Essay by Jean-Jacques Subrenat.
In this series on Global power & influence in 2018 and beyond, previous installments examined The U.S. in a multipolar world, followed by China, the rise of a global power, and most recently An evolving European Union. Part 4 now dwells on countries which, with or without all the characteristics of global power, are significant in many ways.
Throughout history, the instruments of power have been military and economic, often aided by religious institutions. Two thousand years ago, Rome’s superior military organization, engineering prowess and efficient administration allowed it to establish a sprawling empire. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan conquered territory using the unprecedented speed of cavalry, and at its height the Mongol Empire held sway over a fifth of all inhabited lands in the world. Disciplined and well-equipped Arab armies spread through North Africa and swathes of Europe, before their progression was halted at the gates of Vienna in 1529.
Shortly after the Americas were mapped by European explorers, the Spanish conquest pilfered resources and unwittingly introduced new diseases, causing the death of millions in their colonies, as vividly analyzed by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel.
In the drive for territorial expansion and trade, the brand of colonialism pursued by Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and also by the emerging United States of America and Australia to the detriment of their first nations, had many traits in common: government was not locally accountable, natural resources were exploited to the advantage of the colonizer, finance and trade were tightly held as a monopoly, railroads were designed to export raw materials, religious proselytism usually abetted colonial rule, while military and police powers ensured the tranquility of the occupier rather than the rights of the occupied.
However, it was in the interest of the occupying powers to acquiesce to some positive change, as a means of perpetuating their rule, and examples can be found in public health, social mores, information, and even awareness and enlightenment.
Some local leaders and intellectuals used the colonizer’s language, techniques or know-how to enhance the standing of their own culture, for example: Léopold Sédar Senghor, a poet, cultural theoretician and politician who served as the first president of Sénégal. But the positive aspects of colonisation still came at a cost; the detriments – though varying greatly according to time and place – usually included: neglect of local culture and language, perpetuation of caste systems, subordination of women, sexual abuse and pedophilia, consolidation of middleman and usury practices, ingrained corruption.
Throughout the 20th century, anti-colonial and Third World movements proposed an alternative view of society and international relations, and various models of economic and social development for independent nations were put forward.
Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth provides a valuable insight into the frustrations and expectations of the time. In 1955, the Bandung Conference (also known as the Afro-Asian Conference) was held in Bandung (Indonesia), bringing together a variety of countries, most of whom had recently achieved independence. With thirty members, the geographic span was unprecedented – from West Africa to East Asia – and so too was the ambitious agenda of cultural and economic cooperation. The Conference also determinedly opposed colonialism and neo-colonialism.
In addition to the usual criticism of Western colonialism, the Soviet Union faced an implicit censure for the first time, for its role in Eastern Europe and West Asia. Bandung was also a stage where emerging powers vied for influence: Indonesia and its flamboyant President Soekarno as host, but China, Egypt, India were also contenders.
In 1956, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was founded by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Yugoslav President Josip Tito. The NAM was set up as an antidote to the Cold War between Moscow and Washington. Since the implosion of the Soviet Union, which brought with it the end of the Cold War, NAM has had to search for a new role. This attempt at revitalization has been unsuccessful so far, and its member countries are now keen to seek influence for their own sake, and the aim of a collective target has gone out of focus.
From today’s vantage point, it is striking to note that Yugoslavia has imploded, that Egypt’s influence is severely limited by its domestic difficulties, and that India is currently considered less successful than China or South Korea. It is worth remembering that when the NAM was set up, China was in utter poverty, South Korea was barely recovering from war, and Egypt was subject to the British and French naval blockade of Suez.
How are BRICs and similar countries evolving? There is a growing awareness that humanity is bound by common constraints: access to fresh water, energy sources, food, public health, but also the dangers of armed conflict, asymmetric warfare and terrorism, the prevalence of religion over education, and widespread predatory social practices. In the longer term, other considerations will become critical: the ratio between arable land and population density, between resources and demographic growth, between privileged and under-privileged populations.
