Source: www.orfonline.org This paper theorises international relations using the perspective of an Indian classic, Kautilya's Arthashastra, and employs such interpretation to conceptualise BRICS (or the association of emerging economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.) As a litmus test for the analytical viability of the Kautilyan perspective developed here, the paper examines what might be called "the BRICS paradox": the mismatch between theoretical expectations about the nature of BRICS and the ambiguous empirical evidence about it. From the Kautilyan perspective, and in particular seen through the framework of multiple and overlapping mandalas, BRICS can be redefined as a novel type of international agent that reflects the emergence of pluralist global politics. Having sought to test Kautilyan concepts in the contemporary context, the paper confirms the analytical value of the ancient theorisations, their potential for contemporary IR scholarship as well as strategic foreign policy analysis in a pluralistic international order in a post-hegemonic era.
I. Introduction: The Changing International Order and the BRICS Paradox
The question of how global power transitions affect the liberal international order has long been a subject of enquiry for scholars of international relations (IR).
The realist perspective tends to emphasise the geopolitical and competitive dimension of the rise of the emerging powers and their formation of new international institutions.
Those who focus on institutional and normative continuities, for their part, are keen to point out that none of the emerging powers or new initiatives has directly sought to oppose or reform the institutional bedrock of global governance.
Still others have focused on ideational and conceptual transformations. Echoing Huntington's observations about the empowerment of cultural identities, scholars like Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan have argued that there is a growing interest in local perspectives to IR theories and a demand for a global IR built on a dialogue between them and the established Western perspectives.
The grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China in 2006, and later South Africa in 2010, referred to as BRICS, illustrates these transformations. Yet, the conundrum of global power transitions, and new international institutions like BRICS and their implications for the liberal international order, remains an object of empirical and conceptual debate. This paper offers an additional conceptual perspective to these debates. Its objective is a conceptual analysis of an Indian classic, Kautilya's Arthashastra
, to develop a local perspective to BRICS studies, and the study of international relations in general.
There are at least three reasons why a local perspective on BRICS studies is useful. First is the lack of broadly accepted theorisations about BRICS and the persistent debate about its political nature. Second is the uncertainty over the application of Kautilyan conceptualisations on BRICS: It is unknown whether Kautilya can be useful in BRICS studies, what results a Kautilyan perspective yields and how it relates to other interpretations. The ambiguous notion that BRICS scholarship has not been conceptually saturated, which underpins the above reasoning, provides a third and more general argument for the task in this analysis.
To be sure, BRICS has been subjected to various, sometimes contradictory, conceptualisations. Some scholars have interpreted it as a challenger to Western dominance and the promoter of a new international order.
Others have claimed it to be more of a paper tiger as its members are quarrelsome, to begin with, and tended to support the existing liberal institutions.
Moreover, while BRICS has succeeded in creating two new financial institutions, the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA), it has not produced a BRICS Consensus, leaving critics of neo-liberal development policies disappointed.
Against this background, some scholars have sought to describe these different and conflicting interpretations as "the BRICS paradox",
deriving from certain theoretical premises about international relations that pose expectations and lead to interpretations that do not match with the reality.
One major aspect of the BRICS paradox is regarding BRICS' position within the contending-dominant power continuum or the classic realist narrative that links international order with cycles of hegemonic rise and fall.
For example, power transition theorists argue that the international order tends to be structured hierarchically with a preponderant power at the top of its hierarchy. During a decline of a former hegemon, power transition is likely to produce a contender, either as a group of states or one single great power.
Various scholars have already shown that this does not fit well with BRICS.
The same holds for the balance of power theory when employed in this context of Ikenberry's hegemonic realism. It proposes that augmentation of power by one actor disrupts the balance in a system and thus is followed by rebalancing measures by other actors in the same system.
This would suggest that though BRICS started as a coalition against Western dominance, with the increase of Chinese influence in world affairs, it would meet with rebalancing efforts by either Russia or India, or even both. However, there is not enough empirical evidence to support this theoretical deduction. Indeed, the evidence is contradictory. First, under the Narendra Modi government, India has become the US' partner in the Indo-Pacific and has actively sought closer ties with Japan and Australia. This can be seen as a reaction to China's growing presence in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific. In the summer of 2017, during the so-called Doklam crisis, Sino-Indian tensions came close to a military showdown.
