The End of Power

The End of Power by Moises Naim

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Authors: Moises Naim
How This Book Came About: A Personal Note
    POWER MAY FEEL ABSTRACT, BUT FOR THOSE WHO ARE MOST ATTUNED TO it—namely, the powerful themselves—its flow and ebb can have a visceral edge. After all, those in positions of great power are best positioned to spot limits on their effectiveness and to feel frustration over the gap between the power they expect their rank to convey and the power they actually have. In my own small way, I experienced such constraints back in February 1989. At the time I had been named, at age thirty-six, the minister of development in the then-democratic government of my home country, Venezuela. Soon after we took office in a landslide election victory, we faced riots in Caracas—triggered by the anxiety over our plans to cut subsidies and raise fuel prices—that paralyzed the city with violence, fear, and chaos. Suddenly, and despite our victory and apparent mandate, the economic reform program that we had championed acquired a very different meaning. Instead of symbolizing hope and prosperity, it was now seen as the source of street violence, increased poverty, and deeper inequality.
    But the most profound insight I had at that time was one I would not
fully comprehend until years later. It dwelt in the enormous gap between the perception and the reality of my power. In principle, as one of the main economic ministers, I wielded tremendous power. But in practice, I had only a limited ability to deploy resources, to mobilize individuals and organizations, and, more generally, to make things happen. My colleagues and even the president had the same feeling, though we were loath to acknowledge that our government was a hobbled giant. I was tempted to chalk this up to Venezuela itself: surely our sense of powerlessness had to do with ourcountry’s notoriously weak and malfunctioning institutions. Such weakness could not be universal.
    Yet later I would appreciate that it was universal indeed, or nearly so, among those with the experience of power. Fernando Henrique Cardoso—the respected former president of Brazil and founding father of that country’s success—summed it up for me. “I was always surprised at how powerful people thought I was,” he told me when I interviewed him for this book. “Even well-informed, politically sophisticated individuals would come to my office and ask me to do things that showed they assumed I had far more power than I really did. I always thought to myself, if only they knew how limited the power of any president is nowadays. When I meet with other heads of state, we often share very similar recollections in this respect. The gap between our real power and what people expect from us is the source of the most difficult pressure any head of state has to manage.”
    I heard something similar from Joschka Fischer, one of Germany’s most popular politicians and a former vice chancellor and foreign minister. “Since I was young, I was fascinated and allured by power,” Fischer told me. “One of my biggest shocks was the discovery that all the imposing government palaces and other trappings of government were in fact empty places. The imperial architecture of governmental palaces masks how limited the power of those who work there really is.”
    Over time, I would glean similar observations not just from heads of state and government ministers but also from business leaders and the heads of foundations and major organizations in many fields. And it soon became clear that something more was going on—that it wasn’t simply that the powerful were bemoaning the gap between their perceived and actual power. Power itself was coming under attack in an unprecedented way. Every year since 1990, I have attended the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, frequented by the world’s most powerful people in business, government, politics, the media, nongovernmental organizations, science,

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