Likewise, in the future a host of capabilities will be required (such as average levels of literacy, technical ability and social skills) to replace the current over-reliance on military might and autocratic rule. Here is a brief review of some countries which have power and influence in varying degrees, in alphabetical order (now considered a rising global power, China was discussed in an earlier installment and is therefore left out of the list below).
Brazil. Among the emerging economies, the largest country in South America has consistently been cited as a potential superpower. In addition to its size (world’s fifth largest by land area), population (208 million) and numerous resources, the Federative Republic has the additional advantage of a social fabric which boldly defines itself as multicultural. A large part of Brazil’s territory is still linked to its agricultural latifundia.
Brazil’s economy is the world’s ninth largest in nominal GDP (Gross Domestic Product) terms, and the eighth in PPP (Purchasing Power Parity). It also experienced rapid growth for decades until a period of recession began in 2014. There is a vast internal market for its products, but Brazil is also a large exporter of everything from aircraft and cars, to coffee and soybeans.
Brazil is also one of only a handful of countries with a nuclear fuel cycle capability, a space program, as well as a high-level research and technology network. As for regional cooperation, Brazil is a member of Mercosur, along with the other full members Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, but trade among the four still accounts for only 16 percent of the aggregate imports and exports of the group.
Brazil’s literacy rate is high at about 92 percent, but there are notable inequalities of access to education, not only in remote areas but also in sprawling suburbia (urban areas contain about 84 percent of the national population). Likewise, access to healthcare can vary greatly. While the overall economic performance of Brazil has been high, political mores have not evolved at the same pace, and as a result corruption remains rife at all levels (federal, local governments, state enterprises, etc.). Indeed, corruption is identified as a major cause of government instability, economic underperformance and social inequality. So while Brazil has many of the features of a superpower, it is currently held back by deficient governance at many levels.
India is the seventh largest country by land area, with the second largest population (1.2 billion) and the sixth largest economy by nominal GDP. It has nuclear weapons, but so far has refrained from signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT signatories: US, Russia, UK, France, China). Since the late 1990s, comparisons have often been made between China and India, and the advantages of the latter have been underlined with reason: the widespread use of English in administrative and business circles facilitates external trade and incoming investments, the country’s services sector is highly developed (technology, digital, space, engineering), and as a democracy it may hold a long-term advantage over a country like China in terms of the rule of law, predictability, and reliability.
India’s economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, at an average of 6 percent over three decades. Several Indian conglomerates wield power worldwide: in 2008, Tata purchased Jaguar Land Rover, the auto manufacturers; Lakshmi Mittal and his family purchased the Kryvorizhstal steel works in Ukraine in 2005, and took over the Arcelor steel group in 2006, and now ArcelorMittal controls 10 percent of the world’s steel production.
In spite of this economic vitality, there are major drawbacks to India’s progress towards a more prosperous and balanced society: seventy years after it gained independence, India’s literacy rate is still only at 71 percent (compared with a world average of 86 percent, Russia 99 percent, China 96 percent, Turkey 95 percent, Indonesia 94 percent, Mexico 94 percent, Brazil 92 percent). And while the country is credited with the third-largest economy in PPP terms, per capita income ranks India 140th in nominal GDP terms and 129th in PPP terms.
These rankings reveal the magnitude of some of India’s problems: a rigid social structure, insufficient coordination between central government and regions, endemic corruption, 21 percent of the population living under the poverty line (2011). In 2011 there were still 10 million child laborers, and in 2015 as much as 15 percent of the population was undernourished.
As with Brazil, India has most of the characteristics of a superpower, but the sheer number and magnitude of unresolved problems will most likely remain an impediment for years to come. While highlighting some economic sectors such as transport and defense equipment, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda has resulted in reduced public expenditure for health, family welfare, or the alleviation of poverty.
