Power and Attribution

Measuring power is difficult; assessing its impact harder still.1 It has been a traditional practice among scholars of international relations to estimate a state’s power by looking at its attributes relative to those of others. The standard components of military power are military hardware and spending, while the distribution of economic power is usually assessed with reference to gross domestic product, indebtedness, and other economic indicators. Classical realists, who emphasized the vital importance of power in determining the course of interstate politics, also acknowledged the importance of nonquantifiable factors such as leadership, morale, the quality of diplomacy, and political, economic, and social stability (Morgenthau 1973: 112—119). However, periodic efforts to rank states by adding some measure of qualitative characteristics have not yielded more than a loose and general expectation about a state’s power in terms of its capacity to influence the behavior of others.2 It is more useful to observe how states behave—as powers themselves or in response to other powers—to gauge status attribution. Throughout this chapter, I use both hard military and economic indicators as well as the strategic responses of other states to judge India’s status as a regional and as a major power.

How does one pinpoint the attribution of status? One way is to look at membership in status groups—a state is a major power if it is accorded membership in the club of major powers. But that is not always the most useful method. Chapter 2 claims that in the global system today, the United States may be the only member of the great power “club.” Even if it acts in consultation with other aspiring powers, this does not necessarily mean it is according them equal or approximate status. Similarly, in South Asia, India’s power far exceeds that of any other state. A state can be said to be a major power if other major powers respond to it as if it is one. This by no means presumes they must put out a welcome sign. Some states may indeed do so, by seeking alliances or by inviting a potential major power into a coalition. Other states may act in a hostile or defensive way by balancing against it, distancing themselves from it, or by adopting a threatening stance. Strong power—weak power relationships generally exhibit a typical pattern within an international system (Mandelbaum 1988).3 First, strong states tend to extend their control within a system in order to maximize their security; weak states tend to resist it, though they submit if they are unable to resist. Second, strong states insist on negotiating disputes with weak states bilaterally; weak states try to involve others through alliances or through multilateral organizations. Third, strong states try to draw weak states closer in order to exercise more influence over them; weak states are inclined toward distancing or building barriers, notably to restrict trade and investment. The international politics of South Asia clearly reveals these patterns, though there are significant exceptions.

Before moving forward, two clarifications are needed. First, about the nature of power and its role in the shaping of the international order: to the extent that there is interdependence between and among states, power has limited utility (Keohane and Nye 1978). In economic relationships, states interlocked in the global economy are unlikely to view the prospect of a system breakdown as palatable. This is true of economies that are highly developed, and is increasingly true of those classified as “emerging markets,” of which India—increasingly integrated into the global economy—is one. In military-strategic relationships, owing to the rising cost associated with it, war is said to be on the decline (Vayrynen 2005). This may be due in part to the economic interdependence of so many of the big players. But there is also a state of strategic interdependence between nuclear-armed states who cannot afford the extraordinarily high costs of nuclear conflict. Power can be used rather more freely when the interdependence wrought by economic integration or by nuclear weapons does not exist. Since the majority of states possess neither developed economies nor nuclear weapons, there is quite a bit of room for conflict. In this context, I will demonstrate that India is increasingly inclined to limit its use of power as a traditional resource in strategic politics at both the regional and global levels.

Second, to the extent that power is not an easily usable commodity in international politics, states collaborate in constructing regimes in order to regulate issues critical to their survival and well-being (Krasner 1983). Here, power may be a relevant factor, but it hardly works in the same way. Power among interdependent entities has two facets. Negative power involves the ability to resist a particular set of rules and processes sought to be established; positive power involves the ability to actively shape regimes through processes of generating ideas, persuasion, and bargaining. In regime building, India exhibits greater readiness to use its capability than it does in traditional strategic relationships, but thus far it has exercised only negative power in resisting the construction of regimes it sees as inimical to its interests. Until it shows the capacity to wield traditional power in bilateral relations or positive power in the politics of regimes, it will remain, at best, a state aspiring to become a major power.

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