These examples support the notion of rebalancing efforts and conflicting relations among the BRICS countries.
Second, and in spite of these tensions, there is also plenty of Sino-Indian and intra-Asian cooperation, particularly in terms of economic and financial integration. BRICS is only one of the many instances where hugely heterogeneous emerging powers have more or less equal influence and where inter-state conflicts have been set aside for the sake of common objectives and international cooperation. According to some scholars,
these observations challenge the general viability of the hegemonic realism and the contending-dominant power dichotomy. However, as they draw on European experiences, it would seem logical that they are partially context-specific.
Indeed, some commentators have argued that international pluralism, coexistence of cooperation and rivalries, is deeply embedded in both past and present Asian politics; Asian powers, China and India included, would seem to endorse this as a positive feature.
European experience with rivalries, on the other hand, has been less positive.
BRICS may not have challenged the current international order, but it has given a task to scholars attempting to understand it. On the one hand, BRICS may be seen as a process in making, or that it is merely a paper tiger. Alternatively, it could be that, as part of a new and emerging reality, there are no available analytical tools to assess its true potential. Thus, as Michael Liebig has argued, indigenous traditions provide us with untapped resources to develop analytical tools to study IR.
According to the proponents of the so-called global IR, this is not just a research gap in the specialised BRICS scholarship.
Instead, broader usage of local perspectives would benefit the development of IR theory in general. This article contributes with a non-Western local perspective to the contemporary BRICS scholarship.
The focus of the article is on developing an interpretation of the Indian classic, Kautilya's Arthashastra
, which is an ancient Sanskrit treatise on statecraft and foreign policy.
The litmus test of the analytical viability of the Kautilyan perspective developed here consists of using this perspective to explain the BRICS paradox. This is in response to the interest in and demand for developing local IR perspectives. By developing a Kautilyan perspective and testing its analytical viability, this paper also provides a conceptual framework that can be used to study how and to what extent—if at all—this perspective differs from the established or Western IR theories, and the manner it resonates with them.
The second section of this paper provides the reasoning for why Kautilya is a relevant source in IR. The third section presents some of Kautilya's key concepts in terms of international relations and seeks to interpret them for the purposes of contemporary foreign policy analysis. The fourth section applies the analytical framework on explaining BRICS, and the fifth section summarises the conclusions reached.
II. Kautilya and the Relevance of his Arthashastra
Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, was a Brahman scholar and political adviser who lived during and after the era of Alexander the Great's conquests. Although uncertain, the predominant understanding is that the Arthashastra,
an extensive treatise in statecraft and foreign policy, was authored by Kautilya. Kautilya, who, together with Thucydides, can be considered one of the first realists, served as chief minister and councillor of the Indian king, Chandragupta Maurya (321–296 BCE). It is thought that Kautilya's advice helped Chandragupta to establish an empire of his own in the Indian peninsula, an empire which at its peak covered most of contemporary South Asia.
is a piece of ancient Sanskrit literature, with over 200,000 words in the English translation and more extensive than Aristotle's Politics.
It counts among the finest specimens of ancient literature.
was lost until 1904 when it was discovered by Dr R. Shamasastry. Welcoming its recovery, scholars like Max Weber compared Arthashastra
with ancient Hellenic literature on statecraft, while Johann Jakob Meyer, a German Indologist, referred to it as the "library of ancient India".
In spite of having been lost, some elements of the Arthashastra
survived and were passed on by oral tradition through Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata
, as well as through social structures, religious beliefs and according to Patrick Olivelle, to some extent, even in legal codes like the laws of Manu.
This author's reading of Kautilya's Arthashastra
is used as a tool to conceptualise the present.
This objective aligns the present paper with IR theory and foreign policy analysis while setting it apart from works in history of ideas, although these are never fully separate.
It should be noted, as Bilgin
have argued, that it is analytically challenging if not impossible to exclusively define what actually is "Western" about Western IR or what constitutes the inherently non-Western dimensions in non-Western IR. Like technological innovations, ideas too travel across regions, mutated on the way and assimilated into new contexts.
