The international order is akin to the science fiction character Dr. Who—it periodically is destroyed, only to reemerge in an altered form. Certain core features are retained; the Classical Greek historian Thucydides observed that political actors are motivated by fear, honor, and interest, and that remains the ruling principle of international politics.
Unless human nature alters fundamentally, that will be true in the future as it was two and a half millennia ago. Other systemic characteristics, however, are malleable, and the structure of the new order thus may differ radically from that of its predecessor.
In the twentieth century, the international order was destroyed twice, the first time mainly through the application of organized violence on a gargantuan scale. The events of 1914-1945 transformed a system with numerous great powers vying for regional and global influence into a bipolar one centered on two superpowers; several former great powers (France, Germany, Great Britain, and Japan) became junior partners in a US-led structure of alliances. In the 1960s, the People’s Republic of China attempted, mainly through the aggressive dispersion of Maoist ideology, to become a third “pole” in global politics. However, China at that point lacked the financial and military resources necessary to secure sustained global influence. Thus, even China ultimately embraced the United States as a de facto ally.
The second reorganization of global affairs, happily, involved surprisingly little violence, as the demise of the Warsaw Pact, and then the Soviet Union itself, left the United States as a lone colossus dominating a now-unipolar international system. The newly established Russian Federation was in a period of economic and social chaos, while China and, especially, India were still in the early stages of transition from dire poverty to affluence.
Although many American policymakers hubristically assumed that unipolarity would endure for their lifetime and far beyond, this was never plausible; under the conditions of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, unipolarity was fated to have a short half-life. Both the bipolar and unipolar orders had emerged by default—the former because all the great powers but two were defeated or financially broken, the latter because the USSR self-immolated before new actors were capable of bearing great power burdens. However, today numerous large countries are prospering economically, producing an increasing number of well-educated and productive citizens, and otherwise laying the foundation for an enhanced international status.
Unipolarity was bearable in the short-term even for Beijing and Moscow because both assumed, correctly, that Washington would show a degree of circumspection in attempting to impose its will on them. Thus, American global quasi-hegemony was irritating, but not a threat to their survival as functionally independent actors. Unsurprisingly, though, as China grew wealthier and Russia stabilized under the Putin regime, these powers became more assertive and increasingly willing to challenge the United States. Indeed, in the last decade Russia has fought two limited wars against weaker neighbors with Western-oriented governments, in both cases effectively daring Washington to back its friends. In both cases, the American response might generously be described as restrained. The world no longer appears unipolar if one is sitting in Tbilisi or Kiev.
The slow demise of unipolarity does not mean that the United States has entered into terminal decline. Indeed, it is likely that at mid-century it still will be the greatest individual power. To effectively exercise influence, it will, however, have to adapt to a military-diplomatic dynamic far more complex and changeable than the binary one of the Cold War. While China and Russia have emerged as rivals to the United States—and many Chinese and Russian policymakers clearly consider America an outright enemy—even allies such as Japan are constructing foreign policy frameworks in which Washington’s role is less central. For example, Tokyo has increasingly attempted to counterbalance China by strengthening its bilateral relationships with Southeast Asian countries, while also becoming more assertive in pressing its territorial claims in the East China Sea.
As it matures, this new multipolar system increasingly will resemble the world of 1914 in certain respects, though in others it will be quite dissimilar. The most fundamental difference will be that the physical and cultural geography of the “old multipolarity” was Eurocentric. While two of the great states, the United States and Japan, were not physically centered in Europe, the former was essentially European culturally, while, from the 1868 Meiji Restoration onward, the latter consciously modeled itself on European counterparts. Most of the powers had vast holdings outside Europe, and the struggle for hegemony over Western and Central Europe was intertwined with the quest for global hegemony. This was the age that the great British geopolitician Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947) dubbed the “Columbian Epoch.” The emerging multipolar system instead will be physically centered on the giant “meta-region” that might be called Eastern Eurasia: the Asia-Pacific, South, and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and most of the Asian portion of Russia. Several of the great powers will be “local” to Eastern Eurasia, although the United States is an obvious exception.
