Robin Wright Expands on Global Power in Age of Perpetual Disruption


No straight line could ever depict history, and through 50 years of twists and turns, Robin Wright has witnessed, firsthand, the creation of a convoluted trajectory.

At the beginning of that line are some “basics” that Wright said need no elaboration: Russia is trying to recoup its losses as a superpower; China is increasingly a major power, a challenge and a rival to the United States and across the globe; power is shifting from West to East.

Beyond the basics, Wright proposed six “big ideas” to define “where we are and where we are going,” a line that, although not straight, may be easier to follow.

Wright, contributing writer at The New Yorker and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, spoke at 10:45 a.m. Monday in the Amphitheater, opening Week Eight, “Shifting Global Power.”

Wright’s first idea centers on “perpetual disruption,” not to be confused with politics.

“In the past, we’ve had breaks after traumatic events; be it a civil war, the Great Depression, two world wars, the Cold War,” Wright said. “We could step back, we could regroup, we could create new institutions and think about how we could prevent those traumas from happening again.”

After World War II, the United Nations took shape with “creative energy and thoughtful perspective,” becoming the first successful global organization. Then the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established and paved the way for a number of countries’ independence in the decades that followed. Following that was NATO, a security mechanism, and for “development and prosperity,” the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were created.

“Today, in the 21st century, we don’t have that luxury of time to regroup after traumatic events,” Wright said. “The glut of information too often distracts us and diverts us from thinking big, from addressing those issues.”

The pace of change is perpetual, and according to Wright, it is never going to slow down.

“We are in uncharted territory, in many ways, in adapting to what’s unfolding,” she said. “And in many ways, we don’t yet have the new institutions and the thoughtful leadership giving a lot of thought to these kinds of changes. There is a lot of talk, but not a lot of action on the big principles.”

Wright’s advice? “Strap yourselves in.”

The second big idea is that the world is in the process of reordering, perhaps the most significant shift in the 500 years since city-states evolved into nation-states.

“The world map went through extraordinary change in the 20th century,” Wright said. “It was the age of the end of empires in France, Britain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Soviet Union — they’re gone.”

In the 20th century, there was a “proliferation of countries.” In 1945, the United Nations was comprised of 51 countries. In 1948, the year Wright was born, there were 57. Currently, there are 193.

“By the end of the 21st, there will probably be more countries in the world,” she said. “The map will change further, and yet the reordering, in some ways, is more interesting in the ways we’re becoming parts of something bigger.”

The concept of “America first” seems individualistic, but Wright said the reality is that the United States is part of more than 70 regional blocs and international partnerships. Some are pivotal, others small, but they affect everything from commerce, to security, to football.

In 1994, the United States embraced the North American Free Trade Agreement, a treaty the current administration opposes. Yet, the same principles are being embraced in the 2018-drafted United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. 

“It is that same idea of being something bigger,” Wright said. “We are better off, we are more efficient and we are more prosperous when we work with a wider array of countries.”

Becoming a part of “something bigger” calls for sacrifices and compromise when it comes to sovereignty, control over the future and, particularly, identity.

“The 21st century will be, as a result of wanting to be part of something bigger, not just about hopefully spreading democracy within countries, but also the principle of establishing democracies among countries,” Wright said. “No country wants to give up having a little bit more than the next guy, to be safer or more prosperous.”

That power struggle means embracing an identity that is bigger than nation-states have been before.

“The transition is going to be messy as we try to figure out: Who are we?” Wright said. “Who decides for us, whether it’s about policy or trade, how we fight wars? Even who the enemy is? It will be a source of incredible turmoil, but it’s one of those big ideas that will define our times.”

The third big idea is that the measures of power are shifting.

“The size of a country’s military, the size of its arsenals, are still important, but other things are increasingly defining, increasingly indicating of power, others’ power and the endurance of power,” she said.

Power will be defined by connectedness, Wright said, which is influenced by three things: access to information, the speed of that access and the security of that access. The access and control of data and information is already a “battlefield,” as seen with Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Power will also be increasingly defined by access to natural resources, specifically water. Currently, 17 nations, representing 40% of the global population, face severe water shortages or distress. By 2030, the number will increase to 45 countries.

“The last time I was in Saudi Arabia, I was struck by a sign on my bathroom mirror that said, ‘Water is more precious than oil,’ ” Wright said.

The definition of power will also rely on a country’s adaptability to change and perpetual disruption. For example, in 2011, a young Tunisian fruit vendor, angry about corruption and bribery demanded by police inspectors, refused to give in to their demands, resulting in the police inspector taking his fruit. The vendor protested, and when he was repeatedly rebuffed, he went out in front of the governor’s mansion, covered himself in paint thinner and lit himself on fire.

The anger over his desperate act ignited the Arab Spring, and Wright said the younger generation’s actions represented one of the “most important turning points in the Middle East.”

As part of the nation’s response to outraged youth, Tunisia invested in education, so much that its budget allocated more for education than every European country except for Denmark and Iceland. By 2011, more than half of the young population received some kind of advanced education. But at the same time, unemployment among those with advanced education was 32%.

