An explainer on foreign policy using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 3, Hugo Weaving explains how Power works in the international system.
It is 2311 on Hawai’i. Zachry (Tom Hanks) with his brother-in-law Adam (Jim Sturgess), and his nephew Jonas are out in the woods gathering food . As Zachry spots a shiny blue stone, he suddenly becomes conscious of the demonic figure of Old Georgie (Hugo Weaving). Before he knows it, members of the cannabilistic Kona (Hugh Grant as the chief) ambush them and Zachry hides himself behind a rock unable to go to the aid of Adam who is screaming for him. Amidst the screams and the sounds of the Kona eating Adam, Old Georgie presses against Zachry and whispers an age-old adage, “The weak are meat and the strong do eat.”
I had to watch Cloud Atlas three times before I professed to understand it. Even now, every time I watch it, I pick up something new that I hadn’t seen before. I know that the world of cinema either loves or hates the movie but I’m an ardent supporter (Haters gonna hate!) Cloud Atlas, based on the book by David Mitchell, is a set of six stories that travel through time. It has political and social undertones and is filled with quaint jibes about the world in which we live. What stood out was Old Georgie’s quip about the strong and the weak.
Whether this is far ahead in the future or way back in the past, Old Georgie’s words ring through. Originally a Chinese proverb, the saying is similar in languages all over the world. Darwin called it, “the survival of the fittest” while Thucydides quipped, “The strong do what they do can and the weak suffer what they must,” in the aftermath of the Peloponnisian war.
We know that in an anarchical system, the law of the jungle prevails. And the international system is anarchic. (Check out the last Housefull Foreign Policy on anarchy if you’re confused). But what happens to actors when a system is anarchical? It means that strong powers will do whatever they want while weak ones have to bear with it. The realist thought follows three streams: that in an anarchical system all states focus on surviving. The only way they can survive in a world surrounded by inimical powers is by increasing their power. Therefore they will focus on power maximisation.
So what is power? The typical definition of power is that if A can force B to do something B would otherwise not do, then A has power over B. This aspect of power refers to ability of the actors in question. This is true for any power dynamic, be it a teacher-student, society- individual and so on. It also stands true for states in the international system. The literature on power is vast and varied. Realists first divided it into carrots and sticks (read coercion and incentives), hard and soft and so on. Now the vocabulary of power is large and overlapping.
When we speak of power, as a capability, one important feature of power is its relativity. There are power indices that measure how countries compare against each other. These take into consideration elements including economic development, innovation, knowledge, military prowess, public image etc. Power can also refer to the status of a country. After Paul Kennedy wrote a book called Rise and Fall of Great Powers, every country is keen to deem itself a great power – India is no exception, actually, it enforces the rule.
The language that we use to speak about powerful countries is interesting. What is a superpower or a great power or a dominant power? Is a predominant player in one region, a small player in the other? Do blocs of countries amass bargaining power?
All of this drives back to Old Georgie’s statement: in the international system as well, the weak is meat and the strong will eat. This is why power is considered currency in the international system. The counter-view is that international institutions mitigate the law of the jungle. However, the very reason the United Nations functions even in the capacity that it does is an effect of power politics. In the UN General Assembly, all countries may be equal but in the United Nations Security Council, the five permanent members were considered the most powerful states in the world. Even now when there are calls to reform the UNSC, it is on account of the changing power dynamics on the world stage.