At this point, one also can discern two other plausible great power candidates from outside the meta-region. One is Brazil, whose leaders desire a larger global role. However, they do not yet appear to have a clear conception of what precisely that role would be, much less to have accepted the fact that truly great powers must maintain, and be willing to use, large, expensive military establishments. The other is the European Union, which clearly has the economic and population resources to be a very powerful actor. However, unless the EU’s component states are willing to fully sign over their military and foreign policy decisionmaking authority to Brussels (a prospect that seemed more plausible twenty years ago than it does today), the EU will never be a potent force in shaping the international security environment.
The great powers geographically located in Eastern Eurasia likely will include China, India, and a Japan ever-more independent of Washington’s direction. (Russia is a unique case, as much of its territory is in Eastern Eurasia, but the great bulk of its population is east the Urals). The “ecosystem” of power politics in Eastern Eurasia will be rich, with medium powers such as South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Australia, and Indonesia—the latter also a possible great power candidate in a few decades—pursuing their own interests and playing a major role in shaping the system. While those states now formally allied to the United States likely will remain so, it is unlikely that an American-led “Asian NATO” focused on China will develop. From the perspective of its neighbors, China is worryingly strong. However, Eastern Eurasia is not the war-shattered Europe of the late 1940s; counterbalancing China will not require that its countries compromise their foreign policy autonomy by becoming acquiescent junior partners to the United States.
The comparison with 1914 invariably raises the question of whether a Third World War will occur. It is impossible to give a certain answer to the question, but the concern is warranted. The age of great power warfare may have ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the evidence for that proposition is rather thin. A record of seventy years without a great power conflict is unprecedented, but for most of that time a mere two capitals determined whether or not a cataclysmic war would occur, and in the following unipolar period no major country would have dared to fight the United States. In a dynamic multipolar environment, many states will have a “vote,” even relatively minor ones. After all, the catalyst for the First World War was a terrorist assassination that led to a standoff between a small power and a decrepit Austrian Empire.
It is to be hoped that the new multipolar world will develop in a healthy manner, with interstate competition being managed in a fashion that diffuses potentially violent conflicts. In order to do this, however, there first must be a recognition that multipolarity actually isemerging, and that the world’s countries must be prepared to function in a complex strategic environment that is quite dissimilar from the rather simple bipolar and unipolar orders of the recent past. If the world’s states meet this challenge, humanity perhaps, for the first time, will experience an international order in which great power war is no longer an intrinsic feature of the international system. In the past, it certainly was: peace might prevail for a time, but these periods were just breathing spaces between violent struggles for dominance. Given the social and technological changes that have occurred in the decades since the last war—particularly the proliferation of nuclear weapons to an increasing number actors (a process likely to continue in the future)—it may finally be the case that great power war can be avoided perpetually. If that is the case, it is the most important change in the essential character of international relations since the state itself arose out of the mists of prehistory.
The case for more middle power involvement in the reshaping of the post-pandemic world
The past year was the year of the pandemic, although initially 2020 was seen more as a year of increased great power competition. The pandemic took us off guard and revealed that generally a good handling of the crisis requires a combination of national self-sufficiency and global action, perhaps in dosages that have to be more balanced than what we thought before. A certain reimagining of how the world and each country should function naturally took place, but a more systematic process of transforming our governance toolbox (not because of COVID-19, but of what the pandemic has revealed about some major failures in our global “engines”) is necessary. Here, I make the argument that we should pay more attention to what the middle powers can bring to the international table.
Despite expectations, 2020 was not a great year for the hegemon and the potential successor. China was the originator of the pandemic and this has been reflected in its popularity ratings. The international image of the country took a big hit, the commercial dependence on products made in China determined many to ask tough questions about the future of trade, and Beijing was sometimes put on the same level with Russia as a reactionary/resurgent power. Despite the mask diplomacy and the robust economic recovery, China has been seen more as a source of problems than as a potential solution to global woes. Moreover, the country did not count much in the symbolic race for a vaccine, although, with Sinovac, things might change in the future, depending on its effectiveness. The US also had to deal with a couple of major issues/headaches: a very poor handling of the pandemic that resulted in record numbers of American getting infected or losing their lives, extreme political polarization that did not avoid pandemic subjects (e.g., the wearing of masks, the lockdowns), a severe economic fallout, and a very contested presidential election in which the rules of the democratic games were challenged by the president himself. The icing on the cake was the January 6 Capitol Hill insurrection that further damaged the American image abroad and cemented the idea of the American decline already announced by the inward-looking approaches and decisions of the Trump administration.
