Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Rise of New Powers and the Return of Realism

James Cameron

A soldier on the streets of Salvador ABC/Reuters: Lunae Parracho

In the first week of February, public order collapsed in the third most populous city of the world's sixth largest economy. A strike by the Brazilian state of Bahia's military police force led to the doubling of the murder rate in the local capital, Salvador, two weeks before the start of Carnival. The work stoppage was completely illegal, and it is alleged that officers fomented looting and other public disorder to put pressure on the state government to accede to their demands for a pay rise. Some of the strike's leadership occupied the state legislature, leaving only when they were surrounded by the army, which had been drafted in to restore the rule of law.

Most northern media coverage focused on the consequences for the Brazil's World Cup and Olympics. However, the Bahia police strike points to a far more significant trend: the rise to prominence of states within the international system that combine fast-growing economic and political power with relative domestic weakness. This weakness varies in its forms: in India graft is  widespread and combined with a formidable bureaucracy; in China there is the latent fear of widespread rural unrest if the urban economy ceases to provide jobs for millions of migrant workers. All these countries are marked by relative per-capita poverty when compared to the G7. As such, their rise marks a departure from the post-Cold War norm, when most of the world's prominent states had relatively strong internal structures and wealthy populations.

The consequences of this trend will be both manifold and unpredictable. However, it is likely to presage a return to realism for G7 members, including the UK. On this blog, Jack Barton asked why Britain and other Western countries concentrated on India's status as rising regional power at the expense of the millions who still live in poverty within its borders. The answer came this week in the Indian government's decision to award a $10.4 billion contract for fighter aircraft to France's Dassault Rafale at the expense of the pan-European Eurofighter consortium of which the UK is a member.

As an analysis by the Financial Times showed, both sides offered aid as an inducement. The differences in the packages were telling: the UK pledged £1 billion in the next four years, with most of it to be spent in traditional areas of poverty relief and state strengthening favoured by the Department for International Development (DFID). France, by contrast, focused areas that the Indian state valued as a great power: very generous technology transfer for the new aircraft, combined with cooperation on nuclear energy and a new generation of submarines. One analyst also suggested that the French may have offered the Indians use of their nuclear weapons testing facilities. Despite the Eurofighter's arguable technological superiority, the Indians opted for the Rafale.

India as it wishes to be perceived. Periscope Post/The Prime Minister's Office
DFID's expenditures had no impact on India's decision. India's finance minister Pranab Mukherjee had already spelt it out for the UK: we do not require the aid he said to the Indian parliament's upper house in 2010, describing it as “a peanut” compared to how much the country was already spending on its own programmes. For India, the good the money did was far outweighed by “the negative publicity of Indian poverty promoted by DFID”, according to a memo from the Indian foreign minister to the British government. Far from helping Britain secure the fighter contract, aid is perceived by some in the government as an insulting anachronism of a period when India was just another “Third World” country. The nation that had recognised this shift in Indian perceptions won the contract; Britain was left on the sidelines of one of the biggest defence deals of the decade.

As such, the inducements are there for the foreign emissaries of North America and Europe to treat the rising powers as influential unitary states, foregoing the option of commenting on or attempting to influence their domestic development. This has been the rule for China for years, but will become so for the other rising powers. Twenty years ago, analysts were predicting the death of the nation state in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and supposed triumph of the transnational values of the market and democracy. It was the duty of Western countries to facilitate the spread of these values by reacting across national boundaries with aid and democracy facilitation projects. In fact the triumph of market forces has produced the opposite effect: the state is back and with it the realist approach to international relations.

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