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A Survey of Indices Measuring Geopolitical Power

Brief descriptions of the prevalent indices of measuring geopolitical power.

One of the major propositions of the realist school of geopolitics is that the primary concern of all states is survival. A direct corollary is that nation-states aim at increasing their power and thereby enabling the continuance of their survival. Because of this centrality of power in geopolitics, its evaluation becomes extremely important for all the players.

Various measures for evaluating geopolitical power have been proposed throughout the history of the modern nation-states. This paper by the RAND Corporation is an exceptional resource to understand the traditional approaches to measuring national power. In this post however, the focus is on describing a few indices that are prevalent and popular. It must be noted that even the latest indices are incremental improvements over the traditional single and multivariable approaches to national power.

1. CINC (Comprehensive Index of National Capability): This index is a measure of hard power rather than a comprehensive indicator of overall national capability. The measure is obtained by taking a simple average of six ratios. These ratios measure population, urban population, iron and steel production, primary energy consumption, military expenditure and military personnel respectively. The Correlates of War webpage shows the variation of this index for the period 1816-2007. Even though it is primarily a ‘hard power’ index, it omits the significance of nuclear capabilities. Moreover, the role of modern technology aided weapons like drones has not been considered. Given that the world is more urban now than it is rural, giving equal weightages to both population and urban population leads to “double-counting” effect of the population variable.

2. GFP (Global Firepower Index): This index, like CINC measures a nation’s conventional military capability across land, sea and air. Some of the factors involved in the construction are number of armored vehicles, number of frigates & destroyers and the number of aircrafts. Thus, this index is ideally suited to a scenario where two nations are at a state of conventional war against each other. Again, this is not a comprehensive measure of overall national capability and it ignores the role of nuclear weapons in a state of war.

3. CNP (Comprehensive National Power): The roots of this quantitative measure of power lie in Deng Xiaoping’s statesmanship. This index tries to incorporate a wide variety of factors under the following heads: manpower, natural resources, military, economic activities, government control and regulation capability, science and technology capability and social development.

4. NPI (National Power Index): This index combines the weighted factors of GDP, defense spending, population and technology. This index uses the International Futures Model to arrive at the relative standing of nations. It allows forecasting the power variations up to the year 2060. A significant improvement over the other indices is that the weights for the factors can be varied according to four forecasted scenarios. The scenarios are based on the United Nations Environment Programme’s global environmental outlook study. They are classified as Markets First, Policy First, Security First and Sustainability First depending on the trade-off between the extent of economic growth and the impact on environment. A sample is here.

5. NSI (National Security Index): This is an index developed by Indian think-tanks based on defence capability, economic strength, effective population, technological capability and energy security. This index is not scenario-based and the methodology has not been made public.

I came across these indices as part of my project which aims to create a Global Power Index. This index will take into account scenarios like “Belligerence and War-like situations” and “World economic situation” to arrive at power calculations. The understanding behind this is that the determinants of power that matter more during a war-like situation are different than the ones that matter for economic growth. Thus, creating a single rating which excludes the importance of global scenarios oversimplifies the problem at hand.

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Nuclear Capability: How it alters the “Balance of Power”

Nuclear capability brings about sudden and structural changes in the prevailing ‘balance of power’ between nations regionally and globally. 

In the previous post, I mentioned that the dynamics of nuclear weapons and conventional weapons differ significantly. One of the reasons given for this differentiation was that nuclear capability has a much more pronounced impact on the ‘balance of power’. This post will deal with this impact in greater detail.

What is Balance of Power?

Hans Morgenthau, one of the founding fathers of the realist school of geopolitics in Politics among Nations explains ‘balance of power’ thus:

The aspiration for power on the part of several nations, each trying either to maintain or to overthrow the status quo, leads of necessity to a constellation which is called the balance of power and to policies which aim at preserving it.

A relevant example would be the aspiration of the older members of the nuclear club to maintain the status quo by coming together to advocate nuclear non-proliferation, in order to prevent the nuclear challengers like India, Pakistan and others from gaining nuclear capability. This principle is a reality of international affairs as much as in other aspects of human dealings like national politics. Moreover, since there is no supreme international authority or a strong consensus in international affairs, balance of power becomes a guiding principle on the international scene. In the Indian context, balance of power theory is even more important. With the enormous rise of China which may alter the global equilibrium in its favor, global powers like US and Russia see India as a  potential player that can help balance the dominance of China. Japan in recent times has made significant efforts to align with India in order to match China’s rise.

