Mandela’s memorial service was, as expected, a colossal gathering of current and former heads of state, bringing together many strange bedfellows. But somehow, even the predictable, and silly, controversy of the Raul Castro and Barack Obama handshake was eclipsed by the now-notorious ‘selfie’ photograph taken by Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama.
The AFP photographer who snapped the picture of the leaders in mid-selfie lamented that, of the 500 striking and momentous images he took, this was the one that stuck – because it had been appropriated by a number of commentators who passed judgement on the leaders’ behaviour at an event at which they themselves were not present.
Speaking on a UK radio show a few days later, UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg agreed with the photographer that taking the shot was in keeping with the memorial’s celebratory atmosphere, and also addressed some other speculation from the memorial: Clegg had been seen deep in conversation with Bill Clinton – which, as interviewer Nick Ferrari observed, seemed to prompt a look of ‘bitterness and fury mixed together’ from Labour leader Ed Miliband.
What topic had absorbed them so, asked Ferrari. ‘What I was talking to him about,’ said Clegg, ‘was the last time I saw him [when] he recommended to Miriam and I, who were both talking to him, a book that we should both read, it's called The End Of Power.’ Ferrari then teased Clegg about whether he was concerned about any ‘hidden meaning’ in the book’s title.
Clegg was referring to The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be, by Moisés Naím – an economist and former editor of Foreign Policy – which is an assessment of how the nature of power is shifting, and in Naím's view, decaying. He argues that military, business and political leaders face more complex problems with less clout and fewer options than they had in the past.
In his essay, Is Power in Decline? in the forthcoming issue of Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, Jonathan Stevenson – a professor of strategic studies at the US Naval War College – evaluates Naím’s arguments about the dilution of national power, and power more generally, in the context of historical and contemporary geopolitics.
Alexa van Sickle is an assistant editor at the IISS.