The idea that, once Trump is gone, international politics will go back to business as usual will not be borne out by the facts. The consequences of the Trump years will not go away easy or soon. President Biden has already committed that, in his first day in office, he will sign executive orders for the US to rejoin the Paris climate accord and to end the Muslim travel ban. These are not small steps, but many other details remain to be solved out, starting with the new approach towards the WHO (will the US leave the organization and, if not, what changes Washington will ask for?) or the reform of the WTO so that it does not become a museum institution with little influence on how the next stages of globalisation will look for. Moreover, as others have argued, Trump has put the China topic front and center on the US and international political agenda, so that issue cannot be ignored. Beyond employing different tactics than those characterizing the whimsical behavior of Trump, Biden will have to offer a substantive answer on how to deal with a rising power whose action is not as predictable as it was and that will claim a bigger role at the table than currently allocated (in a decade or so, potentially event the main seat at the table).
We like it or not, we are more and more caught by the language of power in international politics, we started to consider more carefully the relation between absolute versus relative gains, we look more carefully at the main international players, potential alliances and at how the new era of globalization and economic evolutions more broadly could change an emerging balance-of-power logic. Fortunately, we are far from the Cold War nightmare, but nothing guarantees that we will not end up in a situation that is perhaps even more unstable than the one that ended with the 1989 revolutions and the disintegration of the USSR. The times of crisis usually test our instincts, and this applies not only to the constructive side: fear and uncertainty, the game theory has shown so well, can very well generate suboptimal results. This is why we need safeguards that the post-Covid-19 situation will not bring to the fore the worse in us as citizens of the world.
One of the few clear safeguards we can consider is the role of middle powers. We already know that, in times of transition of power and hegemonic weakness, international public goods can still be provided by a coalition of states that have obvious stakes in the preservation of the system and are ready to act to make sure that international norms and practices are not destroyed by the vacuum of power. The likes of Canada, Denmark, Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, Japan or New Zealand can join hands and offer their agreed take on the hottest international topic: how to maintain honest international cooperation and ensure that we have the proper global institutions that will mitigate the health, economic, social, and political consequences of the pandemic. We already saw individual actions: the cooperation within MIKTA, an informal middle power partnership between Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia aiming to support global governance, an alliance which accounts for almost 10% of global trade; or the statement of the Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi that countries around the world need to make concerted efforts to promote multilateralism. But these steps should be more systematic and coordinated: we are in need of a bigger, louder platform.
We know very well that multilateralism has issues, that international organisations have problems: the pandemic has made all this too clear. However, we do not have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The reckoning and the rethinking will have to go beyond the interests and involvement of the great powers, in order to generate trust and the buy-in of the other relevant players. We really need honest brokers for the post-pandemic world, to prepare us for the next ones and for whatever lies in store for a debacle-prone future. A few months ago, the Lowy Institute rightly focused on the role of middle powers in the current crisis and made reference to a coalition of competent middle powers to offer a safer ground for the recovery. I would dare to say that this is true, but even more important would be a coalition of generous and enlightened self-interested middle powers, that recognize that their position of strength is also a by-product of the current international order that their consolidation is tied to refurbished, not overhauled global agreements. My call is as much a realistic assessment as it is a hope that there is an alternative to zero-sum great power competition in the post-2020 era.
The Growth of Soft Power in the World’s Largest Democracy
Power in the field of foreign affairs has previously always been well-known and understood as “Hard Power”. This is used when speaking ofa nation’s economic and military power. Hard power is portrayed in the form of tangible force such as coercion, threats to use physical force or even economic sanctions, etc. On the other hand, a relatively newer concept, Soft Power, is now gaining momentum. Soft Power is a more subtle form of power and is popularly defined as the use of affirmative or positive appeal to create a better reach and image of the country in terms of international relations. Soft power, thus, aims to improve on the older beliefs of hard power and strives to attain influence by constructing a better picture, creating stronger connections, formulating global regulations and utilising the soft power reserves that help build the nation in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The term was first coined by Harvard’s Joseph Nye, an American political scientist, who initially established three primary sources of soft power: political values, culture, and foreign policy. Within these three sources, the further subdivisions of soft power are diverse in nature and numerous in quantity.