In addition, focus on at least partly artificial categorisations can strengthen exclusiveness whereas emphasis on what unites and what is common can be seen to increase positive sentiments across various kinds of boundaries. From this perspective, the concept of 'non-Western' may contain false connotations about the separateness of, for example, Indian and Chinese traditions, even if those form important building blocks of what is meant by 'Western'.
Consequently, indigenous traditions should not be studied to serve national pride or civilisational confrontations. Rather, it should be the realisation that the epistemic sources of IR should reflect the pluralism of the current international order that should motivate such studies. In the past, the US got the chance to develop, employ and interpret IR for its own purposes, to legitimise its supremacy. This resulted in contextual biases. Therefore, to unravel the secrets of the present world, what is needed is to not only acknowledge and understand the particularistic and contextual finesse of ideas, but also to seek to replenish the conceptual sources.
III. Kautilyan International Relations and Foreign Policy
Early works by Sarkar and Modelski, and more recent research by, for example, Boesche, Zaman, Gautam, Mitra and Liebig have already sought to connect Kautilyan concepts with present-day political science terminology.
Following Gautam, this author has in a previous study
divided Kautilya's foreign policy framework into seven elements: (1) a specific type of king, the conqueror; (2) four measures to overcome opposition (upayas
); (3) the seven constituent elements of state; (4) six measures of foreign policy; (5) mandala
system of international relations; (6) three ways of conquest; and (7) three ways of war. This paper focuses on three: the mandala
, the constituent elements of state, and conquest. These three elements in Kautilya's foreign policy framework can be expanded to broader analytical concepts providing perspectives to: (1) the organising principles of international relations; (2) overarching leadership goals of transnational agents; and (3) the foreign policy obligation of an aspirant global leader.
3.1. The logic of international relations
In Kautilya's Arthashastra
, 'mandala' refers to circles of kings, and an international system based on strategic relations between them. The central nodes in the mandala
system, the four circles of kings, are four types of kings: conqueror, conqueror's enemy, middle power and neutral power. Each of the circles consists of the friends and allies of their nodal power, be it the conqueror, conqueror's enemy, middle king or the neutral power. In addition, king does not merely denote ruler but also, depending on the context, the whole state.
The four nodes of Kautilya's mandala
system have particular characteristics. The most powerful state, the so-called neutral king, is defined as one that would have the material capabilities to resist and even subjugate each of the minor kings individually, but is situated beyond their territories. This great power regards the lesser states with indifference because, for Kautilya, enmity depends primarily on territorial proximity. The middle king is the second strongest state, but it also shares territory with minor powers. Conqueror and its enemy are the lesser states that also share a common border.
is written without direct historical references, various scholars agree that the mandala
system is primarily a conceptualisation of possible strategic relations between them, even though Boesche has shown that it also has a descriptive dimension.
The concepts of enmity and friendship lie at the heart of the mandala's
strategic function. Yet, for Kautilya, enemy is a state that "is situated anywhere immediately on the circumference of the conqueror's territory."
Benoy Sarkar, writing during World War I, adopted this idea without deeper scrutiny. Gautam, conversely, has noted that while the natural enemy of any state is bound to be its neighbour, not all neighbours are enemies.
Still, to get an idea about the organising principle in the mandala
's strategic function, the factors that cause enmity in the neighbourhood should be considered.
Some of the obvious reasons are competition for the same resources like arable land, woods or metals, dependence on the same source of water, increases in population, and migration and the potential colonisation resulting from it. These become causes of conflict only between peoples who live close to each other. Even today these matters are relevant to a certain extent, yet global markets and the relative ease of travel reduces dependency on the neighbourhood. Consequently, instead of neighbourhood, enmity results from conflicting strategic interests, which in Kautilya's historic context tended to coincide with territorial proximity. This resonates with Liebig's extrapolation about Kautilya's matsya-nyāya,
or the 'law of the fishes', or 'law of the jungle', which define conflicting interests as the natural condition of human life.
As a result, the constitution of the circles of states, and their relations with each other, are a question of conflicting interests between them. This modification makes it possible to expand the applicability of the mandala.
While territorial borders in IR apply to states, conflicting interests also apply to other governance institutions as much as matters of international and transnational interdependences.
