The Second Superpower

The Second Superpower Rears its
Beautiful Head
By James F. Moore

As the United States government becomes more belligerent in using its
power in the world, many people are longing for a “second
superpower” that can keep the US in check. Indeed, many people
desire a superpower that speaks for the interests of planetary society, for
long-term well-being, and that encourages broad participation in the
democratic process. Where can the world find such a second superpower?
No nation or group of nations seems able to play this role, although the
European Union sometimes seeks to, working in concert with a variety of
institutions in the field of international law, including the United Nations.
But even the common might of the European nations is barely a match for
the current power of the United States.

There is an emerging second superpower, but it is not a nation. Instead, it is
a new form of international player, constituted by the “will of the people” in
a global social movement. The beautiful but deeply agitated face of this
second superpower is the worldwide peace campaign, but the body of the
movement is made up of millions of people concerned with a broad agenda
that includes social development, environmentalism, health, and human
rights. This movement has a surprisingly agile and muscular body of citizen
activists who identify their interests with world society as a whole—and who
recognize that at a fundamental level we are all one. These are people who
are attempting to take into account the needs and dreams of all 6.3 billion
people in the world—and not just the members of one or another nation.
Consider the members of Amnesty International who write letters on behalf
of prisoners of conscience, and the millions of Americans who are
participating in email actions against the war in Iraq. Or the physicians who
contribute their time to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres.

While some of the leaders have become highly visible, what is perhaps most
interesting about this global movement is that it is not really directed by
visible leaders, but, as we will see, by the collective, emergent action of its
millions of participants. Surveys suggest that at least 30 million people in the
United States identify themselves this way—approximately 10% of the US
population. The percentage in Europe is undoubtedly higher. The global
membership in Asia, South America, Africa and India, while much lower in
percentage of the total population, is growing quickly with the spread of the
Internet. What makes these numbers important is the new cyberspaceenabled
interconnection among the members. This body has a beautiful
mind. Web connections enable a kind of near-instantaneous, mass
improvisation of activist initiatives. For example, the political activist group, which specializes in rapid response campaigns, has an email list
of more than two million members. During the 2002 elections,
raised more than $700,000 in a few days for a candidate’s campaign for the
US senate. It has raised thousands of dollars for media ads for peace—and it
is now amassing a worldwide network of media activists dedicated to keeping
the mass media honest by identifying bias and confronting local broadcasters.

New forms of communication and commentary are being invented
continuously. Slashdot and other news sites present high quality peerreviewed
commentary by involving large numbers of members of the web
community in recommending and rating items. Text messaging on mobile
phones, or texting, is now the medium of choice for communicating with
thousands of demonstrators simultaneously during mass protests. Instant
messaging turns out to be one of the most popular methods for staying
connected in the developing world, because it requires only a bit of
bandwidth, and provides an intimate sense of connection across time and
space. The current enthusiasm for blogging is changing the way that people
relate to publication, as it allows realtime dialogue about world events as
bloggers log in daily to share their insights. Meta-blogging sites crawl across
thousands of blogs, identifying popular links, noting emergent topics, and
providing an instantaneous summary of the global consciousness of the
second superpower.

The Internet and other interactive media continue to penetrate more and
more deeply all world society, and provide a means for instantaneous
personal dialogue and communication across the globe. The collective
power of texting, blogging, instant messaging, and email across millions of
actors cannot be overestimated. Like a mind constituted of millions of internetworked
neurons, the social movement is capable of astonishingly rapid
and sometimes subtle community consciousness and action.

Thus the new superpower demonstrates a new form of “emergent
democracy” that differs from the participative democracy of the US
government. Where political participation in the United States is exercised
mainly through rare exercises of voting, participation in the second
superpower movement occurs continuously through participation in a variety
of web-enabled initiatives. And where deliberation in the first superpower is
done primarily by a few elected or appointed officials, deliberation in the
second superpower is done by each individual—making sense of events,
communicating with others, and deciding whether and how to join in
community actions. Finally, where participation in democracy in the first
superpower feels remote to most citizens, the emergent democracy of the
second superpower is alive with touching and being touched by each other,
as the community works to create wisdom and to take action.

