Voice

Disconnected

As technological development shifts into hyperspeed, governments remain stuck in neutral.

The fabric of civilization is being rewoven around us. The very nature of life, work, and society is changing so profoundly that we are approaching a moment at which our old ways of thinking about the structures that sustain us may be seen as obsolete.

This happens periodically throughout history -- think of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. Such eras often produce turmoil or upheaval, until leaders emerge who are able to help shape a new order for a new age.

The question today is whether our leaders are up to the challenge. Given their lack of grounding in the world's most pressing scientific and technological issues, I fear many, if not most, are not.

Formerly disenfranchised populations are increasingly connecting to telecom, Internet, and other services. For instance, mobile-phone penetration was estimated to have surpassed 80 percent in Africa in the first quarter of 2013, according to figures published in 2012 by ABI Research. What's more, it is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world. And though smartphone penetration in Africa is just 20 percent -- pretty near global levels -- it is expected to explode in the next few years.

Such trends mean that huge populations are connecting to one another and to communities worldwide. We are already seeing the implications in countless ways -- from January's flash-mob political protests in Brazilian malls, to the crowds that have amassed in Egypt's Tahrir Square, to the success extremist groups have had in attracting recruits in Syria.

Connectivity, of course, does more than turbocharge and add volatility to political processes. Next year, Facebook will surpass China as the world's largest organized community, and while China has an army, history, and culture all its own, Facebook users are not constrained by borders or societal fragmentation. Sure, Facebook is not a country, but what of it? Geographically constrained communities are so 500 years ago. There are arguably stronger ties (or the potential for them) among people who share political, artistic, religious, or other similarities across national boundaries than there are among people who happen to be born down the street from one other.

New technologies and widening access to them are linking and empowering people in other ways as well. Education, for instance, is becoming more ubiquitous and harder to limit to the few who can afford it. Of course, we also saw more clearly than ever in 2013 that technological change is transforming the way powerful actors -- from governments to businesses to rogue groups -- can capture and use information to their advantage. In the years ahead, we certainly will see that the most technologically enabled will possess ever-greater means of building wealth, keeping down their opponents, and exacerbating inequality.

The economy is another front where the rapid pace of technological change is influencing virtually everything. It is making employment available outside traditional workplaces and providing new opportunities for the disabled and elderly. But it is also changing the way jobs are created, helping to produce the "jobless recovery" with which the United States and other economies are struggling. As Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have discussed in their important books, Race Against the Machine and The Second Machine Age, we are likely to soon enter a period in which considerably less traditional work will be done by human beings. Just as previous technological revolutions nearly eliminated entire classes of field workers, laborers, and craftsmen, the next wave of change will target white-collar jobs.

Economies are changing in other ways too. Data flows are becoming as important to competitive success as capital flows. Supply chains are changing dramatically not only because of shifting sources of resources and demand, but also because of manufacturing tools that, among other things, are creating new capacities for localized production. Technologies like 3-D printing, for example, may soon move some work from factories to local shops, even to homes.

Giant global companies are able to adapt better to these changes than are political entities, tied down to the land beneath their feet like Gulliver in Lilliput. My friend, the author Tom Friedman, talks about these companies "floating above" the countries that were once their domiciles. New technologies are starting to make it possible for entire communities of people to do the same.

This all suggests that traditional systems of social organization are increasingly ill-suited for our brave new world. Consider the law: Even flexible constitutions like that of the United States weren't built to deal with the issues that would almost certainly be occupying the framers' minds, were they alive today -- like who owns the data we produce, what privacy rights we should have, and whether we are born with an inalienable right to access the Internet. Existing economic models, global alliances, and international institutions are just as poorly equipped for handling the tasks at hand.

Who works inside these systems is also problematic. Let's take the U.S. Congress as an example, given that it is the top legislative body in the world's most powerful country. Only 12 percent of Congress's members have a background in science or technology, according to a 2011 study by the Employment Policies Institute. And based on my conversations with tech executives who regularly interact with Congress, just a handful of people on Capitol Hill truly understand the implications of the big data, cyber, and other technological revolutions. Turn the subject to how next-generation neuroscience and biotech developments will raise critical questions about how we deal with mental health, crime, extended life expectancy, bioethics, and health-care costs, and the number falls even further. "In many cases to zero," a professor at one of America's leading schools of public health recently told me.

The challenge we face is thus two-pronged: The structures organizing the world are rapidly approaching their sell-by dates -- the time at which they need to be refreshed, reconsidered, and reinvented -- and the people who should be leading that process are among the least qualified to do so.

This can only be addressed by bridging the worrying divide between policymaking and technological development. Although it is encouraging to see some familiar faces from Silicon Valley and other parts of the tech world more frequently in Washington and world capitals these days, unless more show up, trouble looms. What we need is a wider, deeper conversation between the two sides and a major effort to find a new generation of leaders who truly understand innovation -- both its potential and its pitfalls. If we can find these leaders, we can harness the promise of today's multiple tech revolutions, and their benefits can extend -- more than they already have -- from top to bottom in a more closely integrated and ever-changing global community.

Illustration by Matt Chase

David Rothkopf

Course Correction

Dealing with dictators cost the U.S. its soul. Now it's time to atone.

The gripping story of the quest to bring former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré to justice that appears in this issue of Foreign Policy is deeply resonant for several reasons. In the first instance, it underscores the urgent necessity that our system of international law not allow heads of state to violate the fundamental rights of their citizens or their neighbors with impunity. But the story should also be profoundly troubling to Americans because it reminds us that a consistently amoral U.S. foreign policy had made this necessity all the more difficult to address.