There are various methods of the balancing process and all of them essentially do one of the two things – either increase the power of the perceived weaker side or decrease the power of the perceived stronger one.

What has nuclear capability got to do with balance of power?

Though widely accepted as a guiding principle for international politics, the balance of power theory has one fundamental problem – the uncertainty of what qualifies as a balance or an imbalance. This stems from the fact that there is no golden method of assessing a nation’s power. Different indices give different weights to a nation’s economic, social, political or diplomatic capital to arrive at a power structure of the world. In this scenario, where the criteria for power itself is uncertain, trying to balance it becomes even more blurry. As a result, nations try to maximize their power hoping that it will put them in the right side of the weighing scale of the the power balance. Particularly when a nation considers military conflict as an imminent threat to its survival due to historic reasons, it is willing to go any lengths to gain a capability that can ensure a Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) to its belligerent adversaries. It wants to broadcast a message to the world that an outright war with it will be very costly to everyone. This is the capability that nuclear weapons grant a nation.

This post on the statecraft blog Chaturanga succinctly explains what a nuclear balance of power entails. Most importantly, nuclear capability becomes the ultimate bargaining tool in potential conflict scenarios. Neo-realists like Waltz cite the example of the Kargil war to state that the two nations were forced to prevent a full scale war due to the fear that it might lead to deployment of nuclear weapons. The significance of nuclear capability can also be gauged from the fact that all the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council possess it. Also through the NPT, they try to restrain other nations from possessing it so that the balance of power can be maintained in their favor. A nuclear proliferated world will decrease their leverage and make other nations outside their club equally important in conflict scenarios.

There are various levels of how nuclear capabilities enhance a nation’s power. Possessing nuclear warheads with a credible deterrence is the lowest level of nuclear hegemony. The next level is having a second-strike retaliatory capability. Having the power to deliver it within minutes across the world through nuclear submarines or missiles is the next higher level. The ultimate level is nuclear primacy – a condition where no other state has a credible second-strike deterrent against it due to the sheer size of its nuclear arsenal and its capability to destroy all of enemy’s nuclear warheads. [1]

Nuclear capability also changes power equations regionally if nations are willing to proliferate it through clandestine or apparent means. Pakistan’s policy of arming Saudi Arabia with a nuclear bomb is a case in point. Also, the previous leaks of nuclear technology by the Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan to Libya make it a heavyweight in the Ummah (The Muslim World). A major concern for security agencies across the world is the possibility of nuclear weapons going into the hands of non-state actors like terrorists. Here again, Pakistan has been able to give this perception to the world that terrorists can indeed do so; the rest of the world fears it so much that nations are willing to invest in the state of Pakistan, thus increasing its clout in the process.

What nuclear weapons cannot change?

Let us imagine an international future in a two dimensional plot with economic growth and stability on the y-axis and possibility of war on the x-axis.

Nuclear capability and future scenarios

Nuclear capability and future scenarios

The nuclear capability matters a great deal when the possibility of war is high. Assuming that low economic growth and instability may lead to anarchy or terrorism, nuclear capability is of utmost importance to the world in the fourth quadrant. But if a nation imagines a future with low eventuality of a conflict, nuclear weapons can do very little to increase its social, economic and political parameters of power.


Just like Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of hierarchy of needs, nuclear capability ensures the survival in case of a conflict but in a situation where many nations already have nuclear deterrence against each other, the balance of power then depends on aspects of power beyond the nuclear capabilities.


[1] Policy Tensor Blog: http://policytensor.com/2013/08/11/nuclear-weapons-and-the-balance-of-power/

[2] Chaturanga Blog: http://jaideepprabhu.org/2012/04/06/a-nuclear-balance-of-power/

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The Power of Conventional Military Capability

The capacity of a nation’s military resources needs to be consistent with its geopolitical ambitions

This post deals with the role that a nation’s military plays in determining its geopolitical status. Like my previous post on ‘Foreign Aid’, the military capability of a nation falls under the third element of national power theorized by Kautilya –‘Prabhavashakti’ which is described as the combined power of the army and the treasury.

What does conventional military capability mean?

This post specifically mentions ‘conventional’ military to differentiate it from other unconventional means of warfare like nuclear, chemical and biological weaponry. This differentiation stems from the fact that the application of these two means of warfare are not the same. The mere possession and threat of using  unconventional means of warfare like nuclear bombs are often seen as the ultimate bargaining tool in diplomacy[1]. Moreover, only a few nations in the world have these weapons and they try to prevent other nations from possessing it. On the other hand, conventional military in terms of an armed force is a salient feature of all nation states. Secondly, the nuclear weapon is the foremost factor contributing to the ‘balance of power’ between geopolitical entities. Because of its immense power to hurt, it is the foundation of deterrence theory, and it is most successful when it is held in reserve[2]. On the other hand, conventional military power is often deployed in various conflict situations across the world to reassert a nation’s hegemony.

