Power Shift

WikiLeaks Illustrates a New Dynamic at Play Across the Globe

Power is no longer concentrated in global elites and institutions, observe Brian Katulis and Susan Thistlethwaite. The U.S. government needs to fully grasp this transformation.

Founder of the WikiLeaks website, Julian Assange, speaks during a press conference in London on October 23, 2010. The recent WikiLeaks data dump and the response it generated underscore the power shift occurring in the world today. (AP/Lennart Preiss)
Founder of the WikiLeaks website, Julian Assange, speaks during a press conference in London on October 23, 2010. The recent WikiLeaks data dump and the response it generated underscore the power shift occurring in the world today. (AP/Lennart Preiss)

Beneath the surface of the furor over the latest WikiLeaks releases of classified government documents are the outlines of a new understanding of power and how it works in the world today. Power is being redefined. It is now redistributed among a broader range of actors. Once the preserve of global elites and institutions, power is now more “open source,” with fewer barriers to entry and subject to more than just military or economic forces.

Clearly this data dump by a handful of individuals at WikiLeaks poses a threat to the conduct of American foreign policy in important ways. Yet the government’s immediate response reveals that one important aspect of this leak of information to unauthorized individuals may be being overlooked. The leak has prompted perhaps tens of thousands of government workers to react in investigations and try to put the genie back into the bottle. This is not even remotely possible because there’s no longer a bottle.

Laws were broken by those who facilitated this massive leak of information, and WikiLeaks does not seem to have exercised the care that major newspapers have in how they have reported on the information contained in the leaked documents. But one big story that should not be missed is what these leaks—and perhaps more importantly, the reactions to them—tell us about geopolitics today.

The world has changed, but our foreign policy remains trapped in the 20th century. This leaves us vulnerable to new types of security threats. The fact that WikiLeaks is probably a bigger national security news story than any other, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, should give us pause. It suggests that we should consider new ways of understanding power in today’s world and how to begin to work with it effectively instead of reactively.

Powerful institutions in the national security arena such as the Pentagon and State Department are working to redefine how they assert U.S. interests. Since 2005, a number of prominent thinkers inside and outside of government have attempted to shift U.S. national security away from the “shock and awe,” preventive war, hard military power approach outlined the Bush administration’s 2002 national security strategy toward a more broader definition falling under the label of “smart power.”

The basic notion driving this redefinition is that other components of national power—economic, diplomatic, and new types of networked communities—can help make our country more secure. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have talked about smart power largely in the context of still unfinished attempts to shift resources from the military to civilian agencies such as the State Department, as well as efforts to modernize civilian agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development to meet the challenges of today’s world.

These are important steps. But what is needed now is a new conceptual framework that leads to greater effectiveness on the ground—one that recognizes the increasingly “open source” nature of power.

New forms of power in action

Rapid changes going on in the world have outstripped the transformations taking place inside government. These changes have been sparked by technological advancements, media revolutions, and dynamics connecting people more closely than ever before in new global communities. These are new forms of power, and they can be glimpsed not only in the WikiLeaks event, but also in more profound ways in other recent events that, at first glance, seem less about power shifts.

Earlier this year, the secretary of defense was forced to respond personally to an unknown "preacher" threatening to burn a Koran. On the surface, the threatened Koran burning looks like aberrant behavior. But it actually illustrates a crucial aspect of the changed nature of power.

This fundamentalist pastor of a church of 50 people was at the center of a brief national security crisis prompting a response from not only the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and defense secretary, but also other senior members of the administration because the Internet serves as a force multiplier. Words and images (especially video) often generated from the grassroots level have greater power to spark a security firestorm far faster and more efficiently than traditional state forms of power or even traditional religious institutional power.

The threatened Koran burning episode demonstrated not only the diminishment of traditional state power, but also the diminished nature of traditional religious power. A very wide range of religious leaders and institutions such as the Vatican, the World Evangelical Alliance, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and an Interfaith Summit convened by the Islamic Society of North America condemned this obscure pastor and his threatened Koran burning. But these traditional religious forms of power could not completely neutralize this threat.

This may be due to the fact that global religious identities or even ethnicities have increasingly been substituting for national identities, especially in weak or failing states. In a weak state like Afghanistan, where violent demonstrations broke out even in response to the threat of the Koran burning, religious identity is substituting for national identity as the government loses the people’s trust. This is becoming true for other fragile states as well.