Defined in this sense, mandala
can account not only for inter-state relations but also for global governance and international organisation. This is an important observation, because one of the major implications of globalisation has been the transformation in the political sovereignty of states through various forms of shared authority and pooled sovereignty.
This is what Rosenau and Czempiel
referred to with the influential notion of 'governance without government'. The concept encapsulates the resulting fragmentation of public authority and the emergence of new actors including non-governmental and private actors – in addition to transgovernmental (between for example state departments), intergovernmental, intra-regional, translocal (between for example two cities) and public-private hybrids.
Thus, it seems both possible and plausible to define mandala
as a conceptualisation of transnational
relations structured by how different agents relate to: (1) each other in terms of size and influence; and (2) matters of governance. A matter of governance can be a conflicting interest or an issue of interdependence between at least two actors. In the modern age, many governance issues are not fundamentally about conflicting interests, but about management of interdependences.
3.2. Overarching leadership goals
Mitra and Liebig have argued that the raison d'état of Kautilya's political leadership is the optimisation of state power to maintain and increase the welfare of its people. This is because only a powerful state can ensure the welfare of its people.
Kautilya divides power into three components: intellectual strength (which provides good counsel); a strong army and prosperous treasury, which provide for physical strength; and valour, which builds the psychological bases of energy and morale. According to Ramachandran's interpretation, Kautilya's conception of power embodies four factors—counsel, military might, economy and motivation—and in this form is similar to the conception by the Chinese military strategist and writer Sun Zi.
Pursuit of power is one of the factors that render Kautilya a realist because one of the basic premises in realism is that states seek to maximise their power and influence.
Yet, Kautilya's realism is conditional. A king is bound to do his best for the welfare of his subjects: 'In the happiness of his subjects lies his happiness; in their welfare his welfare.'
Welfare is the goal, and realist politics the tool. How then does Chanakya define welfare? He defines it as material well-being, acquisition and abundance of wealth:
Hence the king shall ever be active and discharge his duties; the root of wealth is activity, and of evil its reverse. In the absence of activity acquisitions present and to come will perish; by activity he can achieve both his desired ends and abundance of wealth.
[W]hen the king is well off, by his welfare and prosperity, he pleases the people; of what kind the king's character is, of the same kind will be the character of his people; for their progress or downfall, the people depend upon the king; the king is, as it were, the aggregate of the people.
State power is not only an extension of the elements of power (intellectual, moral and material capacities and possessions) on an abstract idea of state. In fact, Kautilya's seven-fold typology of state, or the 'constituent elements', 'state factors' or 'elements of sovereignty', are fully comparable with 20th
-century realist conceptualisations of state power.
Kautilya operationalises the optimisation of power through the following state factors: (1) king, ruler; (2) government, administrative bodies; (3) people, country and the productive capabilities like agriculture; (4) capital or fortified city; (5) treasury or perhaps the tax base and tax income; (6) army; and (7) allies.
State power refers to optimisation of intellectual, moral and material capacities and possession of all these seven factors.
For the purposes of modern analysis, some modifications of these elements are in order. The king and ministers should be considered in the broader sense of an efficient government and the ability of a central authority to exercise decisive influence on its subjects. Roger Boesche describes Kautilya's administrative system as 'despotic', but this interpretation has been challenged by for example Deepshikha Shahi's constructivist reading of the Arthasastra
The third element for Kautilya would seem to be a compound of people and natural resources, and how they under an efficient and just administration yield both the sustenance for the country as well as the tax base that supports the government in its undertakings and a strong army. Like the king and governmental officials, so would the people be of good character, loyal and capable in their respective business. Today, the productive capabilities of a country would embody its industrial base, connectivity to international markets, position in regional and global value chains, as well as other elements that form the preconditions of economic productivity and competitiveness, like social and physical infrastructure.
Some elements of the modern social infrastructure, like the educational and judiciary systems, link to Kautilya's 'character' of the people and imply not only the build of occupational capabilities but also the construction of societal virtues, cohesiveness of the society and individual attachment to community. Finally, for Kautilya, commerce is not a-political even if it serves economic exchange. Commerce is also a key element of 'intelligence service' as we have learned from the examples of Facebook and Huawei.
