The late Katharine Graham was often called one of the most powerful women in the world. You can see why. She controlled the Washington Post, Newsweek, a bevy of television stations and was Washington's pre-eminent hostess, gathering the influential or the merely interesting in her Georgetown home. Yet she knew her power was severely limited. On a given day, she wouldn't even dare stop her own newspaper from savaging one of her friends.
What brings this to mind is "The End of Power," a remarkable new book by the remarkable Moises Naim, the former editor of Foreign Policy. It was recommended to me by former President Bill Clinton during a brief conversation on the situation in Egypt.
There, as we all know, the United States huffed and puffed but could not stop the military from riding roughshod over the Muslim Brotherhood. The Obama administration could have withheld aid, but the amount — about $1.5 billion — could have been made up in a jiffy by Saudi Arabia — maybe out of the king's entertainment budget.
Naim wrote his book before Egypt descended into chaos. But there could be no more pertinent example of his thesis. The Middle East, after all, is substantially the creation of the Great Powers, who out of whim and obligation created Jordan and Iraq with little more than cartographers ink and the chutzpah of Winston Churchill. Britain put a Hashemite on the throne of Iraq and another on the throne of Jordan — and that, for a long time, was that. Now the Great Powers can't do much of anything. Bashar al-Assad in Syria tweaks Barack Obama's nose and ominously drops the threat of another "Vietnam" — a painful example of the limits of power.
"Power is decaying," Naim writes — and he provides all sorts of examples. Companies that once ruled the world (sort of) suddenly disappear. Kodak went bust (in a flash). Two huge American auto companies came to Washington with a tin cup. BlackBerry was once supposedly so addictive it was called "crackberry." Now it's nearly a goner. CEOs come and go at a dizzying pace — about 80 percent of the leaders of major companies are forced out before their terms are up, gridlocking golf courses all over America. Belgium veers to the ungovernable; the United Kingdom may not be united for long, the Northern League wants out of Italy and in this increasingly fractured world, South Sudan in 2011 became the world's 193rd nation, up from 51 in the 1940s.
The most depressing example of the erosion of power is that inchoate body, the U.S. Congress. The authority that used to belong to the leadership has been both dispersed and eroded. The result is that once again some of the more criminally insane members of the Republican caucus are talking about shutting down the government and in their free time repealing Obamacare. For a variety of reasons — the way districts are gerrymandered, the way money is raised, the pernicious effect of talk radio — the leadership lacks sufficient power, not to mention political courage to put the recalcitrants in their place.
No doubt, the man who best appreciates how power has lost its power is President Barack Obama. Until recently, he was not even able to appoint certain ambassadors. Naim, a habitue of international conferences as a former Venezuelan minister of industry and trade, relates how Davos Man in his various permutations is forever lamenting an inability to just get things done. Orders are given, subordinates salute — and then nothing happens.
Why is this happening? For one, there is just more of everything — people, for sure, but also weapons and nations and billionaires and blogs and even chess grandmasters — 88 in 1972, more than 1,200 today. Mentalities have changed. Women all over the world are walking away from abusive marriages, and people are more mobile. "Barriers to power have weakened," Naim writes. The world is awash in democracies.
I, too, am a victim of the loss of power. I compete — for attention, for recognition, for a few measly bucks — with blogs, with tweets and with Internet organizations (Politico, for example) that did not exist when I bought my last car. My once grand newspaper is, well, less grand than it used to be and has been sold to someone who lives in the other Washington. (He will soon learn the limits of power.) But maybe the most poignant loss of power is the product of what Naim calls a change in mentality. Once parental power was absolute and the phrase "because I say so" had maximum authority. Now it's an anachronism, a laugh line — and the joke is on parents everywhere.
Richard Cohen is a columnist for the Washington Post.