Soft Power and Governments
At the core, Soft Power is a concept that deals with being appealing to its people. Hence, there has to, almost necessarily, be a societal approach. Governments cannot do more here than act as a vehicle for the process. Nonetheless, governments today are facilitating the creation and dispersion of positive thoughts and depictions of their States. This includes fine arts, movies, music, culture, ideologies and spiritualities, etc. Naturally, almost every country has activities and ideas that are unique to its land and its people and thus, Soft Power has a plentitude of factors that are important in mapping Soft Power sources.
It is often also believed that people in a diaspora often tend tobe more religious or patriotic than those in their homeland. Their presence abroad and representation of Indian culture adds to a country’s Soft Power. Hence, governments can also build on this and use it to their advantage and increase the influence on the diaspora to exercise more freedom in the strengthening of their soft power. Thus, it is the governments which must act as catalysts to promote and package these traits well on a global scale; this must be done in order to create a favourable picture of the country and its people to boost international relations and its own standing in foreign policy.
Soft Power and India
In a country with such a vast history as well as such rich culture, heritage and traditions- at first sight itself, one can see how India has a surplus of these aforementioned qualities and the Government of India, too, recognises and acknowledges the potential this carries with respect to soft power resources. Hence, with just a little effort- this can be utilised optimally to boost international influence.
As explained by Mr. Dhruva Jaishankar, the Director of the U.S. Initiative at ORF, in his piece on The Brookings blog- presently too, India’s rise in the world, both politically and economically, has added fresher perspective to India’s soft power resources and its employment for protecting and promoting all of India’s interest globally. The cultural diversity in terms of languages, religions, heritage and well as the presence of progressive civilisations in the past gives India an almost inexhaustible reserve of soft power to dig into. From folk music and dances to historical sights and myths, from Indian cinema to the diverse cuisine, every aspect of India can contribute immensely to the nation’s soft power resources.
A few more specific examples of this can be yoga, Yoga Day, River Ganga, all the religious tourism sights such as temples, etc.; all of which have worldwide appeal. For example, in Russia and other Indophillic countries, there are Indian films which the older generation there still remembers till date, because our values were considered close to Soviet values; similarly so with African countries, because their societies had more conservative values like ours back in the day. When popular singer Akon flew down to record a Hindi song for a movie, it created a stir. However, some lesser-known information is that in his home country, Senegal, almost everyone can speak Hindi quite fluently and they love Bollywood, to the extent that they have all grown up watching and loving it.
The authors of the chapters in ‘The Magic of Bollywood: At Home and Abroad’ too, shed light on the impact that Bollywood songs and films add as an agent ofsoft power.All of this contributes immensely in the countries’ mutual foreign policy, relations, etc., because of a feelings of closeness, familiarity or relatability that it creates. Today, companies across the world want to employ certified yoga instructors. Even relatively conservative countries like Saudi Arabia have an accelerated demand for yoga instructors now; whereas, a few years ago, it would have been interpreted and believed to be incorrect or not suitable to their culture or values.
India is also looked upon favourably in the international market owing to its political values and foreign policy. It is seen as a safer avenue for investors than non-democratic countries like China, North Korea, etc. because of its stand with respect to political stability, upkeep of human rights, non-intervention and other such factors that convince those residing outside of the country and thus, result in the strengthening of bonds. Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Indian politician and Member of Parliament, has also time and again reiterated the importance and far-reaching characteristics of Soft Power in his writings and speeches, calling it one of India’s most valuable assets.
As mentioned in the Diplomatist, Monish Tourangbam rightly observes that “New drives like ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’, ‘Make in India’ and ‘Incredible India’ have been associated with India’s nation-branding and the promotion of its image in the international community.”He also added that “The success of Indian institutions such as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in outer space explorations, and in launching satellites for other countries, have catapulted India’s regional and global image. More collaborations should not only be initiated but also sustained between Indian universities, both public and private with its counterparts in Asia and Africa, with a focus on providing affordable but quality education.”This is of extreme significance because of the growth in India’s positive image due to such images- not just outside the country but also in the minds of Indian citizens at home.