The “capability” of military power refers to the ability to transform resources like soldiers, artillery into wartime effectiveness. Thus apart from the money allotted to the military or the number of foot soldiers; it also depends on a doctrine, the quality of leadership, effective organisation and the quality of training.

Why is military power important for a nation-state?

A powerful military is an important player in settling geopolitical issues and is employed in various scenarios today. It is used to fight internal insurgency or terrorism which weaken the bargaining power of a state globally. Against non-nuclear states, it is often used both as a deterrent and a real force. For example, USA’s threat of military action in Syria triggered a series of diplomatic actions that eventually led to the Syrian government agreeing to an assessment of its chemical weapons. In another case, Russia brutally crushed the Georgian forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia on account of superior military power in the 2008 war. The role of conventional military is different when two nuclear powers are colliding as a full throttle use can lead to escalation and eventual use of the dreaded ‘bomb’. Thus the various geopolitical agents try to prevent an all-out war between nuclear states. Nevertheless, conventional weapons have been deployed in localized skirmishes between nuclear powers like the Indo-Pak Kargil conflict in 1999 and the Sino-russian border conflict in 1969.

Thus, a powerful armed force is desired by all aspiring geopolitical entities.

Contours of military power

The need for a strong army, navy and airforce is all too evident to be discussed in greater detail. However, a few elements of military power that can be game changers are worth mentioning here. Due to their ability to deliver air power in distant parts of the world, aircraft carriers have been the holy grail for nation-states. The usage of unmanned warfare like combat drones is beginning to have profound political effects. Since it makes war easier and safer for the belligerent nation, it increases the threat of warmongering. the Prompt Global Strike (PGS) military effort of USA which would make delivery of conventional weapons anywhere in the world possible within an hour while it takes a few days currently can be another game changing weapon.

Thus, due to its sheer influence in altering geopolitical equations, military capability in one form or the other, is used in all indices measuring the power of a state. Though nations realize the importance of ‘soft power’ and ‘economic might’ to become influential, it is far too perilous to do so without heeding to a proportional rise in military power.


[1] http://www.politics.co.uk/reference/nuclear-deterrence : policy issue brief

[2] Arms and Influence by Thomas Schelling (1966)

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The Power of Foreign Aid

The role that foreign aid plays in determining the power of a nation is all the more relevant today – where there are a rising number of donors and a large number of recipients.

My previous post dwelt with the role that diplomacy plays in determining the power of a nation. This post discusses the role of foreign aid in geopolitics. Foreign aid falls under one of the three elements of national power theorized by Kautilya – ‘Prabhavashakti’ which is described as the combined power of the army and the treasury.

Foreign aid can be widely defined as the voluntary transfer of economic resources from one country or a group of nations to another. Aid has many forms. It includes monetary assistance given for recovering from natural disasters or wars, military aid given in the form of training or hardware and development assistance for infrastructure. It does not include market based flows like FDI, FII or remittances. The intention of this post is to explore the influence a donor wields on the recipient country and vice versa through the variety of aid flows described. The aspects like the effective utilization of aid or its contribution to the economic growth or prosperity of the recipient are not the foci of this post.

 Why the role of foreign aid is all the more relevant today?

A brief history of the ‘aid industry’ will help understand it better. Large scale aid as an arm of foreign policy was used under the Marshall Plan at the end of WWII when US tried to rebuild the shaken western European economies. Subsequently, during the cold war, foreign aid was essentially used as a bargaining chip by the OECD nations to curb communism in infant nations and by Soviet Union to spread it.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, OECD nations remained the sole practitioners of large scale foreign aid distribution. After 9/11, the nature and destination of foreign aid was altered significantly. Usage of foreign aid to help nations counter terrorist movements became more commonplace. In recent times, countries like Brazil, India, China and Saudi Arabia have become donors to a number of nations. The aid these nations give is generally less tied to conditions than the OECD-style aid. This has thus changed the rules of the aid economy making it behave like a multi-player game.

How does giving aid impact the power of the donor?

One viewpoint suggests that aid can make countries tow your line. When the aid amount is a significant portion of the recipient’s GDP, the influence that the donor wields on the recipient becomes significant. For example, countries like Kyrgyzstan welcomed the US air base in Manas as the rent obtained from this air base was itself around 3% of the country’s national budget. Saudi Arabia has postured successfully as an adherent to the tenet of charity in Islam – it is one of the largest providers of aid to Palestine and wields significant influence there.

