In an anarchic world, India’s power and burden
There is a simple difference between a national order and an international order. A national political order is driven by a sovereign State. The nature of States may differ — it may be a democracy or autocracy, liberal or conservative — but the State makes and implements the law, secures its citizens, regulates the economy, shapes society, and drives the engagement of one society with another.
The international political order, as realists have long pointed out, is anarchic. There is no global State. There are, to be sure, international institutions, treaties and norms. But whether or not to work with these international structures is entirely a decision of a sovereign State. And this decision on how to engage is driven by the benefits a State sees (in terms of maximising its power or enhancing its security and prosperity) and the costs it has to incur (in terms of surrendering a part of its sovereign decision-making).
And that is why any discussion of a new world order has to begin with a fundamental fact — there is no order that binds all States together and there never has been. The attempt to create an international order is dependent on how States respond to it. And the foreign policy of each State, as Barack Obama put it succinctly in a memoir of his presidential years, is driven by its “economic interests, geography, ethnic and religious schisms, territorial disputes, founding myths, lasting traumas, ancient animosities — and, most of all, the imperatives of those who had and sought to maintain power.”
The world today is in churn because of two factors. One, winning and sustaining political power in each State has become more challenging. Technology has caused enormous disruption and deeper democratisation. Securing citizens from new threats, from modern forms of terror to everyday environmental disasters to public health crises, is tough. Aspirations have grown. There is intense domestic competition for scarce resources. The rise of a demanding middle class has imposed strains. Societies have become more unequal. There is no standard textbook prescription to steering modern economies and creating jobs. The idea that a free and liberal global economic regime will lead to a win-win for all states, and for all citizens within each State, is discredited — there are winners and there are losers. And newer anxieties have led to older resentments becoming more manifest.
Therefore, the route to political power through the careful task of nation-building, brick by brick, while embracing the world, and remaining honest with citizens about the limits of State power, is incredibly hard. Instead, turning inward, stoking rather than tempering more base human impulses, engaging in the politics of mass distraction, investing in the myth of a State that has all has the answers, and engaging in ultranationalism externally or xenophobia internally is a more tempting route to power. These domestic political impulses are playing out in each society and each State — and cannot but shape the wider world.
The second, more immediate, reason for the global churn is that one State, in particular, has decided that its time has come. China, under Xi Jinping, has decided its moment has arrived, and is seeking to utilise what the current international architecture has to offer, but remake it in on its terms — both in its periphery and, as its interests expand, globally.
China’s domestic political apparatus is functioning both from a place of assertiveness — based on the belief that it must avenge its “century of humiliation” — and a place of insecurity, based on the Communist Party’s belief that the world is out to undermine its power (a flawed premise that ignores its own belligerent actions). But irrespective of its motivation, the outcome is the return of an ultra nationalist China that is territorially expansionist, economically predatory, and politically revisionist.
It is this world that India has to contend with, seek to shape, and inhabit. And to do so, it must internalise three features.
The first is strategic clarity. The era when the external climate allowed India to focus, almost unhindered, on its internal growth trajectory, is over. The world has become tougher. Challenges are taking new forms. And China’s direct threat to Indian interests, at a time when each domestic policy issue has a strong external dimension, means that Delhi does not have the luxury of sitting out the next major global conflict. The fact that India’s central contradiction, to borrow Maoist terminology, is now with China will inevitably govern many of its choices.
The second is a mix of non-negotiable principles and ruthless pragmatism. India must remain steadfast in its defence of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, the security of its citizens, its democratic character and its political pluralism. To preserve these fundamentals, it will have to be tactically agile, deepen partnerships with friends who are not friends with each other, pick geopolitical insurance without too high a premium, and, occasionally, compromise on domestic sectional interests and let strategic imperatives prevail. But, most importantly, India will have to be single-minded in its pursuit of economic and military power.
Finally, India will have to remain both firmly democratic and socially cohesive and manage the occasional tension between the two. Democracy and social cohesion are not just normative values; they are strategic assets which add to the resilience of a State. Erosion of democracy or a rupture in social peace allows external adversaries to exploit fault lines, a task made much easier with technology.
In this more anarchic, more adversarial, more competitive world, India is important. That adds to India’s power and responsibility, but also its burden.
The views expressed are personal