The contemporary crisis of regional or middle powers accounts for a major share of instability in evidence around the world. This instability can be seen in the Middle East, Asia Pacific, South Asia, North Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. Despite differences in their respective national conditions, regional powers like Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Syria, Turkey, Ukraine, and Venezuela are all grappling with fundamental social, economic, political, and strategic challenges.
The domestic and foreign policies pursued by these regional powers are inevitably inflected by the pressures exerted by great-power competition because the existence of regional powers qua regional powers remains tied to the intermediate structural position occupied by them in the contemporary international system between great or global and small powers.
This intermediate positioning leads to a general situation in which the vulnerabilities and strengths of these regional powers tend to be more or less evenly balanced in a state of an uneasy equilibrium. This precarious balance creates conditions inside and outside these powers wherein they find themselves facing a critical choice between two domestic development paths and two foreign policy trajectories. One domestic path leads to development-based power consolidation, increased stability, and great-power status; the other goes down to underdevelopment, power fragmentation, and increased instability.
Similarly, the first foreign policy trajectory is positive and characterized by pursuit of peace, compassion, interdependent harmonization of different policies, and promotion of multilateralism coupled with the practice of healthy bilateral partnerships not aimed at any individual country or grouping of countries. The second foreign policy trajectory is negative and marked by the pursuit of zero-sum self-aggrandizement.
Different regional powers display different combinations of domestic development paths and foreign policy trajectories. These combinations taken collectively can be used to measure, within the constraints imposed by the element of chance and accident, the propensity of any given region for peace or conflict and stability and instability.
The outcome of the balance of strengths and weaknesses coupled with the choice between two paths, in turn allied with two foreign policy trajectories, makes middle powers confident and anxious at the same time. This confident anxiety or anxious confidence makes them more exposed to sudden domestic changes and vagaries of world politics. Regional powers remain highly strung even in normal circumstances because of the ever-present impact of the activities of great powers. In addition, great-power competition acts as a constant of world politics. In other words, this competition is to world system what gravity is to matter.
The only way out for a regional power is square up to the unpredictability of the global interstate system by transforming in to a great power. A regional power that has successfully reduced all, or most of its domestic and external vulnerabilities at the same time that it maximizes all, or most sources of its national power has ceased to be a regional power and has already become a great power.
Almost all contemporary great or global powers were once regional powers which took more or less similar routes to great-power status through imposing colonialism around the world from the middle of the 18th century till the middle of the 20th century. The rise of United States and China to great-power status may be the only two exceptions.
It is more difficult today than in the past for a regional power to become a great power. One reason for this is the permanent closure of the colonial route. This means contemporary regional powers, unlike the regional powers of old, cannot establish extractive and exploitative relations with weak countries and weak regions. This option is not available even in its neo-colonial variety to regional powers.
However, some powers, like India still maintain unjust territorial occupations based on elaborate regimes of repression as part of their great-power pursuit. Such regional powers become locked in an eternally tantalizing cycle in which their desire to acquire great-power status is denied, amongst other things, by their unjust occupation of territory belonging to others. While colonial occupation enabled the regional powers of old to become global powers, postcolonial unjust occupation of territories by modern regional powers only thwarts their great-power ambitions. Still, their national contradictions do not allow them to dismantle occupation.
The limited capacity of the contemporary world system is the second reason why there are only a handful of great powers around. This means world economy and world politics cannot expand indefinitely in terms of allowing a continuous graduation of regional powers to great-power club. There are also environmental limitations to this process of global expansion.
As it is, even one regional power becoming a great or global power causes stress to the world system. The stress involved in many regional powers becoming great powers would be too much for the world system to endure. This can only mean that only very few regional powers will become great powers in the 21st century.
