On liberal nationalism

Connecting liberalism, nationalism and realism

Let’s start with an axiom: all individuals are free, and from this freedom, they possess certain inalienable rights. They possess these rights and freedoms at all times, but in a state of nature, their ability to enjoy the freedom and exercise the rights is circumscribed by their individual power. In Indian philosophy, the state of nature is termed as matsya nyaya, or the law of the fishes, a condition under which the stronger fish eats the weaker fish. Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, describes this as the time when “men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man (bellum omnium contra omnes).” Life, therefore, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

To better enjoy their rights and freedoms, individuals trade-off a part of their freedom for the security offered by a state. Hence Kautilya writes

People suffering from anarchy as illustrated by the proverbial tendency of a large fish swallowing a small one (matsyanyayabhibhutah prajah), first elected Manu, the Vaivasvata, to be their king; and allotted one-sixth of the grains grown and one-tenth of merchandise as sovereign dues. Fed by this payment, kings took upon themselves the responsibility of maintaining the safety and security of their subjects (yogakshemavah), and of being answerable for the sins of their subjects when the principle of levying just punishments and taxes has been violated.[Arthashastra I:13]

In Western philosophy, this trade-off forms the basis of social contract theories. In Leviathan, Hobbes argues that individuals cede all their rights in return for protection to a sovereign who is himself above the law. John Locke, writing after Hobbes, is more moderate: in his view, individuals surrender only some of their rights to a government that rules by the consent of the governed.

This trade-off forms the basis of modern liberal democratic states. The exact implementation differs from state to state, and depends on a number of factors. But most often, the social contract is codified in a constitution. Constitutions are not, and do not have to be either perfect or immutable. To varying degrees, they affirm the rights of the individual and offer an enlightened method to settle the differences between the interests of individuals. In sharp contrast to Hobbes’ Leviathan, modern constitutions also, to varying degrees, make the government itself subject to the rule of law.

The upshot is that the state is necessary for the practical enjoyment of individual rights and freedoms. The survival and security of the state—often termed “the national interest”—is directly connected to the ability of citizens to enjoy their freedom. Put in another way, the “national interest” is the well-being and development of all its citizens.

If we adopt this people-centric definition of the national interest, how should one regard territory? Is territorial integrity uncompromisable? Not quite. To the extent territory is necessary for the well-being and development of all citizens, holding the territory is in the national interest. Where territorial compromises enhance the well-being of citizens, they are in the national interest. In the state-centric formulation, the objective question is whether acquiring, keeping or parting with a particular piece of land enhances the survival and security of the state, or not.

While the establishment of a state allows individuals to enjoy their rights—abridged as they are—the relationship between states remains in the world of matsya nyaya or anarchy. To an extent, the development of international law and institutions like the United Nations allow states to pursue ‘rules-based’ relations. But the ultimate arbiter of international relations is power. It follows that to protect its national interests—whether expressed in the people-centric or state-centric terms—states have to maximise their power relative to others. This results in an international balance-of-power, which can be stable or unstable depending on the power dynamics obtaining at a particular moment in time. The objective of the state then, is to maximise its own power to ensure that the international balance-of-power is in its favour.

This is how liberalism, nationalism and realism are connected with each other. Liberalism (or libertarianism, in its American usage) is concerned about individual freedom. To enjoy freedom in practice, the individual gives up some of it to the state. The state, a nation-state in India’s case, exists to ensure the rights, freedoms and well-being (yogakshema) of its people. So ensuring the survival and security of the Indian state—by maximising its relative power internationally—is wholly consistent with allowing its citizens to live in freedom.

Reading the Arthashastra: sovereignty, power and happiness

Rediscovering Indian Realism: the elevation of happiness

Just why does a state need a foreign policy? Foreign policy, according to Kautilya is the “source” of peace and economic growth.

Acquisition and security (of property) are dependent upon peace and industry.

Efforts to achieve the results of works undertaken is industry (vyayama).

Absence of disturbance to the enjoyment of the results achieved from works is peace.

The application of the six-fold royal policy is the source of peace and industry. [Arthashastra,VI:2]

These four lines underline a profound political philosophy: that the fundamental objective of foreign policy should be to allow the nation to acquire and secure material gains, through economic growth and peace. Peace itself is defined as the undisturbed ability to enjoy the fruits of economic growth.

Depending on the direction of a state’s economy, Kautilya places them in three “positions”— deterioration, stagnation and progress. Foreign policy does not merely depend on the state’s absolute position—but its relative position vis-a-vis its allies, adversaries and other states in the international system. For instance, if pursuing a particular policy hurts the enemy more than it hurts the protagonist, Kautilya argues that the temporary losses may be neglected. Similarly, if two adversaries expect to acquire equal gains in the same period, he advocates that they make peace with each other. Obviously, if a policy hurts the protagonist but hurts the enemy less, then that policy must be abandoned.

