Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat—Moisés Naím has drawn the attention of decision-making circles in Washington through more than one book on the Middle East. Of Libyan descent, Naím was raised in Venezuela, where he served briefly as the minister of trade and industry. He is, perhaps, most well-known for his 14 years at the helm of Foreign Policy magazine. He oversaw a renaissance at the publication, including the launch of an Arabic version. Unusual in his belief that power is not just changing hands today, it is declining, his latest book argues that it is becoming increasingly easy to lose power.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq AL-Awsat, Naím discusses the Arab Spring, his latest book The End of Power, and his time as editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy.
Asharq Al-Awsat: In your last book, The End of Power, your central message seemed to be that in today’s world, it is easy to get power, difficult to use it, and easy to lose it. Could you explain this new nature of power?
Moisés Naím: This really is the essential message of the book. What I mean is that throughout history, the strongest have always had walls protecting them from challengers and competitors. This is true in every field—politics, finance, even sports. If you’re strong, it means you have something different protecting you. For instance, the army has power because of the weapons it has or the money to modernize its arsenal. If you were a politician, your power would lie in the number of your supporters. The same if you were a religious leader. However, these walls or fortifications that protect the strong are not as they once were. It has become easy to get around them or destroy them.
Q: Could you apply your idea of the “end of power” to the so-called Arab Spring? In all of the nations that witnessed revolutions or uprisings, there is chaos. No one emerged with the necessary power or charisma.
Power is fragmented in Egypt, Tunisia, and other nations. No one holds all the keys to power. In my book, I noted that there are positive results from this transformation in the nature of power, because its creates more opportunities for citizens and consumers. It ends monopolies and opens the door for new players on the economic and political levels.
However, the end of power has detrimental side effects as well. It creates a vacuum of sorts. Many personalities and organizations have enough power to confront others, but no one has the power to successfully govern. We see the same thing in the US with the increasing polarization and partisan bickering, and in Italy where successive governments have been unable to form strong alliances with other parties. One group rules while power is divided, which results in a fragile government. We see the same thing in the Arab Spring nations, where power is distributed among everyone but no one has enough power to successfully rule. Naturally, this is bad. In the book, I suggest the importance of creating a new way of thinking for political parties to allow for a solution to this problem.
Q: In this context, what is your opinion of the situation in Syria? I recall you saying once that Syria had turned into a failed state.
Syria is in danger of turning into a state split into three parts, each one a failed state itself, and difficult to govern. Once again, no one individual has enough power to rule, while the other players have enough power to stand in the way.
Q: You’ve said there are three basic factors that have led to the end of power: “more,” “mobility” and “mentality.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
These forces have made the powerful less strong than before. “More” means more of everything. There are more people on the planet than ever before. The population is the youngest in history. The population of the world is more metropolitan than ever. Mankind has never seen a majority of the population living in large cities, rather than small villages or farms. It took mankind a long time to reach one billion people in the 1950s, but that number has since jumped incredibly, to seven billion. In addition to this incredible population size, there is more of everything else. There is more information, travel, commerce, money medicine, et cetera. . . . When you have an abundance of everything, power will try to control it, which is very difficult. Brzezinski once said that it is easier to kill a million people than to rule them.
It is a very complicated issue, especially if we consider the revolution in mobility, which is the second factor that led to the end of power. Now, you don’t just have the problem of abundance, but you also have constant, unrestricted movement. People are moving all the time. Money, investments, commerce, goods, weapons, diseases and terrorist organizations are all moving from one place to another. Total power, which can only work within clear borders, has been threatened by this constant movement.
This takes us to the third factor: the revolution in mentality that occurred as a result of the abundance and constant movement. In the last thirty years, a profound change has occurred in peoples’ values, aspirations and expectations, which can be traced back to a change in ways of thinking. Many questions have been raised. It is no longer easy to convince people through the old means, because there are always new and interesting ideas being presented.
So “more” caused an increase in the number of challengers who flooded the walls that protect the powerful. As for the revolution in mobility, it helped those challengers circumvent those walls. The revolution in mentality helped them destroy the walls.
Q: You mention in your book that the youth now are more powerful than before. You gave the example of the protests on Wall Street two years ago.
One of the important changes that has happened in the past few years has been that individuals have now become more powerful than ever before. Now, individuals are more capable of confrontation and resistance. One of the ways of achieving that is through organization. There has been a significant increase in the number of NGOs in every field, and they seem to be very active and effective. A great example of that is the Tea Party in America and the movements that participated in Occupy Wall Street, or anti-immigration organizations in Europe. Part of the success of these and other organizations lies in their ability to attract proactive personalities. This is lost in the classic political movements, which are no longer attractive or motivating to the youth. I say that these political movements must learn something from these organizations.
