Power is shifting—from large, stable armies to loose bands of insurgents, from corporate leviathans to nimble start-ups, from presidential palaces to public squares. It has become harder to wield power and easier to lose it, and the world is becoming less predictable as a result. As people become more prosperous and mobile, they are harder to control and more apt to question authority.
Insurgents, fringe political parties, innovative start-ups, hackers, loosely organized activists, upstart citizen media outlets, leaderless young people in city squares, and charismatic individuals who seem to have “come from nowhere” are shaking up the old order. These are the micropowers: small, unknown, or once-negligible actors who have found ways to undermine, fence in, or thwart the megaplayers. Navies and police forces, television networks, traditional political parties, large banks—the large bureaucratic organizations that previously controlled their fields—are seeing their authority undermined.
Micropowers should be aberrations. Because they lack scale, coordination, resources, and a pre-existing reputation, they should not even make it into the game, or at least they should be quickly squashed or absorbed by a dominant rival. But the reverse is increasingly true: The micropowers are beating the megaplayers.
Javier Solana, the former Spanish foreign minister, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and European Union foreign policy chief, once told me: “Over the last quarter-century—a period that included the Balkans and Iraq and negotiations with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian issues and numerous other crises—I saw how multiple new forces and factors constrained even the richest and most technologically advanced powers. They—and by that I mean we—could rarely do any longer what we wanted.”
The end of the Cold War and the birth of the Internet helped enable the rise of today’s micropowers, but they were by no means the only important factors. We need to look at deeper transformations in how, where, how long, and how well we live. These changes can be usefully imagined in three categories: the More Revolution, the Mobility Revolution, and the Mentality Revolution. The first is swamping the barriers to power, the second is circumventing them, and the third is undercutting them.
The More Revolution
Ours is an age of profusion. There are more people, countries, cities, political parties, and armies. More goods and services, and more companies selling them; more weapons and more medicines; more students and more computers; more preachers and more criminals. The world’s economic output has increased fivefold since 1950. Income per capita is three and a half times greater than it was then. Most important, there are more people—2 billion more than there were just two decades ago. By 2050 the world’s population will be four times larger than it was a century before.
The More Revolution has progressed in the face of economic recession, terrorism, earthquakes, repression, civil wars, natural disasters, and environmental threats. Without diminishing the urgency or the human and planetary toll of these crises, we can assert that the first decade of the 21st century was arguably humanity’s most successful: As the Center for Global Development scholar Charles Kenny put it, “Best. Decade. Ever.”
According to the World Bank, between 2005 and 2008, from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America and from Asia to Eastern Europe, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty (those with incomes under $1.25 a day) plunged. Given that the decade was marked by the onset of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression of 1929, this progress is even more surprising. The world is expected to reach the Millennium Development Goals on poverty set in 2000 by the United Nations much earlier than originally anticipated. One of the most audacious goals back then was to cut the world’s extreme poverty in half by 2015; that impressive feat was achieved five years early, in 2010.
Despite the global financial crisis, the economies of poorer countries continued to expand and create jobs. That trend began three decades ago; 660 million Chinese have escaped poverty since 1981, for example. The share of Asians living in extreme poverty dropped from 77 percent in the 1980s to 14 percent in 1998. This sort of progress is happening not only in China, India, Brazil, and other successful emerging markets but also in the poorest countries of Africa.
The economists Maxim Pinkovskiy of MIT and Xavier Sala-i-Martin of Columbia University have shown that between 1970 and 2006 poverty in Africa declined much faster than generally recognized. “All classes of countries, including those with disadvantageous geography and history, experienced reductions in poverty,” they write in a 2010 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. “In particular, poverty fell for both landlocked as well as coastal countries; for mineral-rich as well as mineral-poor countries; for countries with favorable or with unfavorable agriculture; for countries regardless of colonial origin; and for countries with below- or above-median slave exports per capita during the African slave trade.”
Since 2000 child mortality has decreased by more than 17 percent worldwide, and child deaths from measles dropped by 60 percent between 1999 and 2005. In developing countries, the number of people in the “undernourished” category decreased from 34 percent in 1970 to 17 percent in 2008. The World Bank reckons that since 2006, 28 formerly “low-income countries” have joined the ranks of “middle-income” ones. These new middle classes may not be as prosperous as their counterparts in developed countries, but their members now enjoy an unprecedented standard of living. The Brookings Institution’s Homi Kharas, one of the most respected researchers on the subject, told me: “The size of the global middle class has doubled from about 1 billion in 1980 to 2 billion in 2012. This segment of society is still growing very fast and could reach 3 billion by 2020.”
The world’s socioeconomic landscape has changed drastically during recent decades: 84 percent of the world’s population is now literate, compared to 75 percent in 1990. Average scores on intelligence tests all over the world are now higher. Meanwhile, combat deaths are down by more than 40 percent since 2000. Life expectancy in countries hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS pandemic is starting to rise again. And we are providing for our agricultural needs better than ever: Since 2000 cereal production in the developing world has increased twice as fast as population. Even “rare earths”—the 17 scarce elements used in the manufacture of cellphones and in fuel refining—are not so rare anymore, as new sources and producers enter the market.
According to the United Nations Human Development Index, which combines health, education, and income indicators to give a global measure of well-being, standards of living have risen everywhere in the world since 1970. Simply put, billions of people who until recently lived with almost nothing now have more food, more opportunities, and longer lives than ever before.
The overall picture of humanity living longer and healthier lives, with basic needs far better addressed than ever, is crucial to understanding today’s shifts and redistributions of power, and to putting into perspective more fashionable explanations of current events. Yes, the Arab Spring and other recent social movements have made spectacular use of modern technologies. But they owe even more to the rapid rise in life expectancy in the Middle East and North Africa since 1980; to the “youth bulge” made up of millions of people under 30 who are educated and healthy, with a long life span ahead of them, yet have no jobs or good prospects; and, of course, to the rise of a politically active middle class. It’s no coincidence that the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, the North African country with the best economic performance and the most success in lifting its poor into the middle class.