the United States government becomes more belligerent in using its power in
the world, many people are longing for a “second superpower” that can
keep the US in check. Indeed,
many people desire a superpower that speaks for the interests of planetary
society, for long-term well-being, and that encourages broad participation
in the democratic process. Where
can the world find such a second superpower?
No nation or group of nations seems able to play this role, although
the European Union sometimes seeks to, working in concert with a variety of
institutions in the field of international law, including the United
Nations. But even the common
might of the European nations is barely a match for the current power of the
is an emerging second superpower, but it is not a nation.
Instead, it is a new form of international player, constituted by the
“will of the people” in a global social movement.
The beautiful but deeply agitated face of this second superpower is
the worldwide peace campaign, but the body of the movement is made up of
millions of people concerned with a broad agenda that includes social
development, environmentalism, health, and human rights.
This movement has a surprisingly agile and muscular body of citizen
activists who identify their interests with world society as a whole—and
who recognize that at a fundamental level we are all one.
These are people who are attempting to take into account the needs
and dreams of all 6.3 billion people in the world—and not just the members
of one or another nation. Consider
the members of Amnesty International who write letters on behalf of
prisoners of conscience, and the millions of Americans who are participating
in email actions against the war in Iraq.
Or the physicians who contribute their time to Doctors Without
Medecins Sans Frontieres.
some of the leaders have become highly visible, what is perhaps most
interesting about this global movement is that it is not really directed by
visible leaders, but, as we will see, by the collective, emergent action of
its millions of participants. Surveys
suggest that at least 30 million people in the United States identify
themselves this way—approximately 10% of the US population.
The percentage in Europe is undoubtedly higher.
The global membership in Asia, South America, Africa and India, while
much lower in percentage of the total population, is growing quickly with
the spread of the Internet. What
makes these numbers important is the new cyberspace-enabled interconnection
among the members. This body
has a beautiful mind. Web
connections enable a kind of near-instantaneous, mass improvisation of
activist initiatives. For
example, the political activist group Moveon.org, which specializes in rapid
response campaigns, has an email list of more than two million members.
During the 2002 elections, Moveon.org raised more than $700,000 in a few
days for a candidate’s campaign for the US senate. It has raised thousands
of dollars for media ads for peace—and it is now amassing a worldwide
network of media activists dedicated to keeping the mass media honest by
identifying bias and confronting local broadcasters.
forms of communication and commentary are being invented continuously.
Slashdot and other news sites present high quality peer-reviewed
commentary by involving large numbers of members of the web community in
recommending and rating items. Text messaging on mobile phones, or texting,
is now the medium of choice for communicating with thousands of
demonstrators simultaneously during mass protests.
Instant messaging turns out to be one of the most popular methods for
staying connected in the developing world, because it requires only a bit of
bandwidth, and provides an intimate sense of connection across time and
space. The current enthusiasm
for blogging is changing the way that people relate to publication, as it
allows realtime dialogue about world events as bloggers log in daily to
share their insights. Meta-blogging
sites crawl across thousands of blogs, identifying popular links, noting
emergent topics, and providing an instantaneous summary of the global
consciousness of the second superpower.
Internet and other interactive media continue to penetrate more and more
deeply all world society, and provide a means for instantaneous personal
dialogue and communication across the globe.
The collective power of texting, blogging, instant messaging, and
email across millions of actors cannot be overestimated.
Like a mind constituted of millions of inter-networked neurons, the
social movement is capable of astonishingly rapid and sometimes subtle
community consciousness and action.
the new superpower demonstrates a new form of “emergent democracy” that
differs from the participative democracy of the US government.
Where political participation in the United States is exercised
mainly through rare exercises of voting, participation in the second
superpower movement occurs continuously through participation in a variety
of web-enabled initiatives. And
where deliberation in the first superpower is done primarily by a few
elected or appointed officials, deliberation in the second superpower is
done by each individual—making sense of events, communicating with others,
and deciding whether and how to join in community actions.