Q: You also state in your book that even military forces do not enjoy the same power they once did. You gave the example of the Somali pirates hijacking modern ships.
This is an important example that reflects what I’m trying to say. Those pirates use rickety boats and old weaponry and are still successful in hijacking highly advanced ships. The great powers—America, Europe, China and Turkey, all of them—failed to defeat and deter the pirates. This example makes us understand that military might is limited. Despite its massive defense budget, America could not emerge victorious from the wars it waged.
Q: You also stated that the leaders of the world are weaker than their predecessors. Is it true that President Obama is weaker than the presidents before him?
In one interview, President Obama pointed to a small garden in the White House and told the reporter that Ronald Reagan had ordered its construction with a simple phone call. President Obama said he could not make such a simple decision that easily these days. This story is just a symbol of what I’m trying to express. Of course, I’m not saying that the American, Chinese or Russian presidents don’t have any power, only that they are less able to use that power.
Q: What do you have to say about what Vali Nasr mentioned in his new book, The Dispensable Nation, or what Robert Kegan said in The World America Made? Both of them disagree with you somewhat regarding their ideas about power. They believe that America has the power to change conditions in the world and maintain stability in the international order that they helped create over the past sixty years.
They are only focusing on international relations and America’s political influence, while my book focuses on nearly everything. I talk about the collapse of power in the financial market, labor organizations, political parties and so on. But if you carefully read Kegan’s book, you will find that he admits there are limits to America’s influence. For instance, in South America their influence is limited, while it was once very strong.
Q: What about the notion that power has transferred from the West to the East or that soft power is more effective than strong power?
There are those who debate the continual shift of power from place to place. I call this elevator thinking—that there is always one power on the rise and one falling. This is true to a certain degree, but my basic idea is that there is a collapse in the nature of power. It is easy to take power, difficult to wield it, and extremely easy to lose it.
Q: In your time at Foreign Policy magazine, what were the interesting subjects you covered and what were the most important articles you remember?
We’ve come to my favorite subject, Foreign Policy magazine. I was editor-in-chief for fourteen years. During that period, the magazine published a lot of unforgettable articles, like “A World Without Israel” and “The Ideology of Development,” and the interesting piece by Samuel Huntington on Latin sprawl into the US and many others. A really important and valuable experience, no?
There are three important phases of my life: getting my PhD, my work as commerce minister in Venezuela, and after that my time as editor-in-chief for Foreign Policy. I was proud to publish the articles of the brightest minds in the world. But the competition was fierce, especially with the famous magazine Foreign Affairs. With every edition, I tried to present different subjects that the reader couldn’t find anywhere else. The process of preparing the magazine depended on creating and presenting new unprecedented ideas. I remember when we devised a new column called “Think Again,” which sought to change the prevailing view on a particular issue or person. This column dealt with issues like Al-Jazeera and political personalities like Condoleezza Rice. The column really tried to change the preconceived notions held by a majority of people and get them to look at the issue from a new angle.
Q: How did you choose the magazine covers? There were some very interesting covers, like the one depicting Marx’s face made out of bread.
I remember that cover well. We always wanted the cover to be different and interesting, in order to get the reader to buy the magazine. Really, work at Foreign Policy was a group effort. I was lucky to work with the best journalists and artists. There was also a “Discussions” section, where readers could comment on an article and the author would respond to some of them. We invited authors with different perspectives to critique our published articles, which the original author would then respond to. We did all of that to explain and enrich, and entertain as well.
Q: Are there any memories that stand out from this experience?
I think that publishing an Arabic version of the magazine was an important moment for me. I was convinced that the magazine would find a market in Arab countries, because there is a thirst for new ideas. Also, I can’t forget our winning the international journalism award three times. That is something you don’t forget.
Q: My final question: your name is Moisés Naím, and I read that you were born in Tripoli, Libya.
Yes, I was born in Tripoli and my family emigrated to Venezuela when I was four. Both my mother’s family and my father’s family go back six generations in Libya.
Q: Do you speak Arabic?
No, but my father and mother still speak Arabic in Venezuela. I can understand what they’re saying, but I don’t speak it well. I love Arabic music, especially the modern stuff. Naturally, most meals were Libyan at home when I was growing up. Even my Venezuelan wife learned how to cook Libyan food. One day, I’ll invite you so we can eat some delicious Libyan food.