Since the advent of the Arab Spring across the Middle East and Northern Africa, debates regarding international systemic polarity have once again become vogue. Various scholars have argued that the United States led unipolar world is nearing its end, as we are moving towards bipolarity – with the rise of China, or even multipolarity. It is argued that this shift in systemic polarity correlates with increasing geopolitical crisis across the world. On the other hand, hyper-globalization of the past four decades is leading to an era of unprecedented interdependence. This world order not only renders interstate conflicts between major powers implausible, but also marks a trend away from classic realist notions about power.

These two contradictory trends lead us to question the very role of the nature of the international system in determining power. More specifically, in an extremely economically interdependent world, do geopolitics influence state power in any meaningful way?

The recently released Asia Power Index by Lowy Institute, a think tank based in Australia, highlights these emerging contradictory trends. The index comprehensively compiles data on 25 Asian powers and provides a ranking system based on 8 measures, 14 sub-measures, and 114 indicators. The list includes powers from Russia to Australia, Pakistan to North Korea, and the United States. According to the list, the United States continues to be the Asian superpower, followed very closely by China as the emerging superpower. Japan and India are categorized as the following major powers.

Analyzing the index has helped highlight multiple emerging trends. China has achieved near parity with the United States –  China’s overall score of 75 is just below the US’s score of 85. The future trajectory indicator shows the US, China, and India as the only states with major future optimistic trends. States such as Singapore, South Korea, Australia, and Japan are categorized as overachievers, because of their advanced and globally integrated economies. But this article will focus on another underlying aspect of this index – the rise of “smart power” in international relations.

A quick glance at various indicators used in formulating this index helps shed light on the rise of smart power. Smart power can be defined as the ability of a state to influence the behavior of other states in a highly interconnected and globalized world. The emergence of smart power can be seen in many of the included indicators, such as signature defense capabilities, international leverage, technology, connectivity, regional trade and investment relations, and economic diplomacy.

This marks a nuanced shift from the classical realist notions of power. Under Hobbesian anarchy, states function under the assumption of self-help and direct resources towards accumulating hard power to secure their territorial interests. According to the index, in today’s world, accumulation of raw hard power is not as useful anymore. States that acquire capabilities that allow them specific tactical or strategic advantage are better off. As argued by Ankit Panda, senior editor at The Diplomat, this means that acquiring nuclear capabilities does not have the same payoff as it used to. The relatively lower rankings of nuclear power states such as Pakistan and North Korea are formidable examples.

Similarly, in a globalized world, international economic leverage is of significant value. The presence of globalized corporations, international trade in domestic currencies, large sovereign wealth funds, presence in regional trade and investment blocks, and economic aid driven diplomacy are all factors that significantly enhance a state’s international leverage. Therefore, while the importance of raw hard power is declining, there is a subsequent rise in tactical – hard and economic power.

In an extremely economically interdependent world, do geopolitics influence state power in any meaningful way?

This is evident in the categorization of states such as Singapore and Japan as “overachievers.” The former’s trade to GDP ratio is about 3 is to 1, which allows it a disproportionate global influence. This is evident in Singapore’s passport strength, a rarity for an island country. Much like its advanced western counterparts, Singapore’s passport holders can travel visa-free to around 180 countries. Japan also punches far above its weight by smartly using its limited resources, regardless of a stiff demographic challenge. The Japanese originally created the foreign policy template used by China today, which is driven primarily by foreign economic assistance. In contrast even with substantial hard power, the lack of well-developed economic diplomacy reduces India’s overall share of Asian power.

Now let’s inspect the second emerging trend: the shift in systemic polarity and rise of volatile geopolitics. While the world has continued to become increasingly interconnected, the number of geopolitical crises have rapidly spiked over the last few years. The on-going wars in the Middle East, increasing tensions in the South China Sea, North Korea’s nuclear conundrum, and India-China’s military standoff in the Doklam plateau are all cases in point. While the aforementioned cases are strictly security issues, the existing economic imbalances in the system further exacerbate geopolitical tensions. The on-going China-US trade negotiation is one instance.

This leads us to consider the very role of geopolitics in formulating state power in international relations. The Asia Power Index is based on the fundamental premise that states in the international system are deeply economically integrated, and will continue to be so. This assumption means that the probability of a major conflict or war is extremely unlikely, rendering the conventional and non-conventional hard power capabilities less valuable. As aforementioned, the multiple emerging geopolitical flashpoints force us to question this assumption. While economic leverage seems to be of more value in today’s world, there is still reason to question the index’s logic of giving significantly lesser value to classic hard power.

Chinese soldiers during the meeting between Gen. Dempsey, US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Chinese Gen. Fang Fenghui, Chief of the General Staff, in Beijing. Photo by D. Myles Cullen, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Most of the existing geopolitical flashpoints could plausibly grow into formidable geopolitical wildfires. In a world order where uncertainty is increasingly the norm, it becomes extremely important that any formulation of power gives enough credence to state’s capacity to deal with such geopolitical crisis.

The Lowy Index does a remarkable job in making their methodology transparent. This allows us to alter the relative weight given to multiple factors in determining power. But there still seems to be missing indicators regarding state’s capacity to deal with plausible geopolitical crises. Furthermore, each state is likely to face a crisis that is distinct from the others. Currently, each state is at a different developmental level and faces a distinct set of geopolitical pressures. Therefore, it is vital to judge a state’s power based on the distinct geopolitical pressures it faces and the specific capabilities it would require to deal with them. It is imperative that the factors included in determining the capacity for dealing with geopolitical crises are diverse, perhaps even different for each state.

A possible objection to this argument is that balance of power theory only looks at the distribution of power along the same set of indicators for each state. The only way to do a comparative analysis is to compare different states along similar variables. But the international pecking order is a widely accepted idea today. The Asia Power Index is indeed a representation of one such pecking order – where states are listed hierarchically, based on their relative power. If we accept that each state has a relatively different global standing, it is possible to accept that each state’s foreign policy aims and goals are distinct from each other. Every state formulates its foreign policy goals based on its relative standing and challenges. Therefore, using different factors can be justified in evaluating each state’s capacity to deal with its own specific set of geopolitical concerns. The success of North Korea’s nuclear programme might seem less valuable in a globally interdependent world, but when seen from its limited goal of regime stability, it acquires vital importance.

However, this is not to suggest that a power index can be compiled using different variables for each state. What this article suggests is that when analyzing state power – along with the relative power standing, each state’s specific geopolitical concerns and its ability to deal with them should also be taken into account.

With the rise of China, relative American decline, and the emergence of other major powers, it is likely that the current economic and geopolitical trends will continue to grow in divergent directions. While the value of economic factors will likely increase in the future, so will the value of states’ capacity to deal with new and more complicated geopolitical challenges. Any formulation of state power in the 21st century has to take both into account. A smart power is likely to be one that develops a world-view that combines the Hobbesian as well as the globalized world-view.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Feature image by Lei Han, via Flickr Creative Commons.