Finally, where participation in democracy in the first superpower
feels remote to most citizens, the emergent democracy of the second
superpower is alive with touching and being touched by each other, as the
community works to create wisdom and to take action.
does the second superpower take action?
Not from the top, but from the bottom. That is, it is the strength of
the US government that it can centrally collect taxes, and then spend, for
example, $1.2 billion on 1,200 cruise missiles in the first day of the war
against Iraq. By contrast, it
is the strength of the second superpower that it could mobilize hundreds of
small groups of activists to shut down city centers across the United States
on that same first day of the war.
And that millions of citizens worldwide would take to their streets
to rally. The symbol of
the first superpower is the eagle—an awesome predator that rules from the
skies, preying on mice and small animals.
Perhaps the best symbol for the second superpower would be a
community of ants. Ants rule
from below. And while I may be
awed seeing eagles in flight, when ants invade my kitchen they command my
the same sense as the ants, the continual distributed action of the members
of the second superpower can, I believe, be expected to eventually prevail.
Distributed mass behavior, expressed in rallying, in voting, in
picketing, in exposing corruption, and in purchases from particular
companies, all have a profound effect on the nature of future society. More
effect, I would argue, than the devastating but unsustainable effect of
bombs and other forms of coercion.
in the first superpower is relatively formal—dictated by the US
constitution and by years of legislation, adjudicating, and precedent.
The realpolitik of decision making in the first superpower—as
opposed to what is taught in civics class—centers around lobbying and
campaign contributions by moneyed special interests—big oil, the
military-industrial complex, big agriculture, and big drugs—to mention
only a few. In many cases, what
are acted upon are issues for which some group is willing to spend lavishly.
By contrast, it is difficult in the US government system to champion policy
goals that have broad, long-term value for many citizens, such as
environment, poverty reduction and third world development, women’s
rights, human rights, health care for all. By contrast, these are precisely
the issues to which the second superpower tends to address its attention.
in the second superpower is evolving rapidly in both cultural and
technological terms. It is
difficult to know its present state, and impossible to see its future.
But one can say certain things. It is stunning how quickly the
community can act—especially when compared to government systems.
The Internet, in combination with traditional press and television
and radio media, creates a kind of “media space” of global dialogue.
Ideas arise in the global media space. Some of them catch hold and
are disseminated widely. Their
dissemination, like the beat of dance music spreading across a sea of
dancers, becomes a pattern across the community.
Some members of the community study these patterns, and write about
some of them. This has the effect of both amplifying the patterns and
facilitating community reflection on the topics highlighted.
A new form of deliberation happens.
A variety of what we might call “action agents” sits figuratively
astride the community, with mechanisms designed to turn a given social
movement into specific kinds of action in the world.
For example, fundraisers send out mass appeals, with direct mail or
the Internet, and if they are tapping into a live issue, they can raise
money very quickly. This money in turn can be used to support activities
consistent with an emerging mission.
The process is not without
its flaws and weaknesses. For
example, the central role of the mass media—with its alleged biases and
distortions—is a real issue. Much
news of the war comes to members of the second superpower from CNN, Fox, and
the New York Times, despite the availability of alternative sources.
The study of the nature and limits of this big mind is just
beginning, and we don’t know its strengths and weaknesses as well as we do
those of more traditional democracy. Perhaps
governance is the wrong way to frame this study. Rather, what we are
embarked on is a kind of experimental neurology, as our communication tools
continue to evolve and to rewire the processes by which the community does
its shared thinking and feeling. One
of the more interesting questions posed to political scientists studying the
second superpower is to what extent the community’s long-term orientation
and freedom from special interests is reinforced by the peer-to-peer nature
of web-centered ways of communicating—and whether these tendencies can be
intentionally fostered through the design of the technology.
brings us to the most important point: the vital role of the individual.
The shared, collective mind of the second superpower is made up of
many individual human minds—your mind and my mind—together we create the
movement. In traditional
democracy our minds don’t matter much—what matters are the minds of
those with power of position, and the minds of those that staff and lobby
them. In the emergent democracy
of the second superpower, each of our minds matters a lot.
