A strange paradox

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Recent events across the world demonstrate a seemingly strange paradox: the rise of insecurity and fissures in the body politic of major powers around the world. For the ease of understanding, let us assume major powers to be the constitutive of the G20 countries. Although there are numerous interpretations of what perceived domestic weakness may constitute, a few standardized parameters can reflect the general picture. These may include unstable economic outlook in terms of growth and development, instability of the political order, human and material security, and extent of inequality and human rights standards.

Major powers, through their very definition, embody the ability to influence and define global or regional events. That these states – exerting significant influence and exercising a major say globally – currently appear to be domestically weak seems to be a bit of a paradox. There are two general explanations that lie in the nature of the external international system that can serve to illustrate this paradox for a diverse range of state actors.

One of these explanations derives out of the structure of the international system itself. The end of Cold War, rise of China and the contemporaneous decline in the superpower status of the US, have all contributed to a churning in the international system. This rising multi-polarity has generated newer challenges and threats to global order and security, most prominent of them being an increase in intra-state conflict and the rise of non-stare actors like Al-Qaeda and more recently, the ISIS. Most powerful nation-states are in a perpetual quest to reformulate and reconstitute the international order by committing valuable national resources externally to protect their foreign policy interests. While at the same time, they face increasing pressures and challenges internally.

The second explanation has to do with the process of globalization in the international system. Having integrated themselves financially and technologically in a global supply chain through the process of globalization, states either choose or are compelled to accept that global free trade and market efficiency should take precedence over national unemployment rates and other presumably "parochial" local issues. This is particularly true of the advanced economies whose multinational companies are now turning to the cheap labour in Asia, preferring to sacrifice jobs in their own countries for the sake of profit.

While the external factors highlighted above try to explain a major power’s domestic weakness in a generic sense, one must also be conscious of notable variations in the local context under which a state operates. Let us take the example of Russia and Turkey to gain a better insight into these phenomena.

Russia: A mammoth paradox

As the sixth largest economy in the world (as measured in purchasing power parity), a member of the G20 and UN Security Council, Russia is justly confident in its ambitions. It wants to be taken seriously around the world. The impact of the global financial crisis, however, highlighted the vulnerabilities in the economy’s reliance on energy exports, while presidential elections in 2012 raised important discussions about the country’s future economic policies and brewing social unrest.

Russia is also characterized by much higher levels of corruption than other countries with similar levels of development. While it is the sixth largest economy worldwide in GDP, corruption levels are higher than in countries such as Togo or Timor Leste, according to Transparency International. According to Russia’s Central Bank’s prediction, the economy would contract between 1.3 to 1.5 percent in 2016. These developments point to the fact that Russia is experiencing a period of domestic hardship, coupled with growing international threats and commitments. The reasons for this are intrinsically tied to both external and internal politics.

Apart from the internal problems already identified above, Russia remains under the tight grip of economic sanctions imposed on it by the US and EU which have enervated the already undiversified economy, engendered a downward growth trajectory in key commodities and manufacturing, worsened the already endemic corruption and laid bare the crony state capitalist model that has ruled the roost through embedded institutions since the Cold War years. Moreover, its costly military exploits in Ukraine and Syria have drained further resources from its strained coffers. The reasons for its geopolitical assertiveness and a willingness to engage in and resolve pressing global concerns like the threat of ISIS might have domestic considerations tied to it inasmuch as these geopolitical adventures diverts the attention of the general public away from pressing domestic problems.  

Turkey: Two steps forward, one step back

The attempted coup of July end and its turbulent aftermath in the form of widespread crackdowns and incarcerations of sympathisers of US-based cleric Muhammed Fethullah Gülen in the institutions across the board, demonstrate a unique sense of fragility that engulfs Turkey today. Turkey has regressed in terms of domestic political order, security and human rights standards. This has as much to do with the turmoil in the Middle East currently and its spillover into Turkey as with Turkey’s internal political and economic problems.

The fact that AKP hasn’t succeeded in obtaining the required majority to amend the constitution through two successive elections over a period of five months reveals the ossifying nature of polarization that has seeped into Turkey’s body politic. There are rising perceptions of corruption and mismanagement on the part of the government. The rates of violent attacks especially in PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) held areas by security forces have been increasing. Moreover, terrorist attacks like the one carried out by ISIS at the airport in Istanbul on 28 June, depreciating economic and currency assets and more frequent human rights violations mean that Turkey is confronting an increasing complex domestic set of problems.

A continuous evolution

Major powers indeed seem to be domestically weak at various stages despite their relative strength globally or regionally as can be gauged from the experiences of Russia and Turkey. Various trends in other countries including China, countries in the EU, Britain and the US demonstrate the range of domestic challenges they currently face. There are no utopias in this world of nation-states and countries, even the most powerful ones, need to continuously evolve and adapt to the demands of its own population and the changing global scenario in order to remain relevant and powerful both domestically and internationally.

(Kaushik is Director of Research & Development at the Asian Institute of Diplomacy and International Affairs, Kathmandu)



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