The treasury and tax base are still applicable concepts. The fortified city, constructed to protect the population against enemy troops, would need some modifications to become a useful category for contemporary analysis. Societal resilience might be a useful replacement for the ancient concept of a fortified city. It encompasses elements of both external and internal security. It also covers the soft elements of societal cohesiveness, approval of government and a critical and well-informed world-view which provide a fortification against inimical influence. Indeed, these elements of resilience find expression in Kautilya's theory of society, which combines social control and administration with the material well-being of people and the general acceptability of the king and social hierarchies. However, he does not list these as part of the elements of sovereignty.
In the Kautilyan formulation, there is also a non-material aspect to strength and happiness, one defined by Vedic tradition and the hierarchical social structure of the Aryan caste system. Living well in this context would imply fulfilling one's duties as a member of a caste as given.
Cultural traditions, belief systems and values can be seen as sources of societal resilience, stability and predictability. They also form an element in the sociological acceptability of governance. For example, Peter Stillman defines legitimacy as "the compatibility of the results of governmental output with the value patterns of the relevant system".
Of the last two state factors, army and allies, the latter is highly relevant in the modern context, defined by environmental and economic interdependences. These ties cause a fundamental transformation in the nature and operational logic of the mandala
system. For example, the productive forces of any country are dependent on their connections with other countries. Various transnational governance institutions regulate how and between whom these connections are built and supervised. As a result, cooperation permeates most of Kautilya's state factors: the circles of states in a modern mandala
become intertwined and tie kingly obligations in one political entity with the happiness of people in another. This leaves enmity or zero-sum games with only a side role.
Thus, the raison d'être of leadership in the modern era mandala
can be defined as optimisation of welfare in the often transnationally intertwined state factors. This can be defined as the inter-state mandala
. Leadership in this context can be about solving common problems.
Moreover, if modern mandala has to take into account the transnationally intertwined state factors, so can it also be applied to conflicting interests and governance in cases, where instead of states, international organisations serve as agents. In this sense, these are transnational mandalas.
These organisations (1) do not have kings but leaders; (2) do not have governments but bureaucracies; (3) do not have a nation, but they have people as their subjects and their objectives are often defined with regard to problems experiences by peoples in many countries and geographic areas; (4) do not have capitals but a relation with social cohesiveness and societal resilience; (5) do not have right to collect taxes but virtually all of them have a budget and incomes; (6) some have an army; and (7) many cooperate with other international organisations, institutions, non-state actors and states.
An additional feature in Kautilya's conceptualisation of state, which strengthens the applicability of mandala
also on international organisations, is the open character of Kautilya's state: it is not territorially bound, nor nationally or ethnically defined. The idea of nation-states has been predominant among European whereas states in Asia, Africa and South America encompass multiple nations of whom many speak their own tongue. According to Shyam Saran, this openness is distinctive in Asian political history. It would explain why pluralism would appear so much more acceptable a condition in Asia than in Europe, where the integration process was launched to avoid the horrific experiences of the two world wars.
Admittedly, the European Union's (EU) legitimacy as an integration process has more recently been contested, partially through misguided diagnosis by the Brexiters
and populist movements with alleged support from China and Russia, about the ongoing migration crisis and global economic imbalances.
3.3. Conquest as a foreign policy obligation
Benoy Sarkar described Kautilya's mandala
as a 'cult of expansion'. Sarkar connected expansionism with world conquest; Boesche also hints at this. Liebig and Gautam, in contrast, restrict Kautilya's expansionism to the geographic and civilisational sphere of the Indian subcontinent.
Nonetheless, conquest forms an essential part of Kautilya's theory, where the would-be-conqueror or vijigisu
is a central actor.
Conqueror is a singular type of king because of its normative character, and its role in the international system. The normative dimension of the conqueror refers to certain qualities that legitimise the vijigisu
's role as a conqueror. The conqueror should possess excellent personal qualities, and be industrious in attaining and improving his skills and abilities. He should husband his time efficiently according to a carefully planned schedule, and never let selfish desires and urges dictate his actions.