Donors give more to countries in which they have political or economic interests, rather than to countries that actually need aid or could effectively use it. A series of studies point out that nations that become temporary members of the UNSC receive more foreign aid and do so only for the period around their membership. Temporary members are also more likely to receive a World Bank project. This indicates that donors use foreign aid to increase their sphere of influence in the UN as well.

The attempts of donors to influence recipient nation’s behavior depend on how substitutable one donor is for another. This point is particularly relevant today as the number of aid donors has increased dramatically. Thus, in our neighborhood, the question before India is not about whether to give aid to Bhutan or Nepal, it is about how much and under what conditions. This is because these countries now have China as a potential donor in case India turns away from them.

How does receiving aid impact the power of the recipient?

Even though the multi-player donor scenario has increased the bargaining power of the recipients, an economy dependent on aid reduces the power of the recipient. Some views indicate that recipient nations governed by dictatorships are likely to choose the foreign aid source that is cheapest (with heavy concessions) but can affect the recipient negatively in the long run.

Post 9/11, the military-aid complex is thriving. However, using military aid as the only solution may result in a principal-agent problem as military aid decreases the incentives of recipient governments to negotiate with terrorist groups. But because eliminating terrorist groups means reductions in military aid, recipient governments do not have an incentive to completely eradicate terrorist organizations operating within their territory.¹


Foreign aid continues to remain a major part of foreign policy of all the nations that seek a greater role on the global stage. However, how much power results from giving out aid depends on a variety of conditions like the aid’s contribution to the recipient’s GDP, recipient’s leadership and the number of other donors willing to compete for power.


1. Introduction to the Geopolitics of Foreign Aid – Helen V. Milner and Dustin Tingley


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The Power of Diplomacy

How the quality of diplomacy can greatly determine a nation’s power vis-a-vis other nations.

In my previous post, I wrote that a nation’s power determines its pecking order in the geopolitical arena. What exactly constitutes a nation’s power is then the next logical point of consideration. Through the next few posts, I will discuss the sources of national power with examples of how these powers have been utilized in the geopolitical space.

One source of power comes across as the most significant one in several streams of thought – diplomacy. Diplomacy here is loosely defined as the act of getting other countries to agree to what a nation/group of nations wants without the use of a conventional military force. This ‘power of diplomacy’ Kautilya says, is superior to all the other sources of power. Geopolitical realist Hans Morgenthau, in his seminal work Politics among Nations also concurs when he says –

Of all the factors that make for the power of a nation, the most important, and of the more unstable, is the quality of diplomacy.. The conduct of a nation’s foreign affairs by its diplomats is for national power in peace what military strategy and tactics by its military leaders are for national power in war.

To give an analogy, while the other sources of power like military, nuclear deterrence, economy are like raw materials in an industry, diplomacy is the machine that synthesizes these materials into a finished product into a foreign policy which is then visible to the rest of the world. If the diplomacy is of high quality, the quality of the final product is much greater than the sum total of its parts put together individually. If on the other hand diplomacy lacks vision, is inconsistent with the objectives of the foreign policy, it can produce an output much lesser than the sum total of all elements that make up a nation’s power.

Let’s discuss some ways in which diplomacy has worked in modern history.

Hans Morgenthau writes that the diplomacy of France between 1890 up to the World War I presents a very good example of diplomacy raising a nation’s power. Bismark had successfully managed to isolate France from 1870 till 1890. After Bismark’s dismissal, German foreign policy weakened and could not make any alliances with other European powers. France on the other hand made several agreements with Britain and Russia after 1890. It was a result of this diplomatic effort that in World War I, France had Russia and Britain on its side while Germany did not. Post World War II, France achieved diplomatic success through the policy of Francafrique, which helped it regain some of its lost sheen in the politics of Africa.

Through diplomacy, some nations have also managed to convert what might seem global challenges into sources of power. An example is countries like Maldives, Seychelles and others who now call themselves collectively as SIDS (Small Island Developing States). By raising the issues of global warming time and again in international forums and advocating climate change diplomacy, these countries now play a leading role in global systems like Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) and United Nations Framework Convention on Climatic Change (UNFCCC). The sharp diplomacy of the military-jihadi complex in Pakistan has managed to position itself as a receiver of international grants for ending terrorism on one hand while on the other, it continues to support the same terrorism.