Thus the threatened Koran burning by an obscure pastor in Florida provokes outrage and even violence in these settings because it is perceived as a threat to this larger, globalized identity and the outrage is available instantly on everybody’s cell phone. In this case, the threat became an international crisis that put our troops at risk.

Even in societies with fairly strong and functioning institutions like our own, we have entered an age where obscure individuals and small groups are made powerful by the nature of networks and the force multipliers of new technology and new communities that can organize around transnational identities. So we find individuals feeling disaffected and disconnected from our society who then associate themselves with a globalized Islamist identity and try to do harm to the communities in which they live—as seen by the recent terror plots thwarted in Maryland and Oregon during this holiday season alone.

These kinds of power shifts that can hold traditional state power and institutional religious power hostage, even for a short time, need more profound analysis than simply saying “the world is flat,” a phrase from New York Times columnist Tom Friedman that became popular and largely related to changing global economic dynamics. And the redefinition of power needs to be deeper than simply saying there are two types of power: hard and soft.

A new definition: “Open source” power

Power is traditionally defined in foreign policy and global politics as the ability to get things done and achieve certain goals by applying resources. This definition, however, can obscure the multidirectional, multisourced, and overlapping forms of power operating in the world today. Power is far more “open sourced” than directional and/or hierarchical.

A more helpful definition of how to use power in this new context is suggested by physics: Power is measured by the rate at which work is performed or energy is converted no matter what the source. If power is more “open sourced,” or “multisource,” the key question becomes how the energy being generated can be used to bring about desired change. This kind of description of power—particularly the part about how energy is converted—is important to help us understand the power transformation occurring in geopolitics today.

It’s much harder for any nation, including the United States, to achieve its goals on its own in a world where power is increasingly more globally connected and multisourced—whether it is bringing a war to an end, preventing another terror attack, or stopping the spread of the most dangerous weapons the world has ever seen. No longer are the most powerful institutions in the world capable of acting on their own to achieve desired results.

The inadequacy of traditional forms of power

The failure to recognize the shifting nature of power was at the heart of many national security policy blunders the United States committed during the first decade of this century. Many of the actions the Bush administration took in response to the 9/11 attacks were precisely the sorts of reactions Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda leaders sought to elicit. One of these was a long-term military presence in the Middle East and South Asia that has been as costly as it has been questionable in terms of making America safer, stronger, and more prosperous.

A low point in American power came in 2005 and 2006 when the president repeatedly stated goals that the United States has yet to fundamentally achieve: eliminating the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, stopping North Korea from going nuclear and preventing Iran from following suit, and bringing sustainable security to Iraq. This remains an elusive goal for millions of Iraqis despite the conventional wisdom that the 2007 surge of U.S. forces there "worked."

Another example is when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argued in the summer of 2006 that the war between Israel and the nonstate organization Hezbollah marked the "birth pangs of a new Middle East." In a sense, Rice was correct, but not in the way that she meant it. At the time she made the statement, Rice was trying to spin the war in the good versus evil framework that dominated the Bush administration’s foreign policy centered on a so-called Freedom Agenda.

But in reality the birth pangs of the new Middle East were ones in which actors like Hezbollah—an organization operating just beneath the level of the nation state and sometimes referred to as a state within a state—was able to change political and power dynamics in the region and punch well above its weight.

Open source power met shock and awe power in many parts of the Middle East in the last decade, and open source power fought to a draw, at least.

Changed policy rhetoric but little action

Flash forward to 2010. It can look like a lot has changed in the last few years largely due to the Obama administration’s recognition of a world that’s transformed (at least in President Barack Obama’s rhetoric). Read between the lines of the president’s leading national security speeches and look closely at how top officials in his administration talk about power. You’ll see that there’s an understanding that the old ways of doing business were not making us more secure and prosperous.

President Obama recognized this in his 2009 speech at the United Nations General Assembly, saying:

In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates more substitutes one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The traditional divisions between nations of the South and the North make no sense in an interconnected world; nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War.

Actions speak louder than words, however, and our policy actions have not yet matched the rhetoric change. The gap between what President Obama sought to do in the international arena and what his administration has been able to tangibly achieve thus far is still substantial. The Guantanamo Bay prison remains open, Iran continues to move forward with a nuclear program that is outside of international oversight and regulation, North Korea continues to menace South Korea, and terror plots continue to threaten the United States and its allies regularly.