How does the second superpower take action? Not from the top, but from
the bottom. That is, it is the strength of the US government that it can
centrally collect taxes, and then spend, for example, $1.2 billion on 1,200
cruise missiles in the first day of the war against Iraq. By contrast, it is the
strength of the second superpower that it could mobilize hundreds of small
groups of activists to shut down city centers across the United States on that
same first day of the war. And that millions of citizens worldwide would take
to their streets to rally. The symbol of the first superpower is the eagle—an
awesome predator that rules from the skies, preying on mice and small
animals. Perhaps the best symbol for the second superpower would be a
community of ants. Ants rule from below. And while I may be awed seeing
eagles in flight, when ants invade my kitchen they command my attention.

In the same sense as the ants, the continual distributed action of the
members of the second superpower can, I believe, be expected to eventually
prevail. Distributed mass behavior, expressed in rallying, in voting, in
picketing, in exposing corruption, and in purchases from particular
companies, all have a profound effect on the nature of future society. More
effect, I would argue, than the devastating but unsustainable effect of bombs
and other forms of coercion.

Deliberation in the first superpower is relatively formal—dictated by the US
constitution and by years of legislation, adjudicating, and precedent. The
realpolitik of decision making in the first superpower—as opposed to what is
taught in civics class—centers around lobbying and campaign contributions
by moneyed special interests—big oil, the military-industrial complex, big
agriculture, and big drugs—to mention only a few. In many cases, what are
acted upon are issues for which some group is willing to spend lavishly. By
contrast, it is difficult in the US government system to champion policy goals
that have broad, long-term value for many citizens, such as environment,
poverty reduction and third world development, women’s rights, human
rights, health care for all. By contrast, these are precisely the issues to which
the second superpower tends to address its attention.

Deliberation in the second superpower is evolving rapidly in both cultural
and technological terms. It is difficult to know its present state, and
impossible to see its future. But one can say certain things. It is stunning
how quickly the community can act—especially when compared to
government systems. The Internet, in combination with traditional press and
television and radio media, creates a kind of “media space” of global
dialogue. Ideas arise in the global media space. Some of them catch hold and
are disseminated widely. Their dissemination, like the beat of dance music
spreading across a sea of dancers, becomes a pattern across the community.
Some members of the community study these patterns, and write about some
of them. This has the effect of both amplifying the patterns and facilitating
community reflection on the topics highlighted. A new form of deliberation
happens. A variety of what we might call “action agents” sits figuratively
astride the community, with mechanisms designed to turn a given social
movement into specific kinds of action in the world. For example,
fundraisers send out mass appeals, with direct mail or the Internet, and if
they are tapping into a live issue, they can raise money very quickly. This
money in turn can be used to support activities consistent with an emerging

The process is not without its flaws and weaknesses. For example, the
central role of the mass media—with its alleged biases and distortions—is a
real issue. Much news of the war comes to members of the second
superpower from CNN, Fox, and the New York Times, despite the
availability of alternative sources. The study of the nature and limits of this
big mind is just beginning, and we don’t know its strengths and weaknesses
as well as we do those of more traditional democracy. Perhaps governance is
the wrong way to frame this study. Rather, what we are embarked on is a
kind of experimental neurology, as our communication tools continue to
evolve and to rewire the processes by which the community does its shared
thinking and feeling. One of the more interesting questions posed to
political scientists studying the second superpower is to what extent the
community’s long-term orientation and freedom from special interests is
reinforced by the peer-to-peer nature of web-centered ways of
communicating—and whether these tendencies can be intentionally fostered
through the design of the technology.

