JB Rules. For Now.

By: /
25 July, 2011
By: John Hancock
Senior Counsellor at the World Trade Organization

Mao Tse-tung famously observed that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” But today power is more likely to grow out of the barrel of a television camera. Or a YouTube video. Or even a tweet.

Ask yourself this: Who is the most globally influential Canadian?  My vote – like millions of others – goes to Justin Bieber. His YouTube video Baby has been watched by a staggering 600 million people – a tenth of humanity – whereas, say, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s most popular performance attracted just 22,000 hits. And I doubt his fans are in Tokyo, Rio or LA. Sure, JB doesn’t get invited to G20 summits or chair cabinet meetings. But if he decided to hold forth on world hunger or saving polar bears, my guess is a sizable portion of the planet would listen.

The power of modern media to focus global attention has real-world implications. Take the financial tsunami currently engulfing Europe – which actually began with distant Dubai’s default scare back in 2009. Having utterly missed one potential crisis, markets started scouring the planet for others in the making: Greece was pronounced dangerously weak; then other euro-zone countries looked wobbly; suddenly even the U.S. seemed in trouble. Global fear fed on itself – creating a vicious circle of exploding borrowing costs, draconian spending cuts, contracting economic output and – inevitably – greater risk of default.

Now headlines warn of the imminent breakup of the euro zone, CNBC worries about whether the U.S. is the next Greece and op-eds lecture on Western profligacy, decadence and decline. That there is nothing objectively dangerous about debt levels on either side of the Atlantic (Europe’s 85 per cent of GDP and the United States’  96 per cent are too high, for sure, but significantly less than debt levels reached at the end of the Second World War, and a far cry from Japan’s 200 per cent) is irrelevant. These crises are becoming more real by the day, fuelled as much by fear as by fundamentals. In the information age, Keynes’s “animal spirits” are on steroids.

It’s not just geo-economics that’s driven by our access to – and obsession with – instantaneous information. The 9/11 terrorists attacks – especially the indelible image of two jets crashing into the World Trade Center’s twin towers – arguably did as much to shift U.S. and Western foreign policy as the rise of Soviet communism. The latter involved plotting a revolution, seizing an empire and creating a superpower. The former only required 18 hijackers with penknives – plus, crucially, the breathless collaboration of the world’s media. But it succeeded in launching two disastrous wars, igniting civilizational conflict between Islam and the West, emboldening a fast-rising China and driving the U.S. trillions of dollars deeper into debt. This is not to downplay the tragedy of the attacks, only to ask whether our horrified fascination with the event – amplified by real-time images, 24-hour news cycles and endless internet chatter – eclipsed its significance.

As worrying as the way globalized information can create international crises is the way it can also kill them. Three months ago the world was transfixed by Japan’s devastating earthquake and a nuclear meltdown in the making – prompting an overnight debate about the future of nuclear power. Remember? Before that we were glued to the Arab uprising – sparked (literally) by viral internet images of a young Tunisian setting himself on fire – until the Japan story pushed it out of the nightly news and thus out of our collective consciousness. One legacy is NATO’s increasingly forgotten – and aimless – war in Libya. And before that, the global crisis du jour included – in rough order – oil prices, Somali pirates, global warming revisionism, Nuclear Iran, pedophile priests, and bankers’ bonuses. Each global media event has, in its own unique way, convulsed the international system and forced the world to react – before the next big story compels us to move on. It seems the only thing shorter than the global news cycle is the world’s attention span.

How do we  manage world politics – and grapple with long-term global issues – when people are both too plugged in and not plugged in enough? Do we now have access to more information than we can handle? John Stuart Mill argued that information should be made as freely available as possible so citizens can make rational choices. But are humans always so rational? Was Marshall McLuhan closer to the mark when he said the medium is the message? With so many information outlets – and so much competition to supply global demand – how do we  ensure accuracy, balance and perspective?  Who should ensure it? And would anyone listen when the next big crisis or tragedy or scandal is just a mouse click away?

Whatever the answer, we should be very concerned about the media power issues raised by André in his latest post.  But then, of course, this story, too, shall pass.

Photo courtesy Reuters.

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