National power and its role in geopolitics

All important players in international politics are those that are powerful.

Far too often, news coverage on geopolitical events projects value judgments as outcomes – by either endorsing or criticizing actions taken by nation states based on a scale that measures morality. For example, the reaction to USA’s role in Afghanistan or Syria is criticized on the grounds that it is morally wrong for USA and its allies to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. Such opinions however are simplistic as they assume that the laws and principles which apply to domestic affairs apply internationally as well.


The reality is quite opposite – the morality of a nation-state within its boundaries is in most cases, based on a document like the constitution which every citizen and the government is expected to adhere to. A deviation from the principles of constitutionalism is thus considered wrong or inimical to the interests of the nation as a whole. On the other hand, the rules of the game that apply to international affairs and geopolitics are completely different. There is no sovereign authority that can impose itself on all the nations of the world. Much of international law is also based on prior consent of nations. In such a scenario, the fundamental law which then applies to international relations is that of Power.

In international relations, every nation fends for itself and seeks to become powerful. Being powerful is the best bargaining chip a nation can have in an international scenario. For example, Russia would have possibly reacted in a much different manner with regards to Ukraine, had the latter not let go of its 2000 odd nuclear weapons that it inherited in the early nineties.

Kautilya, in Arthashastra, says that there are three elements of national power – the power of energy which comes from the drive of the ruler and his/her intellectual strength, the power of counsel and diplomacy and the power of the army and the treasury. Kautilya also gave subjective weights to these three sources of power. He says that the power of the army and treasury is more important than the power of energy and the power of counsel and diplomacy is more important than the other two.

Taking this Kautilyan definition as a starting point, we can analyse the three elements in contemporary situations. One such element of power comes across as the most significant one in several streams of thought including that of Kautilya is diplomacy. Diplomacy here is loosely defined as the act of getting other countries to agree to what a nation/group of nations wants without the use of a conventional military force.

As an analogy, while the other sources of power like military, nuclear deterrence, economy are like raw materials in an industry, diplomacy is the machine that synthesizes these materials into a finished product into a foreign policy which is then visible to the rest of the world. Through diplomacy, some nations have also managed to convert what might seem global challenges into sources of power. An example is countries like Maldives, Seychelles and others who now call themselves collectively as SIDS (Small Island Developing States). By highlighting the issues of global warming time and again in international forums and advocating climate change diplomacy, these countries now play a leading role in global systems like Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) and United Nations Framework Convention on Climatic Change (UNFCCC).

Foreign aid falls under the second element of national power theorised by Kautilya –the combined power of the army and the treasury.

When the aid amount is a significant portion of the recipient’s GDP, the influence that the donor wields on the recipient becomes significant. For example, countries like Kyrgyzstan welcomed the US air base in Manas as the rent obtained from this air base itself was around 3 percent of the country’s national budget. Saudi Arabia has projected itself successfully as an adherent to the tenet of charity in Islam – it is one of the largest providers of aid to Palestine and wields significant influence there.

Donors give more to countries in which they have political or economic interests, rather than to countries that actually need aid or could effectively use it. The attempts of donors to influence recipient nation’s behavior depend on how substitutable one donor is for another. This point is particularly relevant today as the number of aid donors has increased dramatically. Thus, in our neighborhood, the question before India is not about whether to give aid to Bhutan or Nepal, it is about how much and under what conditions. This is because these countries now have China as a potential donor in case India turns away from them.

The second part of this element of power is the capability of the military which refers to the ability to transform resources like soldiers, artillery into wartime effectiveness. Thus apart from the money allotted to the military or the number of foot soldiers; it also depends on a doctrine, the quality of leadership, effective organization and the quality of training.

A powerful military is an important player in settling geopolitical issues and is employed in various scenarios today. Against non-nuclear states, it is often used both as a deterrent and a real force. For example, USA’s threat of military action in Syria triggered a series of diplomatic actions that eventually led to the Syrian government agreeing to an assessment of its chemical weapons. The role of conventional military is different when two nuclear powers are colliding as a full throttle use can lead to escalation and eventual use of the dreaded ‘bomb’. In such a case, the various geopolitical agents try to prevent an all-out war between nuclear states. Nevertheless, conventional weapons have been deployed in localized skirmishes between nuclear powers like the Indo-Pak Kargil conflict in 1999 and the Sino-Russian border conflict in 1969. A powerful armed force is desired by all aspiring geopolitical entities.

The third element in Kautilya’s definition of power – power of energy can be mapped to the modern conception of ‘soft power’. Like its name, the definition of this element is also soft. It may include elements like the number of technocrats in a nation, the number of cultural missions across the world or even the number of pilgrimages in a country. The aspects of foreign aid and quality of diplomacy discussed earlier partly venture into the domain of soft power as well.

In summary, power was and still remains an important currency in international relations.

Photo: Ahd Photography