Sanjaya Baru | The power and legitimacy of nations and leaders

The Asian Age.  | Sanjaya Baru

Opinion, Columnists

Henry Kissinger was a phenomenal student of history, a master of diplomacy and an engaging author.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. (PTI File Image)

Henry Kissinger’s passing away last month, a few months after he turned 100, has been mourned around the world by those who celebrated his eventful life. He was equally scorned in death by those who viewed him as an immoral apostle of death and destruction across much of Asia. Whatever his positive and negative legacy as a high-ranking official of the United States government, Henry Kissinger was a phenomenal student of history, a master of diplomacy and an engaging author.

His lasting diplomatic legacy remains the bilateral relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Despite the ups and downs since 1971, when the world’s biggest capitalist state and the largest Communist country established diplomatic relations, the US-China relationship has continued to define shifts in the changing global balance of power over the past half century.

In a book I co-edited (A New Cold War: Henry Kissinger and the Rise of China; HarperCollins, 2023), we took note of the cynical manner in which he promoted that bilateral relationship, amassing millions as a consultant to American corporations investing in China. Kissinger lived life king size till the very end, flying to Beijing after he turned 100 for a final meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping. A visit that seems to have once again helped define US-China relations.

By recognising China’s power potential, Kissinger granted its Communist regime global legitimacy. The rest of the world, including all of China’s neighbours, had no option but to come to terms with this new reality. In his classic text on World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History (Penguin Books, 2014), Kissinger underscores the importance of both power and legitimacy in defining both a global and a regional “order”: “Any … system of order bases itself on two components: a set of commonly accepted rules that define the limits of permissible action and a balance of power that enforces restraint where rules break down.”

In the recently published Power, Legitimacy and the World Order: Changing Contours of Preconditions and Perspectives (Routledge, 2023), the editors Sanjay Pulipaka, Krishnan Srinivasan and James Mayall have put together essays that reflect on contemporary themes around a changing global balance of power and with respect to the notion of legitimacy. In a finely-crafted introduction that tries to pull together a varied set of essays, the distinguished diplomat Krishnan Srinivasan, a former Indian foreign secretary, takes the Kissinger view forward by observing that: “The exercise of power is insufficient to be a dominant geopolitical player; legitimacy is also needed. The most powerful leaders crave legitimacy both at home and abroad.”

The ongoing churn both globally and within many nations is a consequence of both changing power balances and questions about the legitimacy of both institutions and leaderships. In the post-Second World War system, observes Srinivasan, the United States enjoyed both power and legitimacy; however, the recent decline of American influence in world affairs is because even though it “remains powerful, its legitimacy is being questioned”.

What is interesting today about many nations around the world, including the United States, the European Union, China, Russia and India, among others, is the fact that a shift in both global and domestic power equations is happening along with a challenge to the legitimacy of extant institutions and leaderships.

Consider both the US and China, even as their relative power balance is Shifting, both countries are also having to deal with domestic questions about the legitimacy of institutions and leaders. In the US, even as the country seeks to assert its dominance within the Western Hemisphere and even in Asia, Donald Trump and his supporters are questioning the legitimacy of the nation’s political leadership. In China, President Xi has amassed more power than any other Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Yet, questions about the legitimacy of his power grow as China falters on the home front.

In India too, the equation between power and legitimacy is now under scrutiny.

In seeking to alter the power balance between ourselves and the rest of the world, we have taken various initiatives, and our chairmanship of the Group of 20 in 2023 was viewed as an event that would announce India’s arrival at the global high table. Yet, all the glitz and elan of the G-20 summit has been dissipated by the manner in which the United States, Canada and their allies have exposed the present government’s underhand dealings overseas.

The questioning of India on the Pannun and Nijjar assassination plots comes on top of repeated questions being raised around the world about the Narendra Modi government’s human rights record, its adherence to democratic values and protection of the rights of minorities. India may have become more powerful, but the Indian government today is seen as having lesser legitimacy.

Even at home, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is without doubt the most powerful PM India has had since Independence. The administrative and political power he has assimilated in his hands and office is more than the power enjoyed both by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Yet, the manner in which Mr Modi has sought to sideline his own council of ministers, weaken federal institutions, empower the arms of the State and, finally, delegitimise the parliamentary opposition have together cast a long shadow on the legitimacy of the government.

For how long can nations and leaders sustain their power if their legitimacy is under question? Can legitimacy be acquired merely through the exercise of power?

These questions raise further questions about the role of each of the institutions of the State and society. Can the legitimacy of the State as a whole be enhanced by delegitimising any one of its institutions – be it the executive, judiciary and legislature? Can a government secure greater power by delegitimising the media and institutions of civil society?

The year 2023 will be remembered for having raised all these questions about the global order and our Republic. It remains to be seen if some answers will come our way in 2024. The conduct and results of elections in several countries, including the United States and India, can help answer some of these questions.