The Twilight of Sovereignty

Wriston, Walter B.


Changing Hands


My remarks have not dwelt on the wonders of the gee-whiz technology emerging from your Silicon Valley, not because they are not wondrous--they are--but because revolutions are not made by gadgets but by a shift in the balance of power. Technology is the enabling factor, not the cause. When a system of national currencies run by central banks is transformed into a global electronic marketplace driven by private currency traders, power changes hands. When a system of national economies linked by government regulated trade is replaced--at least in part--by an increasingly integrated global economy beyond the reach of much national regulation, power changes hands. When an international telecommunications system, incorporating technologies from mobile phones to communications satellites, deprives governments of the ability to keep secrets from the world, or from their own people, power changes hands. When a microchip the size of a fingernail can turn a relatively simple and inexpensive weapon into a "Stinger" missile, enabling an illiterate tribesman to destroy a multi-million dollar armored helicopter and its highly trained crew, power changes hands. When the president picks up the phone to talk to another head of state rather than have an ambassador deliver a meticulously drafted note to the foreign ministry, power changes hands.

This is not to say that sovereign power will disappear--it will not--but what it does mean is that no government, over time, can act alone not subject to contradiction. The world is watching, and the power of world opinion is transmitted and focused and reported by the telcon network. The world looks and reacts and brings pressure on everything from the destruction of the rain forest, the allegations of global warming, the disposal of toxic waste, to the violation of human rights anywhere on the planet.

The transition of economic thinking as to what creates wealth has moved over the centuries from land, to materials, to labor, and now to knowledge makes it harder for a sovereign to exercise the kind of control it once had over the means of production in the Industrial Age. A person with the skills to write a complex software system which can produce $1 billion of revenue can walk by any customs officer in the world with "nothing of value to declare." Investment no longer follows trade or the flag--it moves to the most hospitable climate. The sovereign can create a hostile or a hospitable economic climate, but can no longer control the flow of capital by fiat.

All this is good news for freedom. The virus of freedom has been carried over and through the borders which divide us, and the relative balance between the sovereign and the citizen, and between an individual sovereign and world opinion has been permanently altered. Power really is moving to the people. While freedom can be abused and debased, as Lincoln put it, "Is there a better, or even an equal, hope in the world?"