“A society had changed and done the important things necessary … had adapted, (but) had not figured out a way to incorporate the very people it was educating,” she said. 

Wright returned to Tunisia in 2012, trying to get a consensus on what had changed since the Arab Spring began.

“The message was the same, in different ways and different words: ‘We have far more freedoms, but far fewer jobs,’ ” she said.

In 2014, Wright returned to Tunisia again, this time as an international monitor for their first democratic presidential election. According to Wright, the country “did it right”; they debated a new constitution in town halls across the country for two years and, among other promises, said the document guaranteed Muslim women more rights than American women. And yet, for that election, the lowest voter turnout was among the younger generation.

“The bottom line is, adapting to change at the pace today, is achingly hard,” Wright said.

The fourth big idea is that the nature of warfare is changing — in terms of the weapons market, as well as who or what is identified as an adversary. In the second half of the 20th century, Wright said the nuclear bomb caused the most fear, where in the first half of the 21st, the suicide bomb commonly generates the most anxiety.

“It’s a reflection, in many ways, of how our adversaries have changed,” she said. “Wars today are less between states, and more often between states and non-state actors: militias, terrorist groups, extremists.”

The United States has only fought one conventional war since the Korean War. In the 21st century, the two biggest U.S. adversaries have been ISIS and the Taliban, both non-state actors.

“These wars are often much harder to fight and the enemy much more difficult to understand,” Wright said.

The fifth big idea centers around “the assumptions of liberal democracy.” Between 1946 and 1999, 64 democracies collapsed because of coups or insurgencies.

“For that first half of my life, the failure of democracy was like a light switch — it went on and then off, and it often was dark in these countries for decades to come,” Wright said.

In the second half of her life, Wright has seen democracies die at the hands of elected leaders, often with the support of the public, congress, parliament and even the courts.

In 1980, Wright was the pool reporter on Pope John Paul II’s plane when he went to the Philippines to tell President Ferdinand Marcos that the “gig was up.” Even though the end of Marcos’ reign was an “amazing transition,” Filipinos elected Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, one of the “most murderous thugs in the world.”

“The death of democracy by election is a recurrent theme these days,” Wright said. “Democracy has been floundered, failed, or the idea of democracy challenged, from Turkey, to Poland, Hungary, Nicaragua, Ukraine, Peru and sweet little Venezuela, the first democracy in Latin America.”

Between 1995 and 2017, the number of French, Germans and Italians who supported a military rule tripled. Between 2000 and 2010, she said, 40% of the world’s democracies failed due to the rise of populism. 

“For the second half of my life, democracy or the challenges to democracy, are like a dimmer — it slowly, slowly goes darker, and no one quite notices until it’s too late,” Wright said.

To avoid noticing that darkness only when “it’s too late,” Wright said, people cannot assume that current ways of life, based on founding democracies, are sustainable without periodic change.

“Democracy, in some ways, is the most fragile form of government; it depends on a sense of goodwill, the embrace of compromise, a spirit of common good among its citizens and the participation of its citizens,” she said. 

Though democracy is based on rights, those rights don’t tell the whole story. Democracy also requires responsibility.

“Everybody wants their rights, but not enough people want the responsibility, the responsibility to ensure not only our rights, but the rights of others — all others,” she said.

The sixth big idea is the good news.

“We have so much to celebrate,” Wright said. “We should not be distracted by the mean-world syndrome, that makes us think, in headlines and on television, that everything is going to hell. It’s a tempting thought, but there is a lot of good news.”

In 1945, there were 12 democracies. Now, there are 99.

“More than half of the world’s population lives in some form of political pluralism — some strong, some weak — where the idea has been embraced and governments have had to accommodate their people,” Wright said.

In warfare, the number of armed conflicts has dropped 40% since the end of the Cold War. Wars now tend to be “low-intensity conflicts” and 90% fewer people are dying in violent struggles than in the 1950s.

As for terrorism, Wright said state-sponorsed international terrorism is a “shadow” of what it was in the ’70s and ’80s. Only 5% of terrorist groups win or achieve their goals, and 18% end up negotiating.

“It’s usually because their goals have to do with a change in the type of government, a demand for rights, demand for recognition of a minority, or in some cases, a majority,” she said.

Life in general is improving, too. On average, child mortality is down, and productivity and life expectancy have all increased globally.

Above all, Wright said the most important thing to remember is that history and change do not exist on a straight line; never have, never will. Regardless, Wright remains an optimist.

“I know we have the intelligence and the tools and the ability to make things better,” Wright said. “The transition is going to be tough everywhere, but the thoughtful discussion, the kind you have at Chautauqua, gets us through these periods and helps create something different and better in the end. Just keep reminding yourself, among all the divisiveness and challenges, that we are all in this together.”


The author Jamie Landers

Jamie Landers is entering her third season as a reporter for The Chautauquan Daily, covering all things music-related within the online platform. Previously, she recapped the Chautauqua Lecture Series in 2019 and the Interfaith Lecture Series in 2018. In addition, she is a rising senior at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix, Arizona, where she most recently served as a breaking news reporter for The Arizona Republic, as well as a documentary producer for Arizona PBS.