In addition to these features, the vijigisu
is distinctive because of conquest. The Arthashastra
classifies conquests into three groups: (1) righteous; (2) greedy; and (3) demonical. A just conqueror, our vijigisu,
does not necessarily need to seek usurpation or extension of his state's belongings. Territorial takeover, moreover, would likely involve death, loss of money and impoverishment. It would not necessarily be conducive to the happiness and welfare of his people, least of all those newly subjected to his rule. In the Arthashastra
, a 'king […], being possessed of good character and best-fitted elements of sovereignty' and seeking conquest, should be neither demonic nor greedy. If he would act in any other way than righteous, he would create the space and need for another state to seek a new conqueror. This is because it is the duty of a king to aspire for the welfare and happiness of his people, which is impossible under a demonic ruler and difficult with a greedy one.
To be able to conquer, the vijigisu
should have the necessary material and non-material capabilities both to conquer and to maintain a dominant position after the conquest. To establish himself, he needs to set up his rule in a manner that advances the happiness and welfare of the new subjects, thus binding them to the king for material gains and for non-material reasons. The non-material reasons in Kautilya's Arthashastra
have to do with the Brahmanical order and virtues which deepen the moral dimension of Kautilya's realism.
As a result, Kautilya's conquest does not generate rights without obligations. Instead, by extending the kingdom, conquest also extends the obligations that come with leadership. In this sense, the ethical and material are inseparably intertwined. Interestingly, this seems to resonate with certain modern concepts. There is, for instance, a similarity between 'benevolent superpower' and 'liberal international order' on the one side, and the vijigisu
and 'conquest' on the other. As noted by Liebig, these conceptual interfaces deserve 'long overdue' scholarly attention. However, they are beyond the scope of this particular paper.
If the mandala
in the contemporary context can be regarded as a certain type of strategic constellation of diverse interests around a governance issue, or, more narrowly, a constellation of state relations with regard to a matter of governance, then to conquer means to solve this issue. A righteous conquest would imply a solution that improves or secures the welfare of the vijigisu
and the conquered. For example, a mutually beneficial trade agreement, or a port or railway connection, would correspond to righteous conquest, while a trade war would imply a greedy conquest.
3.4. Towards a framework of analysis
The basic unit in the mandala
is the state, conceived of as a compound of seven elements, none of which, in the contemporary world, is fully independent or sovereign, but which is tied to other states, friends and enemies alike, with at least some environmental, economic and international connections. The objective of each state is the optimisation of the immaterial and material dimensions of each of the seven transnationally interdependent state factors, which would obligate leaders or at least the vijigisu
to aspire for win-win solutions instead of zero-sum outcomes. This holds in cases where the circle of states is intertwined through interdependent constituent elements. These notions might help to rethink the dynamics of conflict and cooperation in a manner that underpins the historical experiences of Asian civilisations and is well suited for the emerging pluralistic international order.
Moreover, while the basic unit in Kautilyan mandala
is the state, the modern mandala
also applies to international organisations and governance agencies in the global context of complex and inter-relational webs of political authority. Along with states, these webs of authority can be situated as parts of a state-centric mandala,
as elements of 'interdependent sovereignty' affecting people and productive forces, treasury and allies. But they can also be interpreted as actors in transnational mandalas,
where instead of states the focus is on transnational agents or international organisations.
Finally, the ideal leader (vijigisu
) would be one that employs all measures in hand to ensure successful win-win solutions for common concerns, while ensuring neutrality or zero-sum gains in cases where the mandala
is divided into clearly separate circles, and where the state factors of each central node of each circle are disconnected. The following is a tentative analytical framework:
- A key foreign policy objective is righteous conquest. In the context of multiple and overlapping circles consisting of transnationally intertwined state factors, righteous conquest denotes successful leadership in optimisation of welfare in the interconnected political entities through win-win solutions for common problems. The modern vijigisu has mastery over the complex web of mandalas, knows how to keep them separate (e.g., does not mix political conflicts with economic cooperation), and has the ability to exercise effective leadership.
- In defining the operational environment for foreign policy manoeuvres, primary focus is on what constitutes a given mandala:
- What are the conflicting interests/common problems?
- What kinds of agents are involved?
- What does the vijigisu do to lead or overcome, by what means and how successfully?
- What are the shortcomings of his leadership?
- From the normative perspective, what should the vijigisu do and who or what is most suitable to be a vijigisu?