For example, any one of us can launch an idea.
Any one of us can write a blog, send out an email, create a list.
Not every idea will take hold in the big mind of the second
superpower—but the one that eventually catches fire is started by an
individual. And in the
peer-oriented world of the second superpower, many more of us have the
opportunity to craft submissions, and take a shot.
contrast goes deeper. In
traditional democracy, sense-making moves from top to bottom. “The
President must know more than he is saying” goes the thinking of a loyal
but passive member of the first superpower.
But this form of democracy was established in the 18th
century, when education and information were both scarce resources.
Now, in more and more of the world, people are well educated and
informed. As such, they prefer
to make up their own minds. Top-down
sense-making is out of touch with modern people.
second superpower, emerging in the 21st century, depends upon
educated informed members. In
the community of the second superpower each of us is responsible for our own
sense-making. We seek as much
data—raw facts, direct experience—as we can, and then we make up our own
minds. Even the current
fascination with “reality television” speaks to this desire: we prefer
to watch our fellows, and decide ourselves “what’s the story” rather
than watching actors and actresses play out a story written by someone else.
The same, increasingly, is true of the political stage—hence the
attractiveness of participation in the second superpower to individuals.
the response of many readers will be that this is a wishful fantasy.
What, you say, is the demonstrated success of this second superpower?
After all, George Bush was almost single-handedly able to make war on
Iraq, and the global protest movement was in the end only able to slow him
down. Where was the second
answer is that the second superpower is not currently able to match the
first. On the other hand, the
situation may be more promising than we realize.
Most important is that the establishment of international
institutions and international rule of law has created a venue in which the
second superpower can join with sympathetic nations to successfully confront
the United States. Consider the
international effort to ban landmines.
Landmines are cheap, deadly, and often used against agrarian groups
because they make working the fields lethal, and sew quite literally the
seeds of starvation. In the
1990s a coalition of NGOs coordinated by Jody Williams, Bobby Muller and
others managed to put this issue at the top of the international agenda, and
promote the establishment of the treaty banning their use.
For this, the groups involved were awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace
Prize. While the United States
has so far refused to sign the treaty, it has been highly isolated on the
issue and there is still hope that some future congress and president will
the Kyoto meetings on global climate change, a group of
NGOs coordinated by Nancy Keat of the World Resources Institute
joined with developing nations to block the interests of the United States
and its ally, big oil. The only
way for the United States to avoid being checkmated was to leave the game
entirely. In the World Trade
Organization, the second superpower famously shut down the Seattle meeting
in 1999, and later helped to force a special “development round” focused
on the needs of poor countries. That
round is currently underway—and while the United States and others are
seeking to subvert the second superpower agenda, the best they have achieved
to date is stalemate.
finally, while George Bush was indeed able to go to war with Iraq, the only
way he could do so was to ignore international law and split with the United
Nations. Had he stayed within
the system of international institutions, his aims likely would have been
frustrated. The French and the
Germans who led the attempt to stop him could not, I believe, have done what
they did without the strength of public opinion prodding them—the second
superpower in action.
we all know that the Bush administration has decided to undermine, in many
cases, the system of international law.
Some argue that by pulling out, the administration has fatally
damaged the international system, and ushered in a new era where the United
States determines the rules—hub and spoke style—through bilateral deals
with other nations. The result,
some will say, is that the second superpower no longer has a venue in which
to meet the first effectively. In
my view this is an overly pessimistic assessment—albeit one that members
of the second superpower need to take seriously and strive to render false
by our success in supporting international institutions.
law and institutions are not going away.
Too many parties want and need them.
First, individuals around the world are becoming more globally aware,
and more interested in international institutions. Global media, travel, and
immigration all contribute to citizens being aware of the benefits of
consistent approaches to everything from passport control to human rights.
