What India Can Teach the U.S. About Multipolarity

What India Can Teach the U.S. About Multipolarity

Understanding power distribution in purely “zero-sum-game” terms is not the best approach to a multipolar world.


Multipolarity: Conceptions and Discomforts

In light of the facts and analysis presented above, it can be safely concluded that the United States does not hold the same military might, economic size, and diplomatic clout it enjoyed during the Cold War and throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Likewise, China’s overall influence cannot be compared with that of the Soviet Union at its peak. One can also witness the rise of a set of middle powers like Brazil, India, Turkey, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, etc.


The multipolarity of the world order has already begun. On closer analysis, it can be observed that even during the Cold War, rigid bipolarity was somewhat overstated. The non-aligned bloc, led by countries like India, Egypt, Yugoslavia, and Indonesia, exercised significant influence in global politics.

It can be argued that the fundamental flaw is rooted in our definitions of polarity. Experts like Bekkevold use extremely narrow criteria of economic and military indicators while analyzing and defining a nation’s power. Such metrics can be misleading. However, the economic and military indicators constitute a major component of the comprehensive national power of any country, which is not all. States derive power from many other sources, such as their geography, internal government structure, civilizational narrative, and their leadership’s resolve and philosophical understanding of international relations.

Countries like India, Russia, Turkey, and China capitalize on the civilizational narrative in projecting power and strengthening their global diplomatic clout. After the recent gains on the Ukraine front, the Putin-led Russian Federation appears confident, no matter what the global media reports. Recently, at the Second Congress of the International Russophile Movement and Multipolarity Forum, Putin demonstrated his intellectual debt to Aleksandr Dugin’s vision of a civilizational states-centric multipolar world and reclaiming Russia’s identity as a civilizational state with its sphere of influence. In his address, Dugin said that the era of the West’s sole hegemony is over. Sharing his thoughts on multipolarity, he stated:

In this world, there are only Western values. Only one political system—liberal democracy. Only one economic model—neoliberal capitalism. Only one culture—postmodernism. Only one conception of genders and family—LGBT. Only one version of development—technological perfection up to post-humanism and the complete displacement of humanity by AI and cyborgs... Multipolarity is an alternative philosophy. It is based on the fundamental objection: the West is not all of humanity but only a part of it—a region, a province. It is not the civilization in the singular, but one of several civilizations.

Even India, a relatively quiet, non-aggressive, and rule-abiding state, has undergone a major change under Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government in its perception of itself. New Delhi now views itself as a unique civilizational state. Mohand Bhagwat, chief of the Hindu nationalist RSS, the main force behind the Modi government, has openly stated that India will realize its dream of Akhand Bharat (Greater India) in the next fifteen years, even though the RSS has never clearly defined what this term means in practice and sometimes implies it signifies cultural unity over the subcontinent rather than a specific territorial claim. 

In multipolarity, an equal power distribution among states does not come naturally. Two, three, or four powerful states and a range of middle powers can contest for eminence and influence. This situation can be defined as a state of unbalanced multipolarity. The current distribution of power in the world order approximates unbalanced multipolarity. 

Additionally, another misconception about multipolarity is the highly constricted and power-centric approach towards the concept of polarity. Reducing the idea of multipolarity to a balanced or unbalanced distribution of power among various states is oversimplification. The current trends towards multipolarity also emanate from the unmet expectations of the countries of the Global South from the West-led unipolar or bipolar world order. 

Dr. Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, calls it a “world order that is very, very deeply Western.” The countries of the Global South nurture many grievances against multilateral institutions like the UN and global financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF. Their discomfort with the universalization of Western values and Western double standards in enforcing them has come to a point of frustration where the Western leadership has lost credibility. Hence, the Global South seeks redistribution of power. Given this, alternate institutions like China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS Development Bank may be seen as preferable substitutes.

Multipolarity: India vs the West

Given that multipolarity seems like an established fact, is it a good or bad state of affairs? Many Western scholars and politicians are particularly disturbed by the multipolar world order. As discussed above, several scholars prefer to use the narrow matrix of military and economic indicators to disprove the idea of multipolarity. Republican politicians prefer to increase spending on military and defense and use brute force in foreign policy to bring back America’s unipolar moment.