The bulk of Book VII deals with the six policy options—peace, war, neutrality, marching (mobilisation), alliance and a dual strategy of pursuing war on one front and peace on the other—and how they might be applied in the contexts of relative deterioration, stagnation or progress.

In the Kautilyan framework, states have three elements: sovereignty, power and end. What goes into these elements is interesting.

Sovereignty is constituted by the king, the minister, the country, the fort, the treasury, the army and the friend. Translating them to the modern context is instructive. Taken together king and minister become president, prime minister and the Cabinet. Country in the Kautilyan sense is territory. It is interesting that he should split the fort and the army. A straightforward analogy would be defence and offence. But stretch it a little and we could conclude that the fort stands for deterrence and the army for compellence. In today’s context these would refer to the nuclear arsenal and the armed forces respectively.

The counter-intuitive component of Kautilyan sovereignty is the “friend”. In other words, there is an element of sovereignty that lies outside the state’s borders—it depends on the quality of the relationship the state has with others, and the quality of the states it has relationships with.

The second element—power—is defined simply as “strength”. It is of three kinds: intellectual strength that comes from the power of deliberation; the strength of sovereignty that comes from a strong finances and armed forces; and physical strength that comes from martial power. The first is the core of what contemporary scholars would describe as “soft power”; the second and third are aspects of “hard power”.

It is the third element of a state—the end—that is brilliant. Kautilya simply says “happiness is the end”. And there are three types of this end, corresponding to the type of power by which they are attainable.

And so we come to:

The possession of power and happiness in a greater degree makes a king superior to another; in a less degree, inferior; and in an equal degree, equal. Hence a king shall always endeavor to augment his own power and elevate his happiness. [Arthashastra, VI:2]

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

Reading the Arthashastra: friend, gold and territory

The rediscovery of Indian Realism—starting a new series

Dr Rudrapatna Shamasastry’s 1915 translation of Kautilya’s Arthashastra has long been available online. The Acorn will attempt to publish excerpts each weekend—for discovery, for learning and for enjoyment.

We start with Chapter IX (On “agreements for the acquisition of a friend or gold”) of Book VII (“The End of the Six-Fold Policy”). Books VI and VII largely concern what we would today call international relations theory. And be warned: this is the advice he offers to a sovereign—a king in his age, and the government in ours. So don’t try this at home or indiscriminately apply it to your personal life.

Of the three gains, the acquisition of a friend, of gold, and of territory, accruing from the march of combined powers, that which is mentioned later is better than the one previously mentioned; for friends and gold can be acquired by means of territory; of the two gains, that of a friend and of gold, each can be a means to acquire the other.

Which is better of the two: a friend of long-standing, but unsubmissive nature, or a temporary friend of submissive nature, both being acquired by affording relief from their respective troubles?

My teacher says that a long-standing friend of unsubmissive nature is better inasmuch as such a friend, though not helpful, will not create harm.

Not so, says Kautilya: a temporary friend of submissive nature is better; for such a friend will be a true friend so long as he is helpful; for the real characteristic of friendship lies in giving help.

Which is better, a big friend, difficult to be roused, or a small friend, easy to be roused?

My teacher says that a big friend, though difficult to be roused, is of imposing nature, and when he rises up, he can accomplish the work undertaken.

Not so, says Kautilya: a small friend easy to be roused is better, for such a friend will not, in virtue of his ready preparations, be behind the opportune moment of work, and can, in virtue of his weakness in power, be used in any way the conqueror may like; but not so the other of vast territorial power.

Which is better, a friend of vast population, or a friend of immense gold?

My teacher says that a friend of vast population is better inasmuch as such a friend will be of imposing power and can, when he rises up, accomplish any work undertaken.

Not so, says Kautilya: a friend possessing immense gold is better; for possession of gold is ever desirable; but an army is not always required. Moreover armies and other desired objects can be purchased for gold.

Which is better, a friend possessing gold, or a friend possessing vast territory?

My teacher says that a friend possessing gold can stand any heavy expenditure made with discretion.

Not so, says Kautilya: for it has already been stated that both friends and gold can be acquired by means of territory. Hence a friend of vast territory is far better.

When the friend of the conqueror and his enemy happen to possess equal population, their people may yet differ in possession of qualities such as bravery, power of endurance, amicableness, and qualification for the formation of any kind of army.

When the friends are equally rich in gold, they may yet differ in qualities such as readiness to comply with requests, magnanimous and munificent help, and accessibility at any time and always.

Which is better, an immediate small gain, or a distant large gain?

My teacher says that an immediate small gain is better, as it is useful to carry out immediate undertakings.

Not so, says Kautilya: a large gain, as continuous as a productive seed, is better; otherwise an immediate small gain. [Arthashastra Book VII]