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Nye on power shifts and the 21st century

How the world is seeing a power transition from West to East as well as a power diffusion from government to society: Horizontal v. Vertical Shifts, Asia, Information Age, EU, Iraq War, NGOs, Cyber Warfar. Nick Burns, professor at Harvard Kennedy School in conversation with professor and author of The Future of Power Joseph Nye.

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Video transcript

I'm Nick burns professor at Harvard Kennedy School here with my colleague at the Kennedy School Joe and I Joe I know that you have studied as a lesson to hear we've talked about power there are power shifts occurring that are quite important transformational that'll make the next 30 or 40 years different in the last 30 or 40 and particularly for younger people listening to this what are some of these power shifts and how do you where do you think they're taking us well I argued that there are two very different types of power shift going on at the same time I call one power transition and the other power diffusion but the easiest way to think about it is power transition is horizontal it's from west to east it's among states power diffusion is vertical it's from governments to non-governmental actors or societal actors and the first the power transition is a product of the rise or if you want the recovery of Asia in 1800 age' was the center of the world economy and China was the world's largest economy then in the process of industrialization in Europe and North America Asia lost its share of world economy proportionately and Europe and America became the dominant part and what we're seeing in this 21st century is what you might call shift back to normal after all Asia view account India and China you got nearly half the world's population so it's not too surprising that at some point they should have nearly half the world's economy as well so that's one shift that's going on we call that a horizontal shift from West East the other shift those more subtle more interesting which is the shift within countries from government to society and that's a product of the information revolution that we're living through which really goes back to Moore's law and the ability to put twice as many transistors on a silicon chip about every 18 months to 24 months and that means that information is getting really cheap the cost of computing power declined a thousandfold in the last quarter of the 20th century and if the cost of a car had declined as rapidly you could buy a car today for about 20 bucks that's how dramatic it is what that means is it as information becomes more plentiful and cheaper more people have information and there is something to be said for the proposition that information produces power if you have information you're empowered to do things which you can't do if you're in the dark if you're basically without information so that fact that more and more people have access to more and more information because it's cheaper and cheaper means the government's no longer have quite the same monopoly that they did in the past and that I think is a is a very major power shift so to two ships going on at the same time one horizontal one vertical right let me ask you a question about both of them because this is also interesting and important on the power transition from west to east you're really talking here of that the European powers the Mediterranean world was traditionally the most powerful place in the world Bob Kaplan has talked about this Robert Kaplan ism his books and we are seeing this shift of the economic military political power to Asia but it doesn't mean of course that Europe is no longer relevant it's still a largest trade partner our largest military ally how do americans balance that shift we can't go overboard and neglect our old friends in Europe for our new friends and partners in Asia well I think it's important to realize that Europe for all its puzzles and problems remains an economy the size of the united states such as I saw economy that's larger than China the European Union when it acts as and so the idea of turning our back on Europe would be a huge mistake indeed when the Obama administration first announced its policy of focusing more on Asia it was referred to as a pivot the problem with the term pivot is it implies that you're turning from one to another so they'd rechristened it a rebalancing and the rebalancing is a better term because what it says is that we had not paid enough attention to the most rapidly growing part in the world economy Asia and that it was time that we did so but certainly they did not intend to say that means we turn our back on your from the Middle East or Africa or Latin America so they had to change their words which is an example of it's not only what tools you have in your toolbox but how you how you name the tools that can sometimes have an effect right you and I have both been diplomats government officials and I think one thing is clear we Americans have to be active on every continent we have to be active in the Americas the Western Hemisphere Africa as well as the others the Middle East Europe Asia we can't afford to say we're going to leave one for the other and I think most administration's you see that balance of priorities I think that's right though I think there's also a case that could be made that in the period of the Iraq war we got so embroiled in the details of Iraq that we sometimes didn't pay enough attention to the other regions but its people would make the opposite of mistake if they said that because the changes in energy technology are going to make us less dependent on oil and gas imports in the 2020s indeed the international energy agency in Paris says that North America may not be importing energy any longer in the 2020s some people say well then we can turn our way from the Middle East but that neglects the fact that we have other interests in the Middle East such as non-proliferation of nuclear weapons such as denying a rat call terrorist group like the Islamic state from having a sanctuary such as protection of allies like Israel such as