The Western world’s discomfort with multipolarity arises from an overwhelmingly Hobbesian understanding of society and inter-state relations. The realist school of IR, rooted in the Hobbesian worldview, argues that humankind is essentially selfish in nature. Fundamentally driven by this selfish and brutish nature, mankind always makes rational decisions to maximize personal gains. According to the realist school, mankind is destined for conflict. In International Relations, the fulcrum of the realist school is the balance of power between different nations. With this premise, the multipolar world order is inevitably chaotic, uncertain, and disorderly in the Western understanding. In the absence of clear superiority of one or two great powers over the others, the powerful states form alliances with various powers to safeguard their strategic interests. However, such alliances are highly vulnerable and prone to significant shifts if the great powers change allegiance. Such a situation occurred in the pre-World War I and inter-war period.

However, in Indian metaphysics and epistemology—from which its strategic thought originates— the fundamental understanding of human nature is starkly different from that of Western perspectives. Indian philosophical thought suggests that the reality is Trigunatmak, i.e., a combination of three attributes. It is the combination of Sat (tendency towards selfless service, piety), Rajas (tendency towards movement and activity), and Tamas (darkness, rigidity, and lethargy).

At any time, human nature is the product of different permutations and combinations of these three attributes. Hence, humankind is neither selfish and violent in an absolute sense nor selfless and nonviolent in an absolute sense. It is both selfish and selfless, violent and nonviolent, with different permutations and combinations from person to person. Having said that, war is not the ultimate destiny of mankind. Hence, the balance of power cannot be accepted as the key underlying theoretical framework of geopolitics.

In the Indian worldview, multipolarity can be seen as a naturally obtained situation in the international order. It is a system, a global order in which multiple civilizational states exist as the fundamental poles. Multipolarity implies a plurality of values, civilizational ethos, cultural norms, beliefs, and religions. Dictatorship and democracy can coexist in the same world. It also implies tolerance for such plurality and diversity.

India’s first interface with the multipolar world order was in the later Vedic age (900-600 BC). In the later Vedic age, sixteen Mahajanpadas existed in India. These were territorial states from northern Afghanistan to the borders of Myanmar. They included Gandhara, Kamboj, Kuru, Panchala, Anga, Magadha, Mathura, Kosala, etc. Most of these states were monarchies; however, many were republics, too, boasting an early form of electoral democracy. A close look at the inter-state relations in the later Vedic set-up unravels the fundamentals of India’s approach towards multipolarity. The notion of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam lays the basic theoretical framework of world order in Indian strategic thought. It means “the world is one family.” There are powerful states that are accepted and treated more as the leaders and the elders in the family instead of hegemons. 

The powerful states, seen as family heads or leaders, were expected to exhibit moral behavior and benevolence and act in enlightened self-interest. The powerful states had an informal authority and aura respected by the other states. By sheer dint of their economic and military might, they could be flexible with rules and behavior, which in the first place were never rigidly defined; however, they were not expected to never act out of narrow selfish motives, show generosity, and act like benevolent patrons. In essence, the inter-state dealings and engagements were not based on a zero-sum game; instead, the purpose was to ensure a win-win situation for all and maintain balance and order.

At the same time, they could punish other states, such as the family head punishing errant and misguided family members. Consequently, the powerful states attacked smaller states or the adversaries; however, the reasons were not fixated on selfish and petty economic and imperial motives. In many cases, the reasons were moralistic in nature.

With this baseline framework, the powerful states acted more like Vishwamitra or Vishwaguru. Recently, Modi called India a Vishwamitra, a friend of the world. Vishwaguru, a commonly occurring word among various scholars of Indian religious and philosophical thought, means the “master” or “teacher of the world.” In a spiritual country like India, the emphasis has always been on a moral or spiritual victory known as Dhammavijay or Dharmavijay. The ultimate power is not material; it is moral or spiritual. Hence, for any country, economic size and military might are crucial components of its comprehensive national power. However, the ultimate measure of power is their ability to translate the hard power into robust global diplomatic influence and clout. Economic and military power can enable a country to become an aggressor and help in military or economic conquest. Still, it is only the moral and spiritual power that can make a nation like India a Vishwamitra or Vishwaguru who enjoys the trust of the entire community and can lead them without double standards.