As a result, there is a dichotomy between a resolutely modern India as a nuclear, space, technological, and digital superpower, and an India still beset by the basic social challenges of public health, education, gender equality and employment. In turn, these features tarnish the image of a modern India. This ‘Indian paradox’ seems all the more serious when you consider that many leading mathematicians, scientists and engineers hail from India, but are now leaders of industry in other countries, e.g. Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google Inc.
Russia. The implosion of the USSR left the superpower in the lurch, with the Russian Federation seeking a new status. Russia is still of prime importance as one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), as the country with the largest land mass, as a military power with a huge nuclear weapons stockpile (7250 weapons in 2014, compared with 7260 for the US), and with vast military forces that can be projected outside its own territory, for example in support of Syrian President Assad.
Russia is the 12th largest economy in the world by nominal GDP and the 6th largest by PPP. Its demography is now fairly stable at around 146.8 million (144.5 without Crimea whose annexation is not recognized internationally). Russia seeks to develop its more remote areas, a perspective which global warming might facilitate, for instance the Northern reaches of its territory. It also holds a strategic position in the growing maritime transport through the Northern Sea Route. Russia’s closest partners, which include Belarus, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, North Korea, Syria, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, have engaged with Moscow in a variety of bilateral or regional economic cooperation projects. Taking the European Union as its model, Russia played a central role in creating regional entities such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Russia is also a leading world exporter, supplying a wide range of energy, raw materials and agricultural produce, from gas and crude oil to diamonds and wheat. It is worth noting that a large part of Russia’s exports is made up of energy supplies and raw materials, with little locally added value: ”in 2015, Russia main exports were oil and natural gas (62.8% of total exports), ores and metals (5.9%), chemical products (5.8%), machinery and transport equipment (5.4%), and food (4.7%)” (Wikipedia).
Countries of the European Union, especially Germany and Italy, but also Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are highly dependent on Russian natural gas. In spite of its importance in economic terms, Russia is currently viewed by many as a disruptive force, with its well-documented interference in the electoral processes of several democracies (presidential elections in the USA and in France, 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK). Still endowed with the attributes of a superpower, Russia can control, disrupt or mediate but, at least with its current policies, it does not serve as a governance model, nor does it inspire countries outside a circle of autocratic regimes which rely on Moscow’s political support and military aid.
Turkey possesses several features associated with global power: its advantageous position in contact with West Asia, the Balkans, Russia, Asia and the Arab world; a dynamic demographic structure, with a population of about 83 million and still increasing; a vibrant cultural tradition; economic dynamism (17th world rank in nominal GDP, 13th by PPP); and military significance with strong armed forces and NATO membership.
In strategic terms, Turkey holds a crucial position as the only NATO member facing the Middle East and the territories of the defunct Soviet Union. For its internal development, Turkey has many universities and other institutions of higher learning, but it still suffers from a gap in education: according to a survey by OECD, less than half of 25- to 34-year-old Turks have completed at least high school, compared with an OECD average of 80 percent.
The Kurdish issue is also a source of internal strife and instability: Kurds, who make up between 13 and 20 percent of the population, consider that they constitute a singular nation, currently scattered across four countries which all are engaged in conflict (Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria).
In the current Syrian crisis, two NATO allies, the US and Turkey, are pursuing widely divergent military objectives: while Washington supports Kurds against the self-designed ‘Islamic State’ in Northern Syria, Ankara’s military action aims to root out the Kurdish resistance from the South and South-East of Turkey, bordering on Northern Syria.
Perhaps the single largest impediment to a wider Turkish influence is President Erdoğan’s departure from the secular and democratic mode of government established in 1923 by the first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Especially since 2016, the curtailment of fundamental rights (administration, news outlets, universities), in parallel with the enforcement of religious precepts within the state, has impaired Turkey’s democratic institutions, and has had a negative impact on its international standing. Already in March 2016, two former US ambassadors to Ankara, Mort Abramowitz and Eric Edelman, stated: “Clearly, democracy cannot flourish under Erdoğan.”