Another country that punches way above its weight in geopolitics through diplomacy is Norway. By positioning itself as an impartial mediator in resolving conflicts, Norway has managed to increase its “soft power” manifold. Norway played a major role in long-standing conflicts of Palestine-Israel, Sri Lanka and Guatemala thereby becoming a global troubleshooter. On a related note, as the Acorn writes, India squandered the opportunity of playing a much bigger role in resolving the Iran-US conflict on the lines of what Norway achieved.

Diplomatic power is sometimes expressed through regional groups. A case in point here was Lebanon, as the sole member of the Arab League in the UNSC in 2011, its opinion was central to what the UN would do in Libya. It achieved consensus in the Arab League and voted against Libya in the UN resolution dealing with the establishment of no-fly zone over parts of Libya. By forming strong diplomatic channels and achieving consensus within regional groups, a nation can play a much greater role than it could do on its own.

As the examples demonstrate, the quality of diplomacy is a major factor that determines a nation’s influence. How it can be measured and quantified is something that I will explore in due course of my project.


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Power Dynamics and its role in Geopolitics

Quite often, casual discussions and news coverage on geopolitical events result in value judgments. For example, the reaction to USA’s role in Afghanistan or Syria is criticized on the grounds that it is morally wrong  for USA and its allies to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. Such opinions however are simplistic as they assume that the laws and principles which apply to domestic affairs apply internationally as well. The reality is quite opposite – the morality of a nation-state within its boundaries is in most cases, based on a document like the constitution which every citizen and the government is expected to adhere to. A deviation from the principles of constitutionalism is thus considered wrong or inimical to the interests of the nation as a whole. On the other hand, the rules of the game that apply to international affairs and geopolitics are completely different. There is no constitution or a written code of conduct here. There is no sovereign authority that can impose itself on all the nations of the world. Much of international law is also based on prior consent of nations. This means that a state member of the international community is not obliged to abide by a type of international law, unless it has expressly consented to a particular course of conduct. The fundamental law which then applies to international relations is that of Power. As the Acorn explains, it is the law of the jungle, the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’ that ensures the survival of a nation and determines its influence. The significance of power is reaffirmed by the existing structure of a global organization like the UN. While around 200 members are a part of it, the permanent UNSC members which have the power to veto are the five most powerful countries at the end of WW2, when the UN was constituted.

Power, thus is to geopolitics what force is to physics. Just as an external force can change the state of inertia of a body, power and influence can change the prevailing state of geopolitics. So it is not surprising that various thinkers, diplomats and think tanks have advanced some means or another of assessing national power. And since there is no common definition for what constitutes power, every research has tried to incorporate different elements of power to come up with a hierarchical structure of the world. Earlier researchers (Inis Claude, Kingsley Davis et al) in the 1960s adopted single variable approaches to measure national power with the lone variable being indicative of either the economy or the military strength of a nation. Thereafter, it was recognized that Power is multi-causal and hence multi-variable approaches to measure power were proposed by experts like Clifford German, Trellis et al. Subsequent researches differ in the selection of the variables and the models used to combine them. In recent times, India’s National Security Index and China’s Comprehensive National Power Index are variants of this multi-variable approach.

My project at Takshashila Institution also relates to forming a Global Power Index. As a first principle and starting point, I will be using the Kautilyan definition of Power. Kautilya, in Arthashastra, says that there are three elements of Power – the Power of Energy which comes from the drive of the ruler and his/her intellectual strength, the Power of counsel and diplomacy and the Power of the army and the treasury. The first source of Power roughly translates to the modern concept of ‘soft power’ while the other two relate to ‘hard power’ of a nation. Kautilya also gave subjective weights to these three sources of power. He says that the Power of the army and treasury is more important than the Power of Energy and the Power of counsel and diplomacy is more important than the other two.

Using the above principle as a reference point my second step would be to identify the various ways in which nations influence each other. The way nations influence each other is a result of the power dynamics situation between various nations. As this report mentions, even providing humanitarian aid to another nation is taken on the basis of how it affects the donor’s power vis-a-vis the other players in a region. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting on the various ways in which nations indulge in a show of strength and classify these actions on the basis of their power sources. For example, Pakistan’s policy of transferring nuclear bomb technology to Saudi Arabia makes it powerful. Other nations looking to build a nuclear deterrence will try to engage Pakistan in various ways to get a similar aid from that country.

The ultimate aim of a Global Power Index is to be able to predict how two nations would engage with each other. The last part of my project will deal with this.

Do help me with your thoughts, comments and suggestions!


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