Because at the end of the day, soft power is the power that your culture and image hold in the minds of people in your country but mainly those all around the world. It complements hard power; despite many political scientists and foreign affairs experts arguing that it cannot replace it entirely; such as Mr. H.H.S. Viswanathan at IIM, Tiruchirappalli, who also concluded with the same in his lecture in 2019 during a series by the Ministry of External Affairs. Usually, Soft Power is strongly believed to be of paramount significance when it comes to nation-building, development and promotion. Some even argue that it makes Hard Power more acceptable, in a way.
Corona Vaccine: A Diplomatic Tool
Covid-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities of prevailing governance set ups but it also brought the bright face of so called failure systems. Covid-19 has hit across the world and damaged political, social and economic life of entire globe but very few of them used their leadership and technical skills to overcome the catastrophe and succeeded. The most victim of covid-19 was china but few western and Asian states also faced the traumatic situation. New Zealand was the first state which declared it corona free zone under the leadership of NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and later on at somehow china controlled the epidemic spread while Pakistan under the leadership of Imran Khan also used effective Smart lock down policies to save the valuable lives and reduced economic shocks. On contrary to this, the largest democracy India and U.S completely failed to cope up with the situation. During the 2020, major powers like china and Russia provided its medical and technical support to the far distant poor states particularly African and Asian nations and win hearts of the people. Now, 2021 is a year for vaccines and hope of a return to normalcy.
China, the first and foremost state hit by the coronavirus a year ago, just approved its first homegrown vaccine for general use and have endeavors to inoculating 50 million high priority people before early February. According to the centers for disease control and prevention, more than 4.8 million people in the United States have received vaccine dose. In the same way, states like china, Russia and U.S are going to use it a diplomatic tool. Vaccine makers are boosting their productions to produce it on large scale to fulfill the other state’s requirements. Due to outbreak of Covid-19, china had to face the bad music in international affairs but Chinese efforts reflect a desire to revamp its international image.
In May 2020, during a speech Chinese president Xi Jinping positioned Chinese vaccine development and deployment plans as a’’ Public Good ‘’health and further he added that it will be china’s contribution to ensuring vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries. In the result of this, Chinese vaccine trials have been conducted in different African, Middle East and Asian states. The covid-19 pandemic has clearly offered a golden opportunity to china to advance itself as a reliable and inevitable actor of global governance. The Chinese government eventually is going to use vaccine doses as a strategic tool to strengthen their international relationships. A senior researcher for global health at the Washington-based council, Yanzhong huang expressed his views that
‘’The vaccine could be used by an instrument for foreign policy to promote soft power and project international influence’’
The African governments are expressing interests in Chinese vaccine, BBIBP-CorV, developed by the china national pharmaceutical group and china could use vaccine access to bolster economic and political influence in Africa and other regions which are securing enough vaccines. Thus, the vaccine diplomacy would help china to frame itself as the solution to the outbreak rather the cause of it. China’s vaccine diplomacy in Africa serves to be a high reward venture. It sinopharm’s vaccine bore fruits and restores the normalcy of life across the region, china will be praised. Recently, Sinovac biotech,drug Maker Company based in Beijing, has signed deals with Brazil and Turkey to provide respectively 46 million and 50 million doses. Sinopharm a state owned company is also active to provide the vaccine but deals are less open. China’s global vaccine campaign is in stark contrast to the ‘’America First ‘’ approach which just focuses on vaccinating its own citizens. So, china is in better position to use the vaccine to serve its foreign policy interests. The role of leaders in projecting vaccine as diplomatic tool is vital and Chinese leaders have repeatedly stressed that china’s vaccines are for sharing particularly with the poor nations. It is very evidently that how much china is interesting to build its trust among those states that are part of the development projects like BRI. Most of the countries including Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Afghanistan and Pakistan are in the priority list. In addition to this, Beijing also offered $ 1 billion dollar loan to Latin America and the Caribbean for access to its corona virus vaccine. Indonesia is another state which received 1.2 million vaccine doses from Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac. Chinese state owned media played very significant role in projecting vaccine a diplomatic tool and showed china as a responsible player leading global efforts to fight the pandemic.
The ambitions of china in projection of soft image are very evident as it wants to realize the world that how much china has capabilities to perform its duties to govern the world affairs. Undoubtedly, the role of Chinese leadership, state owned media and drug maker companies in the pandemic is very influential to shape the pro-Chinese narrative.
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