And during his visit to Paris in January 2018, President Erdoğan was told by his French counterpart: ‘’In the light of recent developments, and the choices made by Turkey, it is clear that there cannot be any progress’’ with regard to Turkey’s application for membership in the EU (my translation).
Other countries with potential are to be found in many areas of the world. Admittedly, countries such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore already rank among the most advanced economies of the world, and their position is sustainable in the long run thanks to a combination of high average level of education, excellent research programs, stable institutions and a dynamic financial sector. Mexico could become a major power, if large-scale corruption and criminal activities were brought under stringent control. To a lesser extent Malaysia and Thailand belong to the next category.
Emerging economies such as Indonesia, South Africa, Thailand, Malaysia and quite a few others have common features, with a traditionally predominant agricultural and/or mining giving way to sectors such as energy, industry and services. And although Vietnam belongs to the same category in economic terms, its single-party system, copied on the Soviet model, is an impediment to its further development. Iran has a vast potential, but its theocratic system of government is a great impediment to education, gender equality, social progress and an accepted role in world affairs.
Among the members of the OECD, Australia has a strong economy, resources, a high level of education, research, and development capabilities, and a strong military. In the long term Canada, already a major economy, has the potential to become a global power thanks to its combination of a high average level of education, a vibrant multi-cultural society, energy resources, raw materials, water reserves, on a vast territory (global warming could have the effect of expanding its usable land). It also has shores on the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and borders the Arctic where the Northwest Passage will play a growing role in world shipping and trade. In military terms, Canada relies more on the power of its southern neighbor, and on its membership in NATO. And although it may be an unusual case, Switzerland is in many respects a model of balanced development, with a vibrant democracy (the only country where the legal term “The Sovereign” refers not to its institutions or government, but to its citizens); a strict implementation of subsidiarity between local, cantonal, and federal levels of government; a healthy economy; an international role way beyond its size, with UN officies and agencies in Geneva, and many NGOs headquartered there as well. The real question about Switzerland is: to what extent can its model be emulated elsewhere, on another scale?
Over the past decades, several other countries were touted as emerging powers. Among these, Egypt’s development is severely hampered by its numerous internal contradictions, which also have a negative impact on its influence, compared to the prestige it enjoyed under Nasser as a central component of the Third World movements.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, still awash with revenue from petroleum, are eager to diversify their sources of revenue. Their influence beyond the Middle East is limited by their social (sometimes feudal) structures and mores. Along with the Gulf emirates, the Saudi kingdom is carrying out the first significant social experiments in decades, while at the same time trying to consolidate monarchic rule through a combination of local reforms and foreign acquisitions (property, finance, industry, commerce) which, they hope, will ensure the lasting support of capitals like Washington or London.
In conclusion, a country may have military might and economic clout, but influence clearly depends to a large degree on the value of its own governance. From the variety of cases briefly reviewed above, one factor stands out for domestic success and external influence: the rule of law.
Seventy or so years after the end of the colonial era, a new challenge lies ahead for many developing economies and emerging powers: how to fully implement the rule of law and government accountability, without which abundant resources, military power and economic alliances can easily be squandered.
The failings of democracy only benefit its opponents. Autocracies, but also populist parties in democracies, are keen to persuade public opinion that those errors or shortcomings are the natural consequence of democracy itself, whereas they often stem from mismanagement, conflicts of interest, or losing sight of the public good.
As Gene Sharp pointed out in his seminal From Dictatorship to Democracy (2002), “No one should believe that with the downfall of the dictatorship an ideal society will immediately appear. The disintegration of the dictatorship simply provides the beginning point, under conditions of enhanced freedom, for long-term efforts to improve the society and meet human needs more adequately.” What he said about dictatorship deserves to be meditated in many countries aspiring to power and influence, whether in their region or on the world stage.