It is striking, for example, that up until the final days before the war, a
majority of the US population wanted the president to deal with Iraq in
concert with the United Nations. Second,
business organizations want global rule of law.
Global trade is now central to a vast majority of businesses and
almost all nations—and such trade requires rules administered by
multilateral bodies. Third,
most nations want a global legal system.
In particular, European nations, wary of war, outclassed in
one-on-one power confrontations with the United States, have become strongly
committed to a post-national world. They
are pouring collective national resources of enormous magnitude into
continuously strengthening the international system.
key problem facing international institutions is that they have few ways to
enforce their will on a recalcitrant US government.
And this is where the second superpower is a part of the solution.
Enforcement has many dimensions. When the United States opts to avoid
or undermine international institutions, the second superpower can harass
and embarrass it with demonstrations and public education campaigns. The
second superpower can put pressure on politicians around the world to
stiffen their resolve to confront the US government in any ways possible.
And the second superpower can also target US politicians and work to
remove at the polls those who support the administration’s undercutting of
term, we must press for a direct voice for the second superpower in
international institutions, so that we are not always forced to work through
nations. This means, as a
practical matter, a voice for citizens, and for NGOs and “civil society”
organizations. For example, the
Access Initiative of the World Resources Institute is working to give
citizens’ groups the ability to influence environmental decisions made by
international organizations such as the World Bank.
The Digital Opportunity Task Force of the G8 group of nations
included a formal role for civil society organizations, as does the United
Nations Information and Communications Technology Task Force.
what can be said for the prospects of the second superpower?
With its mind enhanced by Internet connective tissue, and
international law as a venue to work with others for progressive action, the
second superpower is starting to demonstrate its potential.
But there is much to do. How
do we assure that it continues to gain in strength?
And at least as important, how do we continue to develop the mind of
the second superpower, so that it maximizes wisdom and goodwill? The future,
as they say, is in our hands. We
need to join together to help the second superpower, itself, grow stronger.
we need to become conscious of the “mental processes” in which we are
involved as members of the second superpower, and explore how to make our
individual sense-making and collective action more and more effective.
This of course means challenging and improving the mass media, and
supporting more interactive and less biased alternatives.
But more ambitiously, we will need to develop a kind of
meta-discipline, an organizational psychology of our community, to explore
the nature of our web-enabled, person-centered, global governance and
communication processes, and continue to improve them.
and ironically, the future of the second superpower depends to a great
extent on social freedoms in part determined by the first superpower.
It is the traditional freedoms—freedom of the press, of assembly,
of speech—that have enabled the second superpower to take root and grow.
Indeed, the Internet itself was constructed by the US government, and
the government could theoretically still step in to restrict its freedoms.
So we need to pay close attention to freedom in society, and
especially to freedom of the Internet.
There are many moves afoot to censor the web, to close down access,
and to restrict privacy and free assembly in cyberspace.
While we generally associate web censorship with countries like China
or Saudi Arabia, tighter control of the web is also being explored in the
United States and Europe. The
officials of the first superpower are promoting these ideas in the name of
preventing terrorism, but they also prevent the open peer-to-peer
communication that is at the heart of the second superpower.
We need to insist on an open web, an open cyberspace, around the
globe, because that is the essential medium in which the second superpower
we must carefully consider how best to support international institutions,
so that they collectively form a setting in which our power can be
exercised. Perhaps too often we
attack institutions like the World Bank that might, under the right
conditions, actually become partners with us in dealing with the first
institutions must become deeply more transparent, accessible to the public,
and less amenable to special interests, while remaining strong enough to
provide a secure context in which our views can be expressed.
finally, we must work on ourselves and our community.
We will dialogue with our neighbors, knowing that the collective
wisdom of the second superpower is grounded in the individual wisdom within
each of us. We must remind
ourselves that daily we make personal choices about the world we create for
ourselves and our descendants. We
do not have to create a world where differences are resolved by war. It is
not our destiny to live in a world of destruction, tedium, and tragedy.
We will create a world of peace.