The Arab Spring makes clear that the nature of power wielded by states is evolving as societies get networked digitally. Intriguingly, a new network-centric theory of power appears to favor Sweden’s open and collaborative nature as a multiplier of its influence globally.
International relations theorists have long talked about hard power and soft power; hard power is coercive, embedded in military might and financial means, whereas soft power is attractive, derived from positive views of a nation’s cultural and social institutions.
The United states is a superpower in both realms. Sweden, not so much.
In 2009, a professor of international affairs at Princeton University, Anne-Marie Slaughter, wrote an influential article for Foreign Affairs in which she began to extend the hard/soft theory of power to incorporate the effects of Internet-enabled networks.
She argued that in the Internet age, “the measure of power is connectedness”, and that this favors the US because American society has all the right traits for connectivity. Now Slaughter has expanded on her thinking with a new article in The Atlantic that argues the old notions of power just won’t suffice to explain what happened on Tahrir Square, so she identifies a new kind, “collaborative power”.
Collaborative power isn’t “power over” but “power with”. It is an “emergent phenomenon” of the network, and although it cannot be commanded, those who are willing to align with its aims — who “move to the center” of the network — can guide it.
How is the United States positioned to “guide” collaborative power?
How is Sweden positioned?
Many of the social and demographic traits in the US identified by Slaughter as beneficial to connectivity are also present in Sweden.
In fact, Sweden is often better positioned than the US to become a collaborative superpower, especially in the Middle East.
What are these traits?
Slaughter proceeds through a whole list: a small population (compared with China), which makes a country more manageable politically and less prone to secessionism; many immigrants, since they contribute strong trusted connections back to their country of origin, facilitating trade; international exposure, especially by a country’s youth, through travel and global engagement; open and transparent government, which promotes trust in state actors; innovation based on “constructive conflict” and the challenging of authority; and economic and social equality, which fosters inclusion.
What’s interesting is that for all these network-friendly traits, a compelling case can be made that Sweden outperforms the US.
For example, the percentage of the population that is foreign-born is higher for Sweden than the US. Sweden’s innovation model, based on collaboration between industries, not only outperforms the US but is also more network-friendly.
Sweden’s society is far more egalitarian than America’s. For a detailed argumentation around each point, read the longer original version of this article.
In the Arab world, America’s legacy of hard-power politics interferes with the trust-building needed to direct collaborative power. US-funded initiatives to promote internet freedom and digital activism are seen as tainted with murkier US policy goals.
This is not the case for Sweden, which has successfully funded an initiative to build trusted networks between young democracy activists and opinion leaders, both across the Arab region and with their Swedish counterparts.
Each year since 2008, participants in the Young Leaders Visitors Program (YLVP) are invited for a few weeks of networking, training, seminars and internships. Some alumni have ended up among the youth leaders of the Arab Spring.
When surveyed, many YLVP participants indicate that Sweden’s reputation for neutrality is what motivates them to trust the network. Trust is the currency of collaborative power, it’s what enables collective action towards a common goal.
And Swedes are easy to trust, in part because they are always seeking consensus. This suggests that networked collaboration to promote open societies and democracy in the Arab world should be left to countries not afflicted with hard power, such as Sweden.
In a collaborative power dynamic, the network quickly disseminates best practices for the good of all, with a boost to the reputation of the originator. In this context, gaining reputation is akin to “moving to the center” of a network, improving both the quantity and quality of connections. This should be Sweden’s aim in its digital public diplomacy.
Where networks are scarce, it is in Sweden’s interest to build up their physical capacity. Sweden has considerable resources available to build the foundations for networks that can grow autonomously around prioritized issues. YLVP is a great example.
Finally, even open networks need to be trusted before they can be used to build trust. For digital networks, this means they need to be safe and secure for users, regardless of where they live.
Fortunately, Sweden has recourse to some great hacktivist talent.
So: Build networks, secure networks, engage networks. These are three useful motifs around which Sweden can structure its future digital public diplomacy efforts.
A nimble, innovative and open society such as Sweden has all the right qualifications to mesh itself deeply within trusted networks that are able to mobilize collaborative power.
Stefan Geens is a Stockholm-based Belgian national who has served as a technology and new media consultant for the Swedish Institute. He publishes about the global politics of digital networks at Dliberation, where a longer version of this article first appeared.