With Help from Technology, 'Ordinary' People Change World

Recent advances in information technology, along with an increasingly active international civil society, are forcing an unprecedented transfer of power and control from states to non-state actors.

For nearly 350 years, the primacy of the nation-state in world affairs has gone largely unchallenged. While we have witnessed the rise and fall of individual nation-states during this time, the system set in place by the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia has endured: States remain defined by territory, with a governing authority that defends its borders, controls what goes on inside them, and represents the state's interests abroad.

But now, there is a realignment. The most significant marker of this came last month, when Jody Williams, coordinator of the US-based International Committee to Ban landmines, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Her self-appointed, nongovernmental organization launched an international security regime and guided it around the opposition of the United States and several other powerful nations. When asked how she did it, Mrs. Williams answered with one word: e-mail.

The implication of her achievement on behalf of the Ottawa Process - which aims to conclude a treaty banning the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of antipersonnel mines by next month - is profound. The revolution in technology and communications is changing the very nature and definition of national sovereignty. Affordable, accessible technology is blurring borders and democratizing international politics, giving non-state actors - human rights groups, corporations, dissidents, even criminals - the wherewithal to gather, process, and disseminate information and influence world events.

An example: Technology is allowing private citizens and groups to break the governmental monopoly on secret intelligence and treaty monitoring. Recently, a private team of scientists using state-of-the-art seismographic equipment refuted US government evidence that Russians had conducted a nuclear blast in violation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And it was a private company, using advanced aerial photography, that forced the Soviet government to revise its estimate of damage caused by the Chernobyl disaster.

Another private organization contributed to arms control when, using high-tech surveillance equipment, it detected an imminent Chinese nuclear detonation and used this information to promote the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

From images of US casualties in Vietnam beamed into American living rooms, to the flow of faxed information from student protesters in Tiananmen Square, to the Internet campaign launched by human rights activists on behalf of the insurgent Zapatistas in southern Mexico, technological advances weaken sovereign governments' ability to regulate internal affairs and maintain monopolies on information. They also have allowed non-state actors to coordinate and mobilize opinion on these issues rapidly and, ultimately, to accelerate the velocity of societal and political change.

Thoughtful observers of sovereignty issues say the erosion of states will accelerate, to the point where non-state actors will hold a place alongside - or even supersede - states as the principal actors in the international system.

But we shouldn't discount the resilience of the nation-state, its functionality, and its emotional resonance. In political terms, ours is, and will remain, a world of states. For one thing, the vital interest of international order is enforced primarily by military strength - which remains firmly in the grasp of the state.

If there is an outbreak of war in Korea, for example, only states will have the authority and capacity to respond effectively. And states are adapting to the changing landscape by forming their own transgovernmental networks to deal with international crime, environmental degradation, and other problems.

Though states remain the most powerful actors in the world, they have surrendered their traditional monopolies on power and control. As the Ottawa Process shows, private actors can shape international opinion about when and how states should respond. Government officials would do well to recognize these circumstances. Their legitimacy, and ultimately their effectiveness, depend upon it.

* Michael Holtzman, formerly director of public affairs for the Council on Foreign Relations, serves on the board of advisers at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of WIlliam and Mary.

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