Defining National Power and Capability

In his classic treatise on Power, Bertrand Russell suggested that just as the concept of ‘energy’ is fundamental to an understanding of physics, the concept of ‘power’ is fundamental to an understanding of society. “Like energy, power has many forms, such as wealth, armaments, civil authority, influence on opinion…….. The laws of social dynamics are laws which can only be stated in terms of power, not in terms of this or that form of power.” 1 Russell believed that no one form of power can be regarded as subordinate to any other.

In Russell’s view the military, economic, governmental and ideological power of the State taken together would define national power. It may be argued that scientific and technological power gets subsumed under all four, but for greater clarity it is best to separate it out, given the weight of technology in defining national capability. Thus, National Power may be seen as a sum of a nation’s military, economic, administrative, scientific and technological and ideological capabilities.

Not surprisingly, each of these aspects of power appears as a factor in the concept of national power defined by American, Chinese and Indian strategists. In a paper written for RAND, a think tank that has served the United States Air Force since the Second World War, Ashley Tellis defined ‘national power’ as “A country’s capacity to pursue strategic goals through purposeful action. This view of national power suggests two distinct but related dimensions of capacity: an external dimension, which consists of a nation’s capacity to affect the global environment through its economic, political, and military potential; and an internal dimension, which consists of a nation’s capacity to transform the resources of its society into ‘actionable knowledge’ that produces the best civilian and military technologies possible. Any effort at creating a useful national power profile must incorporate variables that capture these two dimensions.” 2

China and India too have developed their own concepts of national power in the context of a global re-assessment of what constitutes ‘national power’ in the post-Cold War world and following the Asian & Trans-Atlantic financial crises. The Chinese were particularly innovative when they proposed the concept of Comprehensive National Power (CNP), developed at the China Academy of Social Sciences. CNP was also defined in Russellian terms of being a combination of military, economic, scientific and technological, administrative and diplomatic capabilities of a nation. CASS developed a CNP index that was a weighted average of eight variables: Natural resources (0.08), domestic economic capability (0.28), external economic capability (0.13), scientific and technological capability (0.15), social development (0.10), military capability (0.10), government capability (0.08) and foreign affairs capability (0.08). All adding up to 1. 3 This original version has gone through many iterations as Chinese views on the relative importance of these factors changed. Two detailed studies on CNP have been done at USI and CLAWS. 4

Independent of US and Chinese efforts at defining ‘national power’ in the post-Cold War era we began our own effort through the institution of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB). Constituted in December 1998, in the aftermath of India declaring itself a nuclear power, the NSAB was tasked to draft a report on national security. As convenor of the Group on Economic Security I was tasked to write the chapter on economic power of the Strategic Defence Review (SDR), submitted to the government in 2000.

In writing our chapter we were inspired by Kautilya’s Arthashastra that first postulated, “From the strength of the treasury the army is born. ….… Men without wealth do not attain their objectives even after hundreds of trials …… Only through wealth can material gains be acquired, as elephants (wild) can be captured only by elephants (tamed).”   Taking the view that the word ‘strength’ and the word ‘treasury’ have a wider meaning, that Kautilya’s statement refers to the wider economic and fiscal capacity of the State and Nation, our chapter began as follows:

Economic power is the cornerstone of a nation’s power in the contemporary world. The economic size of a nation matters and is an important element of national security. Low economic growth, low productivity of capital and labour, inadequate investment in human capital and human capability and a reduced share of world trade have contributed to the marginalisation of the Indian economy in the world economy. ……. China’s sustained economic growth of the past quarter century has increased its economic, political and strategic profile in Asia and the world. If the Indian economy does not catch up with China, in terms of economic growth and human capability, its wider security and global profile may be seriously challenged.

Accepting this view and the importance of investing in ‘comprehensive national power’ the National Security Council commissioned an exercise to construct an index of national power. Edited annually by Professor Satish Kumar the Indian National Security Annual Review has been publishing from time to time the changing indeces of national power. 5 Whatever the merits or limitations of such an index a policy fallout of the focus on comprehensive national power has been the importance accorded over the past two decades to economic performance, institutional capacity and human capability in defining national power.

The end of the Cold War and the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, which in part contributed to the rise in Chinese power within Asia, were the context for much of the theorising on power in the 1990s. 6 The Trans-Atlantic financial crisis of 2008, with its disruptive impact on the Trans-Atlantic economies and further accentuation of China’s geo-economic power, only increased the relevance of economic performance to national power and became the backdrop for the emergence of new thinking on geo-economics. 7

In 2011, the Union ministry of finance commissioned a study on the evolving dynamics of global economic power in the period after the trans-Atlantic financial crisis (2008-09), offering a new Index of Government Economic Power (IGEP). The IGEP comprised of four variables: government revenues, foreign currency reserves, export of goods and services, and human capital. These variables, the report argued, “broadly reflect aspects that contribute to a government’s economic clout, voice and negotiating leverage by capturing elements like its ability to raise resources, its creditworthiness and credibility in international financial markets, its influence on global economic activity and its potential in terms of human resources.” 8

Without getting detained by disputations on the various indices of power, it would be more useful to consider the manner in which the thinking on national security has been altered by attempts at its redefinition and measurement. The most significant impact on global thinking has been that of China’s CNP because Chinese power, as of now and the foreseeable future, is in fact defined by all the elements of CNP and not just military power.

The historical context in which the CNP was proposed as a measure of national power must be kept in mind. The Cold War ended not because the US defeated the Soviets on any given front but because the Soviet Union imploded. At the time the Soviet Union imploded the biggest worry for the United States was the economic competition from Japan and the unification of Europe under the aegis of a resurgent Germany. In the Second World War the Soviets were victors, the Japanese and the Germans the vanquished. Less than half a century later, Japan and Germany had emerged as new global growth engines, challenging US dominance of the world economy, while the Soviet Union lay in tatters. Deng Xiaopeng drew the right lessons.

