Emerging Dynamics of Conflict and Cooperation in a Post-Hegemonic Age: A Kautilyan Perspective on BRICS

Dated Published: August 2019


This paper theorises international relations using the perspective of an Indian classic, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, and employs such interpretation to conceptualise BRICS (or the association of emerging economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). As a litmus test for the analytical viability of the Kautilyan perspective developed here, the paper examines what might be called “the BRICS paradox”: the mismatch between theoretical expectations about the nature of BRICS and the ambiguous empirical evidence about it. From the Kautilyan perspective, and in particular seen through the framework of multiple and overlapping mandalas, BRICS can be redefined as a novel type of international agent that reflects the emergence of pluralist global politics. Having sought to test Kautilyan concepts in the contemporary context, the paper confirms the analytical value of the ancient theorisations, their potential for contemporary IR scholarship as well as strategic foreign policy analysis in a pluralistic international order in a post-hegemonic era.

(This paper is part of ORF's series, 'India and the Study of International Relations':



The question of how global power transitions affect the liberal international order has long been a subject of enquiry for scholars of international relations (IR). The realist perspective tends to emphasise the geopolitical and competitive dimension of the rise of the emerging powers and their formation of new international institutions.

Those who focus on institutional and normative continuities, for their part, are keen to point out that none of the emerging powers or new initiatives has directly sought to oppose or reform the institutional bedrock of global governance. Still others have focused on ideational and conceptual transformations. Echoing Huntington’s observations about the empowerment of cultural identities, scholars like Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan have argued that there is a growing interest in local perspectives to IR theories and a demand for a global IR built on a dialogue between them and the established Western perspectives. The grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China in 2006, and later South Africa in 2010, referred to as BRICS, illustrates these transformations.

Yet, the conundrum of global power transitions, and new international institutions like BRICS and their implications for the liberal international order, remains an object of empirical and conceptual debate. This paper offers an additional conceptual perspective to these debates. Its objective is a conceptual analysis of an Indian classic,
Kautilya’s Arthashastra, to develop a local perspective to BRICS studies, and the study of international relations in general.

There are at least three reasons why a local perspective on BRICS studies is useful. First is the lack of broadly accepted theorisations about BRICS and the persistent debate about its political nature.

Second is the uncertainty over the application of Kautilyan conceptualisations on BRICS: It is unknown whether Kautilya can be useful in BRICS studies, what results a Kautilyan perspective yields and how it relates to other interpretations. The ambiguous notion that BRICS scholarship has not been conceptually saturated, which underpins the above reasoning, provides a third and more general argument for the task in this analysis.

To be sure, BRICS has been subjected to various, sometimes contradictory, conceptualisations. Some scholars have interpreted it as a challenger to Western dominance and the promoter of a new international order. Others have claimed it to be more of a paper tiger as its members are quarrelsome, to begin with, and tended to support the existing liberal institutions. Moreover, while BRICS has succeeded in creating two new financial institutions, the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA), it has not
produced a BRICS Consensus, leaving critics of neo-liberal development policies disappointed. Against this background, some scholars have sought to describe these different and conflicting interpretations as “the BRICS paradox”, deriving from certain theoretical premises about international relations that pose expectations and lead to interpretations that do not match with the reality.

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