Book review: “New Powers: How to become one and how to manage them” by Amrita Narlikar

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Amrita Narlikar, New Powers: How to become one and how to manage them, London: Hurst Publications, and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Reviewed for Meridiano 47, Vol 12, No 124 (2011).

Amrita Narlikar, who teaches International Politics at Cambridge University, has written a short and elegant book about Brazil's, India's and China's rise. The topic of emerging powers invites, quite naturally, a lot of forward-looking analysis. The now famous paper "Dreaming with the BRICs: The Path to 2050", published by Goldman Sachs in 2003, offers a seemingly unending number of fascinating discussions, all based on the question of how the world will look like when the five greatest economies are, in that order, China, the United States, India, Japan and Brazil. Will rising powers integrate into today's world order, or will they overthrow the current system?

Yet Dr. Narlikar resists the temptation of participating in the guessing game and takes a sober look into the past, analyzing India's, China's and Brazil's international  negotiation strategies to answer the question mentioned above. She argues that "at one extreme, we may expect the new power to show complete socialisation. At the other extreme, however, we may also see the new power using its newfound status to pursue alternative visions of world order." This issue already matters greatly today, for Narlikar rightly contends that today's rising powers, while not yet well-integrated into international institutions, have acquired the de facto status of veto players "whose agreement is required for a change of the status quo." This has important implications for the stability of today's world order. If rising powers fail to assume global responsibility, established powers such as the United States may soon no longer be able to provide the global public goods that define today's global order.

Narlikar presents four hypotheses to explain the international negotiation strategy pursued by the three countries in question, analyzing as potentially determining variables 1)  relative power and influence,  2) domestic politics, 3) international institutional design, or 4) the counterpart in the negotiation. The book is thus an interesting mix of the study of systemic analysis and power transitions on the one hand, and micro-level analysis of negotiation practices on the other. She looks at negotiation behavior in the context of a large array of international institutions, ranging from the NPT, the WTO, the UNSC to climate negotiations.

Her analysis of India's and China's negotiation strategy is particularly interesting as it reveals a lot about both countries' identities. One of her Indian interviewees' comment that "it is easier for our minister to come back home empty-handed as a wounded hero, rather than to come back with something after having had to make a compromise" is a wonderful insight into India's culture, as is her insight about China's pragmatism and quiet approach that contrasts India's moralizing posture and frequent grandstanding. She also rightly notes that foreign policy remains the stuff of the elites in all three countries, which raises the interesting question of how their foreign policies will change if it will be more integrated into the democratic process.

International politics can be a fast business, and Narlikar's Brazil section seems oddly out of date since it does not include Brazil's decision to negotiate, aided by Turkey, a controversial nuclear deal with Iran in 2010. Subsequently, Brazil voted against a resolution aimed at Iran, defying the majority in the UN Security Council for the first time. Interestingly enough, Narlikar describes Brazil's negotiation strategy as the least confrontational of the three, so it would have been interesting to read how she thinks about this abrupt move. Yet also for other reasons, her analysis of Brazil is the weakest section of the book. Even before Lula's trip to Iran, Brazil's foreign policy was more confrontational than Narlikar suggests. When talking about Brazil's nuclear policy, the author asserts that "even (Brazil's) critics recognize that (Brazil's anti-NPT rhetoric and its refusal to grant IAEA inspectors access) are not the actions of a revisionist power posing a threat to the existing non-proliferation regime." Yet criticism, both at home and abroad, is intense, and Brazil can indeed be accused of destabilizing the nuclear proliferation regime.

When summarizing her data, Narlikar finds that the international institutional design plays no role - i.e., rising powers always pursue the same strategy, no matter whether they negotiate in a democratic WTO or a hierarchical Security Council. In the same way, with the exception of India, it makes no difference with whom they negotiate. And, most strikingly, rising powers fail to socialize as they turn into established powers, defying one of liberal scholars' key claims when they paint an optimistic picture about China's rise. Rather, domestic politics and, more specifically, domestic political culture seem to explain most of their behavior. This variable is difficult to measure and shows that generalizations about rising powers are hard to make.

Some of her analysis is controversial. Pointing to Brazil's mixed success in its negotiations, she  argues that "being nice does not pay", suggesting that Brazil should perhaps pursue a more distributive negotiation strategy. She contrasts Brazil's failure to secure a trade deal with India's success in obtaining nuclear status while flouting the NPT's guidelines. Yet, one may ask, what has India achieved aside from the, admittedly grandiose, nuclear deal? It seems that the driving force behind this deal was the United States' idea to balance China, not India's successful negotiating strategy. And, is Brazil's foreign policy really as ineffective as Narlikar claims? After all, she rightly points out that Brazil's economy is much smaller than India's and China's. Considering this difference in size, isn't it a considerable success that Brazil plays in one league with Asia's rising giants?

Read also:

Book review: “What does China want?” by Matias Spektor and Dani Nedal (orgs.)

Book review: “No One’s World” by Charles A. Kupchan

Book review: “Africa, Partner of Atlantic Brazil” by José Flávio Sombra Saraiva