Which brings us to the most important point: the vital role of the individual.
The shared, collective mind of the second superpower is made up of many
individual human minds—your mind and my mind—together we create the
movement. In traditional democracy our minds don’t matter much—what
matters are the minds of those with power of position, and the minds of
those that staff and lobby them. In the emergent democracy of the second
superpower, each of our minds matters a lot. For example, any one of us can
launch an idea. Any one of us can write a blog, send out an email, create a
list. Not every idea will take hold in the big mind of the second
superpower—but the one that eventually catches fire is started by an
individual. And in the peer-oriented world of the second superpower, many
more of us have the opportunity to craft submissions, and take a shot.

The contrast goes deeper. In traditional democracy, sense-making moves
from top to bottom. “The President must know more than he is saying” goes
the thinking of a loyal but passive member of the first superpower. But this
form of democracy was established in the 18th century, when education and
information were both scarce resources. Now, in more and more of the
world, people are well educated and informed. As such, they prefer to make
up their own minds. Top-down sense-making is out of touch with modern

The second superpower, emerging in the 21st century, depends upon
educated informed members. In the community of the second superpower
each of us is responsible for our own sense-making. We seek as much
data—raw facts, direct experience—as we can, and then we make up our
own minds. Even the current fascination with “reality television” speaks to
this desire: we prefer to watch our fellows, and decide ourselves “what’s the
story” rather than watching actors and actresses play out a story written by
someone else. The same, increasingly, is true of the political stage—hence
the attractiveness of participation in the second superpower to individuals.

Now the response of many readers will be that this is a wishful fantasy.
What, you say, is the demonstrated success of this second superpower? After
all, George Bush was almost single-handedly able to make war on Iraq, and
the global protest movement was in the end only able to slow him down.
Where was the second superpower?

The answer is that the second superpower is not currently able to match the
first. On the other hand, the situation may be more promising than we
realize. Most important is that the establishment of international institutions
and international rule of law has created a venue in which the second
superpower can join with sympathetic nations to successfully confront the
United States. Consider the international effort to ban landmines.
Landmines are cheap, deadly, and often used against agrarian groups because
they make working the fields lethal, and sew quite literally the seeds of
starvation. In the 1990s a coalition of NGOs coordinated by Jody Williams,
Bobby Muller and others managed to put this issue at the top of the
international agenda, and promote the establishment of the treaty banning
their use. For this, the groups involved were awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace
Prize. While the United States has so far refused to sign the treaty, it has
been highly isolated on the issue and there is still hope that some future
congress and president will do so.

At the Kyoto meetings on global climate change, a group of NGOs
coordinated by Nancy Keat of the World Resources Institute joined with
developing nations to block the interests of the United States and its ally, big
oil. The only way for the United States to avoid being checkmated was to
leave the game entirely. In the World Trade Organization, the second
superpower famously shut down the Seattle meeting in 1999, and later helped
to force a special “development round” focused on the needs of poor
countries. That round is currently underway—and while the United States
and others are seeking to subvert the second superpower agenda, the best
they have achieved to date is stalemate.

And finally, while George Bush was indeed able to go to war with Iraq, the
only way he could do so was to ignore international law and split with the
United Nations. Had he stayed within the system of international
institutions, his aims likely would have been frustrated. The French and the
Germans who led the attempt to stop him could not, I believe, have done
what they did without the strength of public opinion prodding them—the
second superpower in action.

Now we all know that the Bush administration has decided to undermine, in
many cases, the system of international law. Some argue that by pulling out,
the administration has fatally damaged the international system, and ushered
in a new era where the United States determines the rules—hub and spoke
style—through bilateral deals with other nations. The result, some will say, is
that the second superpower no longer has a venue in which to meet the first
effectively. In my view this is an overly pessimistic assessment—albeit one
that members of the second superpower need to take seriously and strive to
render false by our success in supporting international institutions.

