Reprinted with permission from Newsday, September 10, 2000.
As 150 heads of state followed each other to the United Nations podium last week, no one mentioned that this millennium moment does indeed mark a turning point. An overriding new force is reshaping all the presumptions on which the institution is based. Even its conceptual cornerstone, the primacy of national sovereignty and the principle of no interference in the domestic affairs of states, is being eroded. It was as if everyone at a large party had agreed not to notice a gorilla in their midst.
Bill Clinton came closest to making the point, but at the last moment he ducked, posing the issue as a question and leaving it unanswered. Are the internal conflicts, the wars within states that have accounted for 5 million deaths in the last decade, "part of the scourge the U.N. was established to prevent?" he asked. "If so, we must respect sovereignty and territorial integrity, but still find a way to protect people as well as borders." That was an oblique way of recognizing that although the U.N. is an institution of, by and for nation states, neither sovereignty nor national power is what it used to be.
You heads of state, said Secretary-General Kofi Annan, "have the authority to speak for, and the ability to transform, the lives of six billion people." Well, not really. Or at least, not like they used to.
Energy, ideas, political will and even money are increasingly found elsewhere. The overriding force that is largely responsible for diminishing governments' role is, of course, the information and communications revolution.
Like the Industrial Revolution, this one is transforming politics,economics, society and international relations. The earlier revolution put a premium on the large-scale use of resources and therefore on acquiring and protecting the territories they are found in. This one has the opposite effect. Physical resources are of steadily declining value relative to knowledge. Robust borders no longer neatly define each country's space and national interest. Just as often, now, they are costly barriers-to trade and to the flow of ideas.
More and more of the resources that matter cannot be found in any nation's territory. Rather, like capital, they slosh around in cyberspace or, like biodiversity, a reliable climate, and healthy oceans, they exist without regard to borders.
More than just boundaries, the information revolution is changing the core roles and powers of national governments.
Enormous numbers of people-individuals, citizens groups, businesses-now have the same access to information and the same ability to analyze and make use of it that was very recently a monopoly of governments. Even spy satellites have gone public. Thirty years ago, the United States' best satellites could provide real-time pictures with three-meter resolution. Today, you and I can buy commercial space satellite photography with one- meter resolution for a price that will fall rapidly in the years ahead.
The speed with which information is communicated and acted on poses another problem for governments. Markets react in seconds.
Governments are designed to speak with a single voice. That requires hierarchical decision making. In a crisis, options can be massaged and percolate to the top in hours. More usually, the process takes days or weeks. Governments are therefore losing power to non-state actors, both relatively and absolutely. No longer are they even the necessary middleman through which citizens interact with the world beyond their countries. Businessmen no longer look to governments to set currency exchange rates: That's done by commercial traders. Activists no longer just lobby their governments. They create transnational campaigns that can force governments to act, shape negotiations and even draft treaties.
None of this means that nation states are going to wither away, but it does mean a world already transformed yet still in the very early stages of the technological revolution that is driving the transformation.
What it means for the United Nations, as for most international organizations that were created in a burst of activity after World War II, is an institution bound to a half-century-old charter that presumes relationships and relative powers that no longer apply. Somehow the U.N. must find a way to operate in fundamentally new conditions within old rules. The challenge of that transformation dwarfs the issues (themselves enormous) that received attention at the summit last week. That's why the leaders did all they could to look the other way.
The harder question is what all this means for the world's leading power.
One might expect that because the information revolution was born here, because we remain in its forefront and because we of all societies adapt most easily to rapid change, the transition from one political era to the next would begin here too. But, though we are the first country to emerge from a world shaped by the Industrial Revolution to one shaped by the Information Revolution, with the possible exception of China, we are also, paradoxically, the state that finds it hardest to let go of that old world's expectation of undiluted sovereignty.
There are many reasons why. In our collective consciousness, we are still a country founded on George Washington's admonition to avoid at all costs "entangling alliances." We imagine ourselves as the shining city on the hill- above, apart from and better than others. While not as uniformly benign nor as generous as we like to think, this country has acted differently and that has served us, and the rest of the world, well. More concretely, for a long time, our size, natural resources and wealth made it possible to imagine economic independence. Two oceans encouraged us to think we could be free from attack.
We know we need more global governance-if we want our intellectual property protected; tariffs reduced; help in hunting down terrorists; controls on weapons of mass destruction; less drugs, crime, and disease arriving from abroad; more environmental protection and so on. At the same time, every step that moves what were once domestic decisions into the international realm is agonizing. We know it needs to be done, but we wish we didn't have to. Hence American ambivalence about each major new commitment, from trade agreements to building stronger international institutions to arms control. Like it or not, we are increasingly constrained in the entangling web of interests and needs that binds all the countries of the globe. But because we once enjoyed unparalleled freedom of international action, the necessary adjustments come much harder here than elsewhere. This time there really is a new world order, and though an American-bred revolution is shaping it, the United States is less ready for some of the change it will bring than are, for example, the countries of the European Union, already engaged in a massive experiment in sharing sovereignty.
Our decades of world leadership and unmatched economic, military and cultural power buy us a lot of leeway, but the United States has a major task ahead in learning to live in a world where sovereignty counts for less and compromise and cooperation for much more.