Instead of chasing such titles, let us work harder to improve the lives of the poor
Power in inter-state relations is the capacity as well as the political will to use that capacity, of one country to make another country do something which, left to itself, it would not do or would not want to do. “Soft” power should not be considered a component of the concept of power since it is not relevant to modifying the behaviour of another country; it can and does serve as a model and indirectly — and over a period of time — to earn goodwill among sections of society of other countries for its culture. But it has no place in the discussion of power as a means to bring about a change in the attitude of another country. India has a genuine attraction for many in the Middle East because of its pluralism combined with a functioning democracy; however, it does not give any “power” to India to influence decision-making in those countries. When we talk of power, we are thinking of military, economic and diplomatic clout, not of Bollywood or yoga.
Spheres of influence
The 20th century offers many examples of the exercise of power by states mostly in neighbouring countries or countries regarded as forming a part of their spheres of influence. There were at least 10 cases of American intervention, starting with Cuba when the Platt amendment was adopted in the Senate which gave virtual control over Cuba to the U.S. as well as provided the framework for the lease of Guantánamo Bay. Other examples are Panama in 1903, Nicaragua in 1912, Haiti in 1915, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, Chile in 1973, etc. An example of the blatant exercise of power was the Anglo-French-Israeli joint attack on the Suez Canal zone in 1956. The Soviet Union used brute force to restore its domination of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. There was of course the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 which had a lot to do with the eventual collapse of the Soviet empire.
The establishment of the United Nations in 1945 and the evolution of international law since then have completely changed the rules of the game of the exercise of power by the introduction of the concept of legitimacy. It is universally recognised that there are only two scenarios of the legitimate use of force: pursuant to the Security Council authorisation or in the exercise of the right of self-defence. The latter has been severely circumscribed by the Charter which lays down that the right of self-defence can be exercised only in response to an attack by another state, thus rejecting the “pre-emptive” right of self-defence. The one case of unilateral use of force in the 21st century was the American intervention in Iraq in 2003 which the international community refused to recognise as legitimate since it did not have the imprimatur of Security Council approval nor was it accepted as having been in the exercise of the right of self-defence. United States/NATO intervention in Afghanistan, on the other hand, was sanctioned by the U.N.
Of the three constituent elements of “power” — military, economic and diplomatic — the economic is crucial. This is self-evident and does not need elaboration. One important reason why the Soviet Union lost the Cold War was the mismatch between its bloated military and the inability of its economy to support and sustain it.
Is there a “superpower” in the contemporary world? The answer is clearly in the negative. America has global reach, and its military is no doubt the strongest in the world. But this does not confer on it the capability to impose its will on others. To be fair to it, the U.S. does not ask others to recognise it as a superpower, though it does not protest when the rest of the world describes it as one. The Americans would rather prefer to be recognised as the “exceptional” power. The capacity of its military as well as the will of its political leadership to deploy anywhere at any time without worrying about adverse political or diplomatic reaction remains, but it is severely hobbled by its increasing economic weakness. To that extent, it is a global power. But it lacks in other attributes of power. The most embarrassing moment for American diplomacy was in March 2003 when it failed to persuade enough members of the Security Council, including some of its close allies, to support the “second resolution” on Iraq which would have legitimised its intervention in Iraq; only four countries promised support. More and more members in the U.N. vote in favour of the resolution criticising American sanctions against Cuba. The U.S. has not had much success in getting countries such as India to fall in line with its Iran policy. Getting its nominee elected president of the World Bank has less to do with its diplomatic strength and more to do with the voting advantage that it and its allies enjoy as also to the lack of unity among the challengers for the job.
America is without doubt a super “soft” power. Its movies, television series, popular music, and, most of all, its espousal of democratic values have immense resonance among the youth of the world, especially in the Arab and Muslim world. But these do not translate into “power.”
China is portrayed as a legitimate claimant for the title of global power. China's economy has been the principal engine of growth of the world economy but is now slowing down and facing the prospect of a reality bubble, political instability and huge corruption scandals. It is now not clear when, if ever, it will become the biggest economy in the world. Its military capability is nowhere close to America's. In R&D and labour productivity, it is way behind the U.S. China has increased its military profile, especially its navy. But the neighbours, while distrustful, are not afraid of China because of the American “pivot” or other factors. Much weaker countries, such as the Philippines, refuse to be intimidated by Chinese threats.
If the U.S. and China can be eliminated as candidates for “superpower” status, there is no need to consider any other state for the position.
Is India at least a “regional” power? The most conspicuous example of the exercise of power by India was the operation in 1971 in former East Pakistan. India's intervention was not authorised by the U.N.; India justified it on the ground of self-defence since Pakistan had earlier attacked several Indian Air Force bases as also on the one that Pakistan had in fact invaded India in the form of 10 million refugees. There is also the case of the intervention in the Seychelles in 1986, and one case of ill-advised military intervention, in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s which had disastrous consequences for India. There was talk of India sending a brigade to Iraq in 2003, but wiser counsel prevailed. As a general rule, Indian participation in military operations has been as a part of U.N.-mandated peace-keeping operations, with the exceptions mentioned.
The global powers of yesteryear became such for concrete reasons: control over sources of raw materials including oil and gas and protection of the interests of their corporations, e.g. the case of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala in the 1950s, an American company in which the then CIA director was a shareholder.
Why do some analysts in India feel enamoured of the prospect of India being called a global or a regional power? Is it because of the sense of self-importance or prestige? Will such a “title” give India a place at the high table in international diplomacy? Others sometimes use this adjective for us for one or both of these reasons: to flatter us — and we are the most flattery-prone people in the world — and/or to make us take foreign policy steps which would serve the objectives of those flattering us. Will the label of regional power help ameliorate the lives of the poor in our country, which is and should continue to be the guiding principle of our domestic as well as external policy? Further, while we have soft power of doubtful practical utility, we definitely are or have become or are becoming a super “soft state.” India's neighbours have the full measure of its will, or lack thereof, to use whatever hard power it has. One criterion of military power ought to be, not the unlimited capacity to pay for imports of hardware, but how much of it is the country able to manufacture domestically; India fares poorly in this respect. The possession of nuclear weapons does not change anything. Pakistan too has them. And, our nuclear weapons did not deter Pakistan from indulging in the Kargil adventure, but Pakistan's nuclear weapons apparently deterred us from crossing the Line of Control (LoC) at that time, and restrained us after 26/11. The boom years of India's economy seem to be over at least for the short term. Our forex reserves have ceased to grow and are likely to dwindle, with the rising energy bill and diminished exports. A reduction in interest rates might at some stage induce NRIs to start pulling out their deposits as it happened in 1990-91. A declining economy makes for a poor case for acceptance as a “power” of any kind.
In today's world, the concepts of super or global or even regional power do not make sense. We should not waste our time or energy over this non-issue. Fortunately, the Indian government does not seem to be much preoccupied about such recognition.
(Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, was until recently Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Special Envoy for West Asia.)