Supporting Habré with arms, enabling him to gain and maintain the power he then used to kill, torture, and imprison his people, is not the kind of aberration one wishes it was for the United States.

Indeed, much of contemporary American foreign policy seems to be devoted to undoing the excesses, missteps, and errors of the 20th century (and, for that matter, those of the first years of this century). In the past 50 years, in South Africa, Rwanda, Laos, Indonesia, the Philippines, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Chile, El Salvador, Brazil, Panama, and Argentina -- to name but a few cases that quickly come to mind -- the United States supported repressive regimes that violated basic human rights. Today, the change with regard to where America stands on Habré is not unlike other recent or looming about-faces that are currently shaping U.S. foreign policy.

For example, whatever you may feel about the merits of the Obama administration's efforts to strike a deal with Iran on nuclear weapons -- and personally, I think it is a necessary and timely step -- U.S. foreign policy over the past several years represents a turn away from an anti-Iran stance that had been one of the key tenets of U.S. Middle East policy since 1979 and had involved supporting bad guys who similarly opposed Tehran. Indeed, possibly more striking than the nuclear deal is America's recent, willing acceptance of an Iraqi leader who is sympathetic to Tehran, a stunning contrast to anti-Iranian feelings once so strong that, during the 1980s, the United States provided Saddam Hussein's government with intelligence that it used to target Iranian positions with chemical weapons. This was as dark a policy choice as any involving Habré, and the recent semi-thaw between the United States and Iran (despite our continuing opposition to many of Tehran's policies) has some of our allies wondering if a jarring shift is afoot.

America's change of position with regard to Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt was, of course, another of the long-overdue course corrections the United States has made away from a morally compromised alliance. But the example of Egypt does something else, too: It reminds us that the United States entered into such alliances out of convenience and expediency, to advance or preserve U.S. interests at a seemingly low cost. The United States would give a little aid, a little political cover, sometimes weapons -- and then look the other way. These were cases of geostrategic Hamburger Helper, extending America's reach and influence for less money than it would have taken to project force or even bigger aid resources into the region, efforts that could have been associated with seeking out more palatable partners (or putting them in place).

The biggest cost in the end was the nation's soul. A cynic might observe that nations don't have souls, and an atheist might suggest that no one does. But of course, nations, like people, have characters and reputations associated with those characters. Leadership and influence derive from both. That's not to say that many great immoral and amoral powers have not had disproportionate influence. Rather, it is to say that being seen as hypocritical or serially insensitive to international law or basic human values does not enhance any country's standing. This is only made more the case when a country hails itself as the world's great beacon of hope, democracy, and respect for law as the United States does.

There is a reason that nations like the United States have behaved in this appalling, dangerous, often despicable way. It is because they can -- because they have the ability to choose what they view as the comparatively low cost of collaborating with and enabling despots and mass criminals. ("Realists" among you readers have already shrugged off this critique by saying that's the way the game is played -- we have to do what works for us and not get too caught up worrying about "nice-to-have" attributes like values.)

The United States is seeking to atone for past sins today, not only through policy changes, but also by supporting the prosecution of former dictators like Habré. Still, the country has not embraced all that is needed for international justice: The United States and some of its allies have resisted calls to accept the jurisdiction of human rights treaties and institutions like the International Criminal Court, fearing that their leaders might one day find themselves arrested by an unsympathetic government on a visit overseas and prosecuted for alleged war crimes or crimes against humanity.

If 800,000 Iraqis died in an illegal war waged by the United States, how much culpability do the U.S. leaders who chose to launch the conflict have? In an era of kill lists and drone strikes, of civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is understandable why an international legal position holding America accountable might make U.S. officials nervous. (Imagine how much more nervous they might be if international leaders could also be brought before the bar in a foreign country or at a world tribunal for violating rights of privacy or perpetrating other crimes that do not rise to the level of the most heinous attacks on human rights.)

The U.S. resistance to being a full participant in the international justice system is why, as heartening as it would be to keep a monster like Habré in jail where he belongs, doing so is nowhere near enough. Until leaders and other decision-makers who collaborate with the likes of Habré are also found liable and brought to justice, we will not see the end of the abuses that the world's worst rulers inflict on the innocent. Specifically, until the top, white-collar officials of rich countries see it as too personally risky to tolerate the intolerable, too dangerous to cut corners and let bad men handle the dirty work of the world's danger zones, the periodic prosecution of men like Habré will be for little more than effect.

No doubt there will be a reflexive assertion of sovereign protections and a reiteration of the old saw that to allow state leaders to be prosecuted will invite political and ideological abuse of the international justice system by rival countries. But a fair system should filter out and ultimately reject prosecutions with such motives (as must be done within countries as well), and we have already seen the toll that results from the absence of such enforcement of the law.

Sovereignty, like religion and patriotism, is a concept that has become sacrosanct at least as much because of the protections it affords the guilty, the greedy, and the ambitious as for whatever merits may underpin it. Just as constitutional reform is required within countries to hold in check the power of those who govern on behalf of the governed, so too do we need reform in international law. It is hard to imagine any era other than the 20th century that could send the message better that sovereign immunities must be strictly limited and constantly questioned -- except, of course, every century since the concept of sovereignty first emerged.

We need better protections against those we have empowered to protect us -- or who have arrogated that right to themselves. That means, in the end, ensuring that all who commit crimes must answer for them. Not just the bad men of the underdeveloped world, but also, and especially, the rich and super-empowered who support them at arm's length and who even allow themselves later the privilege of seeking to purge themselves of guilt with neat, if overdue, policy reversals.

Photos, left to right: Courtesy of the Reagan Library; Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images