The religious controversy swirling around next week's Cairo population conference has tended to overshadow its importance a landmark of our entry into a new, puzzling era of global information politics. In this new information era, nongovernmental organizations are more visible than statesmen, the media is as much a participant as an observer, and influencing public opinion is at least as important as shaping public policy.
To get an idea of how this new world order (or disorder) differs from the past, compare the Cairo conference to the 1945 Yalta conference that did so much to create the post-war world.
Yalta, as the famous photograph of its main participants Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin recalls, involved three old men coming together to make deals and draw borders, much as other old men had made deals and drawn borders at Versailles after World War I, and as other gatherings of old men had done in earlier times and places.
Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin disagreed about a lot of things, but they understood one another, and they were all driven by the same value: national interest. Each was vying for a bit more power, influence and security for his country. That was what diplomacy was about. Realpolitik, the scholars called it.
Probably the most striking thing about the Cairo event is the change in the number and kind of players. Talk about a population explosion! Twenty thousand people are on their way to Cairo to meet, talk and network about population control.
Many of these people will be representing nongovernmental organizations, NGOs. The NGOs have become major players in world politics, and the number of them is astonishing in itself. According to the United Nations, over 1,200 NGOs have been accredited to the conference.
At Yalta, the real polarization was between different states or blocs of states whose leaders fought over clashing national interests. At Cairo, the polarization is between coalitions of nongovernmental organizations, advocates and transnational forces (like the Vatican) representing clashing belief systems or ideologies -- a Catholic, Islamic and conservative alliance on one side, a women's, environmentalist and population-control alliance on the other.
The issue is population control, an information-era issue par excellence.
It's only recently that anybody had the vaguest idea of world population -- much less any reason to believe that it mattered how many people there might be in the world. Those concerns didn't begin to become political issues until it became possible to gather and disseminate that kind of information on a large scale.
Population politics feeds on data, projections and scenarios of possible future environmental and/or economic impacts. And it feeds on the media, which can do so much to shape public perceptions of such matters. The participants and observers at the conference will all be playing to world opinion, hoping to have some impact on the beliefs and behaviors of the billions of people who do not come to Cairo.
National-interest politics remains a part of the mix, but clearly not the dominant part: the NGO activists and others are motivated by religious beliefs, family values, the changing aspirations of women, worries about the future of the environment -- a whole cluster of hopes and fears that transcend political boundaries and have little to do with traditional diplomacy.
And, although the concrete agenda items that are being fought over are matters of national policy -- how much money governments allocate to family-planning assistance, what kinds of incentives and disincentives they give to families, what they do about abortion -- nations are not going to determine the future rate of the world's population growth. Anybody who really believes that national governments -- or even international organizations of governments -- have their hands on the controls has completely missed the point of the Information Era.
In the final analysis, those decisions will be made by families and individuals, and on the basis of information flows -- intangible things like the impressions people form about how they want to live, more concrete things like knowledge about birth control.
So the Cairo conference adds up to a kind of world's fair of global information. It may be a productive focusing of the world's attention on an issue that affects us all. It may be a media circus nTC of egos and sound bites and half-truths. It may be an explosion of violence and counter-violence. What it will not be is the time and place at which the world's future is mapped out in secret by a handful of old leaders.
Walter Truett Anderson is a political scientist whose most recent book is ''Reality Isn't What It Used To Be.'' He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.