This causes frustration amongst the existing regional powers, leaving them prone to great-power influence. This frustration also makes friction amongst regional powers particularly virulent. This friction exists as a chronic feature in those regions where a number of regional powers exist side by side. Instability in contemporary Middle East and South Asia can be explained by presence of a high number of middle powers constrained to share a common regional canvas. The fact that these two regions sit side by side roughly between the western and eastern extremities of the Eurasian landmass makes for a particularly precarious situation in world politics. In such a situation, intra-regional developments have inter-regional consequences. It would not be an exaggeration to state that Eurasian peace, and by extension global peace, depends upon peace in these two regions. By way of a historical illustration, nineteenth-century Western Europe was especially prone to turbulence because it was populated by a number of regional powers which were, moreover, going through the historical process of development of regional powers into great powers.
Regional powers view each other differently from how great powers view each other. Whereas what worries great powers are the actual power capabilities of other great powers; what causes anxiety in regional powers is the potential of other regional powers for transformation into great powers. It may so happen that a regional power with a higher transformative potential fails to become a great power while a regional power with a lower great-power potential succeeds in becoming a great power and does so sooner than a country which had the greater potential.
What this essentially means is that a state can substantially expand its power base even if it originally started from a narrower base of power provided it utilized that narrow base effectively, smartly, and rapidly. Such a dynamic state would cause consternation in other regional powers, even well before it actually became a great power and even if it did not follow an inflammatory foreign policy. It must be mentioned here that the transformative potential of regional powers depends more upon the policies they pursue internally and externally than just the natural and territorial resources available to them.
Regional powers with low transformative potential tend to behave aggressively towards regional powers with higher transformative potential, unleashing the full repertoire of contrived destabilization strategies against the latter.
The above-explained systemic dynamics of regional powers can prove helpful in explaining India’s hostility and opposition to Pakistan. The former is aggravated, on one hand, by the higher potential of the latter for accelerated development and by the latter’s ability to utilize its power base more effectively. Blaming Pakistan for terrorism in the region is simply one of the many manifestations of India’s structural paranoia caused by the former’s superiority of potential in certain critical development domains. This greater potential is indicated by the fact that, unlike New Delhi, Islamabad is better equipped, more capable, and more desirous of having win-win relations with both Washington and Beijing.
Speedy integrated development through rational resolution of national problems buttressed by harmonious civil-military relations, concentration of national power elements in ever-new combinations that promote people’s participation and welfare, and an inherent desire for all-round reconciliation, dialogue, and peace, can enable Pakistan to rise to become a great power, in the process creating a 21st century model of transformation of regional powers into great powers.
Pakistan’s transformation into a great power will be delayed in the absence of harmonious civil-military relations. There are two dimensions to the matter of civil-military relations in so far as Pakistan is concerned. The first is the realist and factual dimension; the other is the projected dimension of perception which consists of a warped observation of facts. In so far as facts are concerned, civil-military relations in Pakistan are excellent. To say that they are bad is a myth, a factoid which has acquired the status of credibility simply because of erroneous reasoning. Just like justice, civil-military harmony should not only be present but seen to be present too.
The proof of this statement lies in the fact that military works successfully and collaboratively with all civil institutions, is loved and respected by the overwhelming majority of the citizens of Pakistan, and willingly becomes the key supporter and champion of every major development initiative in Pakistan that stands to benefit the people and the state. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Population Census 2017 stand out as two recent cases of the military’s commitment to national development efforts, over and above its specialized role of the provider of security. It does, however, oppose institutionalized corruption in civil society. This is a natural reaction, expected and elicited from any modern forward-looking institutions anywhere, civil or military. Corruption in civil society is a major bane of the national polity but in overall, purely quantitative terms, forms a small part of the totality of civil society. If one were to talk of rough percentages, then in this writer’s estimation, this element may not form even one percent of the national civil society.
Now, if an entity is working well with 99 percent elements of another entity and jars with just about one percent elements of that other entity, then such a state of affairs should be naturally described in terms of the 99 percent and not in those of the one percent. To classify it in terms of the one percent would be plain wrong, disingenuous, and harmful for the process of transformation of Pakistan from a regional into a balanced great power.
The author heads research & analysis at NUST Global Think Tank Network (GTTN), Islamabad, Pakistan.
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