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Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The "Other" Superpower

On Valentine's Day weekend, 2003, an estimated 10 million people around the world protested against the Iraq War. Remember, the war didn't actually begin until March 19, so this was pretty amazing. After those remarkable protests, Patrick Tyler of the New York Times wrote that "there still may be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion."

James F. Moore, of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School has written an interesting piece on "The Second Superpower." I'm grateful to Jude at iddybud for providing the link, though Moore's use of Tyler's phrase has received some critical scrutiny. Apparently, I'm late to the discussion of Moore's idea since the paper (available also in pdf) received 50,000 (!) downloads in five days.

In any case, I will plow forward: Moore argues that the "second superpower" is emerging from global civil society.
There 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 Borders/ Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Since my book (coauthored with Nayef Samhat) is partly about the development of "participation" norms in international institutions that increasingly require the inclusion of these social actors, I found Moore's argument quite interesting. Among his suggestions for promoting the "second superpower," Moore quite explicitly calls for greater participation by individuals and non-governmental organizations in international institutions.

As you might guess from his affiliation, Moore is especially interested in the way the internet connects these socially concerned people together. He also seems to be interested, as I am, in the potential for truly deliberative democracy.
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.
The article recognizes the limits of traditional mass media -- and of course acknowledges the limited power the second superpower has to check the first. After all, the US went to war despite the public protests of millions of people around the world. Opinion polls clearly showed the war was unpopular everywhere.

In many ways, the ongoing controversy about the Iraqi prisoners reflects the "second superpower" in action. Global civil society, using perhaps the internet or other media, is able to publicize and scrutinize government action. This participation, coupled with transparency (recall, there was no critique until people could review the evidence), sets the stage for debate in the public sphere.

The outcome of the public debate is yet to be determined, but it seems obvious that the discussion can have meaningful effects on the practice of politics. Whether Don Rumsfeld is fired, or not, I think we can all be fairly certain that prisoners taken by the US military in Iraq (and likely elsewhere) are going to be treated differently from this point forward. And people are going to be watching to assure that result.

The strength of deliberative democracy is public accountability.

And, of course, in a related development, George W. Bush's approval ratings are down to 46% (his all-time low). This Gallup polling data reveals that losers Jimmy Carter and George Bush were at 43 and 42% respectively at this point in 1980 and 1992, while re-elected winners Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were at 54 and 55% job approval.

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