International law and institutions are not going away. Too many parties want
and need them. First, individuals around the world are becoming more
globally aware, and more interested in international institutions. Global
media, travel, and immigration all contribute to citizens being aware of the
benefits of consistent approaches to everything from passport control to
human rights. It is striking, for example, that up until the final days before
the war, a majority of the US population wanted the president to deal with
Iraq in concert with the United Nations. Second, business organizations
want global rule of law. Global trade is now central to a vast majority of
businesses and almost all nations—and such trade requires rules administered
by multilateral bodies. Third, most nations want a global legal system. In
particular, European nations, wary of war, outclassed in one-on-one power
confrontations with the United States, have become strongly committed to a
post-national world. They are pouring collective national resources of
enormous magnitude into continuously strengthening the international

The key problem facing international institutions is that they have few ways
to enforce their will on a recalcitrant US government. And this is where the
second superpower is a part of the solution. Enforcement has many
dimensions. When the United States opts to avoid or undermine
international institutions, the second superpower can harass and embarrass it
with demonstrations and public education campaigns. The second
superpower can put pressure on politicians around the world to stiffen their
resolve to confront the US government in any ways possible. And the
second superpower can also target US politicians and work to remove at the
polls those who support the administration’s undercutting of international

Longer term, we must press for a direct voice for the second superpower in
international institutions, so that we are not always forced to work through
nations. This means, as a practical matter, a voice for citizens, and for
NGOs and “civil society” organizations. For example, the Access Initiative
of the World Resources Institute is working to give citizens’ groups the
ability to influence environmental decisions made by international
organizations such as the World Bank. The Digital Opportunity Task Force
of the G8 group of nations included a formal role for civil society
organizations, as does the United Nations Information and Communications
Technology Task Force.

Overall, what can be said for the prospects of the second superpower? With
its mind enhanced by Internet connective tissue, and international law as a
venue to work with others for progressive action, the second superpower is
starting to demonstrate its potential. But there is much to do. How do we
assure that it continues to gain in strength? And at least as important, how
do we continue to develop the mind of the second superpower, so that it
maximizes wisdom and goodwill? The future, as they say, is in our hands.
We need to join together to help the second superpower, itself, grow

First, we need to become conscious of the “mental processes” in which we
are involved as members of the second superpower, and explore how to
make our individual sense-making and collective action more and more
effective. This of course means challenging and improving the mass media,
and supporting more interactive and less biased alternatives. But more
ambitiously, we will need to develop a kind of meta-discipline, an
organizational psychology of our community, to explore the nature of our
web-enabled, person-centered, global governance and communication
processes, and continue to improve them.

Second, and ironically, the future of the second superpower depends to a
great extent on social freedoms in part determined by the first superpower.
It is the traditional freedoms—freedom of the press, of assembly, of
speech—that have enabled the second superpower to take root and grow.
Indeed, the Internet itself was constructed by the US government, and the
government could theoretically still step in to restrict its freedoms. So we
need to pay close attention to freedom in society, and especially to freedom
of the Internet. There are many moves afoot to censor the web, to close
down access, and to restrict privacy and free assembly in cyberspace. While
we generally associate web censorship with countries like China or Saudi
Arabia, tighter control of the web is also being explored in the United States
and Europe. The officials of the first superpower are promoting these ideas
in the name of preventing terrorism, but they also prevent the open peer-topeer
communication that is at the heart of the second superpower. We need
to insist on an open web, an open cyberspace, around the globe, because that
is the essential medium in which the second superpower lives.

Third, we must carefully consider how best to support international
institutions, so that they collectively form a setting in which our power can
be exercised. Perhaps too often we attack institutions like the World Bank
that might, under the right conditions, actually become partners with us in
dealing with the first superpower. International institutions must become
deeply more transparent, accessible to the public, and less amenable to
special interests, while remaining strong enough to provide a secure context
in which our views can be expressed.

And finally, we must work on ourselves and our community. We will
dialogue with our neighbors, knowing that the collective wisdom of the
second superpower is grounded in the individual wisdom within each of us.
We must remind ourselves that daily we make personal choices about the
world we create for ourselves and our descendants. We do not have to
create a world where differences are resolved by war. It is not our destiny to
live in a world of destruction, tedium, and tragedy. We will create a world of

. . .