Power is not enough to be a dominant geopolitical player. You also need Legitimacy. That is why China will not replace the US anytime soon.
It’s nearly impossible to read a book on geopolitics today without the mention of the phrase A New World Order. The narrative arc behind this phrase is all-too familiar: the liberal democratic world order led by the US is now crumbling, the international system will throw up many uncertainties as a result, and one of the likely endstates for this upheaval is a Sinocentric world order.
Many claims of this New World Order narrative need deeper investigation, starting from these questions: what constitutes a world order? How was the US able to reach this position of a world leader after the World War II? What are the odds that China will replicate this feat? And finally, in what ways can India shape the world order?
Perhaps the best definition of World Order comes from a book of the same name, written by Henry Kissinger in 2014. He defines it as ‘the concept held by a region or civilisation about the nature of just arrangements and the distribution of power thought to be applicable to the entire world.’
The two words — ‘just’ and ‘power’ — are of great importance in this definition. Kissinger further explains why legitimacy and power are the two components on which any order is based:
Any one of these systems of order bases itself on two components: a set of commonly accepted rules that define the limits of permissible action and a balance of power that enforces restraint where rules break down, preventing one political unit from subjugating all others. A consensus on the legitimacy of existing arrangements does not—now or in the past—foreclose competitions or confrontations, but it helps ensure that they will occur as adjustments within the existing order rather than as fundamental challenges to it. A balance of forces does not in itself secure peace, but if thoughtfully assembled and invoked, it can limit the scope and frequency of fundamental challenges and curtail their chance of succeeding when they do occur.
A corollary is this: while the survival of nation-states depends on power alone, achieving a world leader status requires both power and legitimacy.
Power simply refers to the ability to influence one’s will over the others, irrespective of the other’s will. In an international relations context, such power is attained through a combination of several factors: a strong military, a favourable geography, a big and growing economy, nuclear deterrence, and so on. However, even the most powerful nation-states require one more essential ingredient to transform themselves into world leaders: an exercise of power that is deemed legitimate by other actors in the system. In other words, great power status is the quest for authority — an exercise of power which is not considered as being coercion but as legitimate.
An illustration: how power, authority, and legitimacy are related
Kissinger again explains the balance between legitimacy and power in a world ordering project elegantly:
To strike a balance between the two aspects of order—power and legitimacy—is the essence of statesmanship. Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement into a test of strength; ambition will know no resting place; countries will be propelled into unsustainable tours de force of elusive calculations regarding the shifting configuration of power. Moral proscriptions without concern for equilibrium, on the other hand, tend toward either crusades or an impotent policy tempting challenges; either extreme risks endangering the coherence of the international order itself.
Further, how nation-states become powerful is well-understood in international relations. But how world leaders come to exercise this power legitimately is much less understood. Essentially, legitimacy requires conformity to a set of rules. And because the international system is not governed by a single-set of rules, world leaders seek to gain legitimacy by projecting their own set of rules as being superior to others, and then as acting as credible upholders to these values.
This critical distinction between legitimacy, authority, and power, can help shed light into the most important world order shifts of the recent past.
Take the emergence of the US-led order first. By the end of World War II, all European powers were exhausted. The US emerged as the most powerful nation-state. But accumulation of power was just the first step to a world leader status. To transform its power into authority, the US followed many more steps. First, liberty and democracy were identified as the values which the international order was supposed to encourage. Second, the US built multilateral institutions to reassure the other nation-states that the US was willing to limit its own authority. Third, the nation-states that adhered to this international order were provided with the benefits of security cover, economic assistance, and technology transfers. Done together, these three steps made US not just the most powerful, but the most authoritative nation-state in the modern world.
This framework also helps analyse why the US-led order is said to be crumbling even though there is no perceptive decline in virtually any of its power dimensions.
The reason is that while the US continues to be powerful, its international conduct over the last few years has led to a rapid decline in its legitimacy. This has happened in a few different ways. One, the nation-states that tethered themselves closely to a US-led order now have no assurance that they will benefit from such an arrangement. The emphasis of the Trump administration on ‘fair and reciprocal trade’ and ‘shouldering more of the burden of our common defense’ illustrates that the benefits accruing from a US-led order have declined substantially for other players. Two, the US turning its back on the same multilateral arrangements it created has also been a severe jolt to its credibility. The withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the volte-face on the Iran nuclear deal, and the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change are cases of this nature. All in all, the authority of the US has taken a severe hit even though it continues to add to its power.
The question that follows is: what does this framework say about China’s claim to world leadership?
Even though China is nowhere near the US in terms of its power capabilities, the Communist Party leadership is hard at work to get there. Even if we take an extremely optimistic scenario where China’s power rivals that of the US, China has two structural limitations preventing it from exercising this power legitimately.
One, the Chinese vision for the world is at best a poor replica of the Westphalian principles of world ordering that preceded the assent of US as a world leader. Beyond the procedural aspects of “noninterference in domestic affairs of other states, inviolability of territorial integrity, and sovereignty of states”, it provides no direction, making the generation of legitimacy difficult. Even the multilateral institutions that China has tried to build are alternates rather than substitutes for those created by a US-led order. Essentially, China has no set of norms to build its own legitimacy on. Two, legitimacy for the Chinese way of reordering the world is constrained by an essentially hierarchical Chinese worldview — one that divides the world between ‘civilisation’ and ‘non-civilisation’ depending on the extent of sinicisation a region has gone through. This makes the idea of a Pax Sinica a repulsive proposition to most states, let alone illegitimate. So, even if China were to become the most powerful state in the world, it is unlikely that it will become the most authoritative actor.
Finally, what does this framework say about India?
India is several notches down from where China is, on several dimensions of power. But it does better on the legitimacy front. Shyam Saran explains this well in his book How India Sees the World:
India possesses the civilizational attributes for contributing to a new international order attuned to contemporary realities. Its culture is innately cosmopolitan. India embraces vast diversity and inherent plurality, yet has a sense of being part of a common humanity. India should leverage these assets in shaping a new world order that is humanity-centric.
Beyond the civilisational attributes, the Indian Republic itself serves as a rare example of how continent-sized multi-ethnic, multi-religious, liberal democracies can be constructed. Essentially, the Indian story has many features attuned towards the generation of international legitimacy. The twin challenge for India is to preserve these values that make it a legitimate world power, while aggressively adding to its power capabilities.