promotion of Human Rights so there are lots of interests which will remain even if we don't import oil from the Middle East that's why the word pivot is probably yet the wrong word right I remember an article by the journalist Ryan Lizza and The New Yorker several years ago when he quoted an American Obama officials saying our basic problem since 911 has been there were over invested in the Middle East and under invested in Asia and that struck me as right that we had to rebalance towards Asia but I think you're right about the word rebalances a more felicitous word then pivot a second question empower diffusion our newspapers cable TV Jon Stewart Jon Oliver all filled with the non-virtuous non-state actors al Qaeda of Boko Haram the Islamic state there are such people in the world we could a cyber terrorists we got to focus on them but they're also virtuous non-state actors could you talk about the two groups because we see lots of examples of positive NGOs making a real you mentioned one bill and melinda gates foundation making a real impact work i think it's very important to realize that power diffusion empowers a lot of non-state actors some of them good some of them bad and the bad ones tend to get attention because bad news sells sells newspapers and advertisements on television programs if you just take an example like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa last year and you asked what was the most crucial early responder it was an organization called Doctors Without Borders that his son in Psalm frontiere and they were up and running and identifying the problem in doing preliminary care helping to contain it eventually governments came along the US eventually sent army units to help in Liberia with setting up field hospitals and so forth but the real unsung hero of the response to Ebola there wasn't a non-state actor medicines some dear Doctors Without Borders in fact I think maybe one of the biggest trends that we've seen the last 25 or 30 years is the emergence of these nongovernmental organizations like doctors without borders of the Gates Foundation and they're they're playing a big role that's right if you look at if you look at the Gates Foundation and some of the programs that they organize on their own but also in coordination with other non-state actors they'd probably make a factor in dealing with problems like AIDS and malaria and tuberculosis as governments are I remember when the first climate change summit big summit was held in Copenhagen in december two thousand nine several thousand of these ngos registered to be part of the climate change conference 30 years ago you would have had only governments now you have governments and NGOs nongovernmental organizations working together which to me is a good thing because they are filling a space and I want to ask you before we leave this lesson about power transition and power diffusion I wanted to ask you about climate change its such an important issue one of the problems we've had is how do you organize 195 countries thousands of NGOs in a way seven and a half billion human beings were all affected by it to combat the worst aspects of it in degree and what to do and that's been a problem for the global community well it is very difficult to get action at 189 in one room there is a famous American diplomat to you must have known Harlan Cleveland who said the problem of diplomacy nowadays is how do you get everybody into the act and still get action yeah and that's been particularly true on climate in addition you have quite different views me in Copenhagen in 2009 china the u.s. took very different views about dealing with climate change but it's interesting that last year President Obama and President Xi japane were able to sign an agreement of setting targets and the 2020s of how they would be able to limit their use of carbon and the creation of greenhouse gases India is still not part of this consensus India argues we're poor we have coal coal may be very polluting but our first obligation is to reduce the poverty of our people so India is not going to sign up to the same agreement that China or US or Europe would sign up to so what people have been trying to work on is to have what they call a bottom-up approach instead of having one UN agreement which sets a limit for everybody from the top down there trying to get different countries to specify what their targets are to the next decade and then try to urge them to improve or increase those targets so use a strategy of naming and shaming and that's where some of the nonprofit or non-governmental organizations become important they're often very good at naming and shaming it's interesting that the the pressures that have been put on some of the major oil companies have led some of these major oil companies to announce a week or two ago that they would support a tax on carbon which is a very important measure in the right direction yeah in addition to climate change you've spent a lot of time thinking about this newer issue of cyberspace of cyber-espionage the possibility of cyber warfare cybercrime that's an issue that cuts across every country every business every government how should we Americans think about those threats and our capacity to defend against them well cyber is a great example of power diffusion what it means is that individuals and groups are able to do things that were previously reserved just two governments a hackers can interfere with a website that's probably the least I mean it's annoying but not terribly damaging they could also get into the control system for industrial systems and cause machinery to to crash so these are things that once upon a time you might say where that type of sabotage would be something you'd expect from governments but you also have to realize that it'll be increasingly possible for criminal groups possibly in the future terrorist groups and it's always easier for the offense than the defense the defense has to plug every hole the offense just has to find one so it's like some thief going down a hotel car door rattling doors see which ones were left unlocked and you don't have to find that each one is unlocked or used fide one