China had already embarked on a campaign of economic, military, scientific and technological modernisation. Its leadership understood that China may well emerge as the world’s biggest nation and economy, but was far behind the US in terms of military, scientific and technological and soft power. It therefore enhanced its geo-economic power as a means of acquiring geopolitical power. The 2008 Trans-Atlantic crisis further accentuated China’s geo-economic power.

China, to be sure, invested both in its military capability and in its economic capability. If there is a weakness in the Chinese model it is that China’s economy has become globally dependent while at the same time raising global concerns about its rising power and assertiveness. This would explain US President Donald Trump launching a ‘trade war’ against China. His strategy echoes Edward Luttwak’s concept of applying “the logic of strategy in the grammar of commerce, by restricting Chinese exports into their markets, denying raw materials as far as possible, and stopping whatever technology transfers China would still need.” 9

For these very reasons China has not only tried to re-orient its economy towards domestic consumption-led growth but through the Belt and Road Initiative seeks to create new relations of inter-dependence across Eurasia. China makes it a point to remind trading nations that it is not only the world’s largest exporter but also the world’s biggest importer. Its ability to export cheap and import big is what has helped lock developing economies into its orbit.

The experience of the post-Cold War period does bear out the relevance of the Chinese concept of CNP.  We would do well to constantly measure ourselves on this scale to see where we stand and what we need to do. Consider each of the eight parameters and see how India fares on each of them:

  1. Natural resources                                        – Deficient on per capita basis
  2. Domestic economic capability                   – Improving, more needs to be done
  3. External economic capability                     – Improving, more needs to be done
  4. Scientific and technological capability       – Weak
  5. Social development                                     – Inadequate attention to education
  6. Military capability                                        – Make in India needed
  7. Government capability                               – Governance reform needed
  8. Diplomatic capability                                   – Limited by economic capability

Even as India emerges as the world’s most populous and youngest nation, inadequate investment in the eight parameters of CNP constrains India’s emergence as a global power. Two critical areas of CNP to which we need to pay particular attention are human capability and quality of governance, or what the CNP calls ‘social development’ and ‘government capability’. Both are vital to national power and power projection.

An important asset for India that enhances its national power potential is its social resilience. Despite a wide range of inadequacies and shortcomings, internal conflicts and external threats, Indian society has been remarkably resilient. India’s democratic and social institutions have enabled this resilience, despite all their flaws and shortcomings. They have allowed Indian society and polity to absorb a range of shocks – economic, political, communal, natural disasters, and so on. India’s political and social resilience within the framework of a plural democracy is a source of national power. Indeed, resilience is a more enduring feature of power than strength. This could well be one dimension of power along which India is ahead of China. However, this cannot be taken for granted and such resilience is a function of the quality of governance. Going forward social resilience has to be matched with greater state capacity and human capability.


Y.K. Gera, S Dewan and P.K. Singh (Editors), Comprehensive National Power: A Model for India, USI of India, VIJ Books, New Delhi, 2014

1 Bertrand Russell, Power, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1938.

2 Ashley Tellis, Measuring National Power in the Post-Industrial Age, RAND, 2000. Accessed at:

3 Huang Suofeng, New Theory on Comprehensive National Power: CNP of China, China Social Sciences Press, Beijing, 1999. Quoted in Hu Angang & Men Honghua, The Rising of Modern China: Comprehensive National Power and Grand Strategy, Tsinghua University, 2002. Accessed at:

4 J.S. Bajwa, Defining Elements of Comprehensive National Power, CLAWS, 2008.   Accessed at:

5 Satish Kumar (Editor), Indian National Security Annual Review, Routledge, India (Since 2004).

6 See for example Arvind Virmani, “Global Power from the 18th to 21st Century: Power Potential (VIP2 ), Strategic Assets & Actual Power (VIP), ICRIER Working Paper No. 175, 2005. Accessed at:  And, Karl Hwang, Measuring Geopolitical Power in India: A Review of the National Security Index (NSI), German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Working Paper No. 136, 2010. Accessed at:

7 See Sanjaya Baru, Strategic Consequences of India’s Economic Performance, Academic Foundation, New Delhi, 2006; and  Sanjaya Baru, India and the World: Essays on Geo-economics and Foreign Policy, Academic Foundation, New Delhi, 2016. Chapters 1 & 2.

8 Kaushik Basu, et al,  “The evolving dynamics of global economic power in the post-crisis world: Revelations from a new Index of Government Economic Power” (2011). Accessed at:

9 Edward Luttwak, The Rise of China vs The Logic of Strategy, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, USA, 2012. Page 166

Download White Paper

Leave a Reply

Related Articles
Editor: Lakshmi Ravi
May 29, 2020
Dr. Amitabh Mattoo, Professor for International Relations at the University of Melbourne, in conversation with Taarush Kishore Jain, Strategic Consultant and Editor at the ISPP Policy Review on foreign policy implications of the Covid-19 crisis. They discuss the future of India-China and India-US relations, accountability for WHO, maintaining stability in Kashmir and India's position in the new world order.
March 9, 2020
The institution of the Chief of Defence Staff is widely being touted as a pathbreaking reform for India’s national security apparatus. This article explores what prompted the need for this reform and how the creation of such an authority may bring much-needed streamlining in the military bureaucracy. It also delves into the potential gains this move may bring vis-à-vis arms procurement and defence exports from India.
Close Menu