Troops may be redeploying from Iraq, but the country remains sharply divided and suffers from enduring human security challenges. And the biggest unfinished business is Afghanistan, where the Obama administration tripled down on its efforts and sent more troops and diplomats, still with mixed results.

When one looks at these remaining challenges and the gap between the rhetoric about a new approach and the reality of incremental change in U.S. foreign policy, the one common thread is the incomplete implementation of the new instinct and recognition that global power has changed during the past decade.

Catalyzing “open source” power

The crisis we face in the new distributions of power in the world is not a failure to recognize that massive change is occurring—it is a crisis of efficacy. Power is not much good in the world unless it is deployed effectively. That is today’s and tomorrow’s challenge.

The United States does not always have to accelerate conflict to be effective in this new power context. Take the specific case of globalized religious identities substituting for political power. Religious power, at the local level, can in fact be a source of conflict reduction or prevention, and it needs to be engaged as another way to catalyze shifting forms of power.

Northern Nigeria is a country experiencing dynamics similar to Afghanistan. Collective religious and ethnic identities are filling the gap in a weak state with little citizen loyalty to the central government. This is also a country where the United States should be deeply concerned because of the huge oil production.

Muhammad Ashafa, a leading imam in that region, and James Wuye, a Christian pastor, co-founded the Interfaith Mediation Center, an organization the works to quell religious conflict. When the Danish cartoons controversy broke out worldwide—another example of the “open source” distributed nature of power linked to these global identities—these two men were able to keep their own area completely still. [1]

Often such grassroots networks, especially religious ones, are not recognized and regularly engaged as a source of power for effective change. But as Scott Thomas argues in his recent article in Foreign Affairs, “If the United States recognizes and utilizes the worldwide religious resurgence, it can harness its power to improve international security and better the lives of millions.” He also warns of the dangers of failing to do so.

A key to “harnessing the power” of religion is recognizing it. Religion is surprisingly at play even when issues are not obviously about “religion.” Economic globalization, a form of power driven by cybercommunication, is clearly a boon to economic development because it is making the world “flat.” Yet some consider globalization an attack on traditional societies. They believe that the rapid pace of change fueled by Internet-driven globalization is destabilizing traditional cultures and fueling the rise of global, antimodernist ideologies. Some prominent antimodernist ideologies that often take the form of religion are a main source of conflict in the world today—and virtually no religion is immune to this new political dynamic.

Moving forward in the new power context

The Obama administration entered office hoping to revive America’s position in the world. It took important steps to address America’s image and reach out to multiple constituencies around the globe. The fact that President Obama conducts town hall meetings with ordinary citizens on nearly all of his visits overseas and holds regular interviews with new types of media outlets (his first interview as president was with an Arab satellite television channel) demonstrates that he understands that gone is the era when geopolitics could be conducted largely behind closed doors and shielded from broader constituencies affected by decisions made by global leaders.

Power has changed, and it is still undergoing a transformation today. But the United States still clings to old forms of power to try to shape and influence events around the world. Military might still matters in the global arena, but probably not at the current price Americans are paying. Economic, social, and religious forms of power have great abilities to shape human action, but the U.S. government’s national security apparatus is not seizing on these opportunities. It remains stuck in a period that no longer exists.

America needs to move beyond the surface-level recognition that power is no longer just military power to complete the work that began last decade in redefining U.S. national security. It must work to identify and work with nontraditional sources of power, and it must also to realize what they mean for the changing nature of power itself in the global arena.

Until then, the U.S. government is likely to continue to fall short of achieving the goals it sets—whether it is sustainable security in Iraq or Afghanistan, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or a world that is moving toward the stated goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. All of these noble goals will remain elusive until new forms of power are recognized and institutions in the U.S. government truly adapt to meet the demands of a world transforming.

In the wake of WikiLeaks, the U.S. government is strongly disposed to retrench from this new world and try to put the genie back in a bottle that no longer exists. To be sure, the U.S. government needs to take necessary measures to protect its personnel and installations at home and abroad that are endangered by the illegal leaks. But it should also use this WikiLeaks episode to spark a broader dialogue with the public in countries around the world about the shared security challenges we all face.

One step that the State Department should take in particular is to empower its diplomats at all levels to take more steps outside of the elite bubbles in which most government employees operate abroad. The department should reinvigorate American public diplomacy initiatives to reach the new centers of power that are shaping geopolitics.

Brian Katulis and Susan Thistlethwaite are Senior Fellows at American Progress.


[1]. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), p. 365.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite