift, but rather to manage it. If you can manage the power dispersion you get to be involved. Your citizens are going to play this Monopoly game with or without you – I suggest you be the bank. The solution for developing countries to make their mark over the next decade and make a sustainable rise to power is not only to allow access of information to their citizens, but enable their ideas. Ideas and information are the cornerstone, but without the bricks and mortar to build upon these that’s all they’re ever be - a cornerstone that marks what could have been. Developing countries, particularly in Latin America, can harness what is already in the works.
The first step is to eliminate the fear of ideas and change. There are two paths to take. Governments can fear the dispersion of power to the people and fight it. This is likely their first choice, but they won’t win. What everyone should have been talking about with the Arab Spring was not the the change that this had on the region in the Middle East. What we should have been examining is the fact that if this can happen in an area which has been historically plagued in the past 100 with theocracy and dictatorship, then this can happen anywhere. The leap it would take for a Latin American country like Ecuador or Colombia to manage dispersion of power and break historical molds is nothing in comparison for the leap it took for the Arab Spring to happen. Latin American countries historically do have centralised power, but what they do not have hanging around their necks is fear of their government. Latino culture champions controversy and difference in comparison to the Middle East. So instead of fearing and fighting the dispersion of power, these governments should be focusing on embracing it and managing it. Dispersion of power is going to happen. Think of it as splitting up stock options. The percentage that you get at the end may be less, but if these additions increase your valuation then 10% of $1 million is better than 20% of $200K. The winners will be on the side of the aisle who could part with a little power in exchange for a larger pie. The losers will be on the side of the aisle that resisted change. They might have their control, but they will not have real power.
The second step is to put technology into the hands of the people. A government that spends $1 million on purchasing Raspberry Pi has just enabled 30,000 of it’s citizens to put their ideas into action. Gone are the days where ideas needed investment, manufacturing facilities, and powerful friends. Now for the price of $35 you can put a computer in a college student’s hands which they can use to talk about their ideas, read about others’ ideas, and most importantly build their ideas. Spend another $2 million on investment for young companies in your country that are building things that matter to your citizens and improve their quality of life. Then take 10%, only 10%, of your military’s defense budget and begin to allocate it into technology instead of new weapons. Not only will you begin to see young companies blossoming, improve your citizens’ quality of life, and inject cash flow into your economy, but you’ll end up with a better educated public. Some of these young college students are your next soldiers in your military writing code to protect and defend your nation.
The fact of the matter is that the wars that matter will no longer be fought in trenches, in Middle Eastern cities, or in jungles in some far off land. The wars that will be fought that matter will be governments with the smartest technologists, hackers, and makers in the business. Power will no longer be determined by your military strength, because the top military in the world isn’t going anywhere if a 25 year old soldier of your adversary with nothing but a computer just disabled your SATCOMS (satellite communications). If you doubt that this is true, take a look at the Mandiant APT1 report on Chinese Cyber Espionage. Take a look at the tech industries skyrocketing stock prices and 29 year old billionaires. Read the news over the next year and see the percentage of new companies, ideas, and people that are shaking the globe. Then try to come tell me that power doesn’t lie within the technology you place in your citizens’ and in your military’s hands. Power, in every sense of the word, is having influence. The most powerful countries of the next decade will be determined by technology access, freedom of information, and ideas.
Now who will these countries be? Right now it’s up for grabs. The US will not be number one. There are to many stifles to technology enablement, heavily entrenched corruption, and an arrogance that doesn’t allow for change. China? It’s doubtful. While they have all the tools, their in for a rock 5 years once the crescendo of a better educated populous and access to information meet the centralised governments heavy hand. Whenever power shifts, historically we are in for turbulent times. The exciting part of this is that it’s honestly up for grabs. Shifts in power almost certainly mean war, diplomatic contention, and economic turbulence, but the countries that don’t focus their energy in fighting it, but rather managing the power shift will be the ones that come out on top. The west had better get used to the idea of at least 2 Latin American countries coming out in the ring. Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil are all in the running right now, although Chile is making a good effort on investing in technology (albeit unfocused on its own best interest). All the money and military power in the world isn’t going to silence ideas. It will not stop the shift to soft power in the modern world.