Painting Nationalism in the 19th Century

Three places, three artists, a 75-year time span, one recurring artistic motif: depicting an entire nation through a female figure.


Eugène Delacroix, “La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple” [Liberty Leading the People], 1830.


John Gast, “American Progress,” 1872.


Abanindranath Tagore, “Bharat Matā” [Mother India], 1905.

And the legacies of all three depictions, all of which resonated widely at the time they were produced, continue to produce effects over a hundred years later, for both good and ill.

What’s in a (Region’s) Name? How an Australian Diplomatic Triumph from the 1990s Poses a Warning for Indian Foreign Policy Today has kindly published a piece of mine about how the names we give to different regions of the world matter.  I’m reprinting it here in case it would be of interest to this blog’s readers.


In the 1990s, Australian policymakers faced a serious problem.  They were increasingly being sidelined in important decisions in the rapidly growing regions of Southeast and East Asia.  As a mostly white, settler nation, Australia was left out of Southeast Asia’s preeminent regional grouping, ASEAN, despite its geographic proximity.  And on the occasions when Australian politicians and diplomats were able to participate in pan-Asian gatherings, they ran headfirst into the exclusionary “Asian values” discourses of leaders such as Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.  Isolated and peripheral, Australia risked missing out on one of the greatest economic booms in world history.

Under Foreign Minister Gareth Evans (1988-1996), Australian diplomats deliberately sought to counter these trends by promoting the idea of an “Asia-Pacific region,” whose membership would depend less on culture than on geography.  They figured that while some might deny that Australia was an “Asian” country, it would be much harder to refute its location in the Pacific Ocean.  Significant rhetorical, financial, and institutional resources were devoted to facilitating the emergence of the new concept, and to provide it with an institutional anchor Australia championed the newly-formed Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping.

Not all of the aims of the Australian Foreign Ministry ultimately succeeded.  For instance, APEC subsequently lost a lot of its initial momentum and has been eclipsed by rival forums, such as the ASEAN+ formats.  But the concept of an “Asia-Pacific region,” which Australia naturally belongs to, has firmly taken hold and seems uncontroversial today (see the figure at the end of this article).  Ultimately, a seemingly innocuous name change helped Australia to achieve a deeper level of economic and political integration with its neighbors than ever before.  Indeed, the invention of an “Asia-Pacific region,” practically out of whole cloth, was probably one of Australia’s most significant diplomatic feats in the 20th century.

The case of Australia in the 1990s has great relevance for Indian diplomacy today, but in an inverted fashion.  Australia’s problem was that the country did not fit well into the existing regional frameworks, and it took significant resources to change that perception.  India’s problem is that although it is already linguistically and geographically at the heart of an impressive region—the Indian Ocean region—it does not always avail itself of easy opportunities to ensure that things stay that way.

It is an incredible boon to Indian policymakers that the body of water between Cape Agulhas and the Straits of Malacca is referred to around the world as the Indian Ocean.  Not only does it help keep India’s name at the forefront of people’s minds, it semantically signals that India has a preeminent role to play in shaping affairs everywhere from Maputo to Perth.  While the appellation of the South China Sea grows more contested every year, there are currently no serious efforts to rename India’s ocean.  But there could be some day!  The relatively rapid invention of the “Asia-Pacific region” should remind Indian diplomats that without rhetorically and financially tending to the concept of an “Indian Ocean region,” it could conceivably be called “the West China Sea,” “the East African Ocean,” or even “the Bay of Pakistan” in a few decades’ time.

To its credit, the Modi government seems to recognize this, having embraced India’s role as an emerging naval power much more seriously than previous Indian governments.  The Prime Minister has repeatedly spoken of India’s role in helping ensure “Security and Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR, a play on the Hindi word for “sea”).  Military cooperation with other littoral states has increased significantly, and the Indian government is also helping the region’s small island states develop “blue economies” that make better use of the Ocean’s potential riches.  Furthermore, Prime Minister Modi has wisely accorded the Indian Ocean region priority in his foreign travels, conducting state visits to Sri Lanka (the first visit by an Indian head of government in 28 years), the Seychelles (33 years), Australia (28 years), and Mauritius (although not the Maldives).

Still, there remain a great deal of low-hanging fruits that Indian diplomats are not picking.  For instance, the Indian Ocean Commission (more usually referred to by its French name, Commission de l’Océan Indien) is a regional grouping comprised of Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles, and Réunion (an overseas region of France).  Despite its SAGAR policy, India has never applied for membership or even observer status in the IOC; meanwhile, the European Union provides the Commission with millions of Euros every year and maintains significant influence in those countries.

A bigger prize is the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).  Founded in the mid-1990s at the instigation of South African President Nelson Mandela and Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, the organization is the closest entity the Indian Ocean has to a bona fide regional organization à la ASEAN or Mercosur.  Today the organization has 20 members and conducts periodic meetings, but it has not lived up to the high hopes of its founders.  Despite promising work in technical areas, like fisheries management and maritime search and rescue, IORA has not carved out a role for itself in helping to manage the region’s trade flows or political disputes.  Perhaps part of the reason it has failed to capture the public imagination is that its meetings have been conducted only at the level of foreign ministers, at least until now.  Indonesia, which currently holds the association’s rotating chair, will host a high-level summit of IORA in Jakarta in early March.  The Prime Minister’s Office has yet to announce whether or not Mr. Modi will be in attendance.  It would be a shame, however, if he did not go, given the rare opportunity to further promote the importance of the Indian Ocean region and highlight India’s role therein.

If India does not do more to shape its namesake region, others will happily step up to rechristen it, with unpredictable political and economic ramifications.  The time to act is now.  Already those wily Australian diplomats have for several years been hard at work on a new scheme: promoting a novel “Indo-Pacific region” which, conveniently, they would be at the heart of.
Regional Names.jpg

Which Countries Should Make the Cut?

Suppose you wanted to teach a schoolchild about the countries of the world, but had to limit yourself to only 54 countries.  Which countries would you pick?  To be sure, everyone will answer this question differently based on where they live, their family’s history, what languages they speak, what sports they follow, and many other factors.  Still, I think it’s fairly safe to say that the U.S., China, and Russia would make almost everyone’s lists.  And other major global powerhouses like Germany, Japan, India, France, the U.K., and Brazil would more often than not make the cut.  Meanwhile, for better or worse, poor Kiribati, Guyana, and the Gambia are usually going to be left out.

I ask this question because my awesome Hindi teacher recently gave me a poster that is typical of those used to teach Indian schoolchildren about the world:flags

It’s interesting to reflect on the choices the poster’s designer made when coming up with his or her 54 picks.  From my perspective, some are inspired, but a few are rather questionable.

For instance, I love that the designer included the U.N. flag!  Also, given that it’s intended for an Indian audience, having India’s neighbors (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Mauritius, Myanmar, Nepal,* Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) is important.  And whether intended or not, it’s a nice touch that three of the countries that were founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement alongside Jawaharlal Nehru’s India are all here: Indonesia, Egypt, and Ghana (R.I.P. Yugoslavia!).

Looking beyond India’s immediate neighbors, though, the situation gets a bit murkier. Europe is arguably over-represented, with 14** countries out of the 54, including very surprising picks like Cyprus and Hungary (but not Spain).  With the exception of Afghanistan, Central Asia is per usual ignored, despite the fact that Tajikistan is  a stone’s throw from Kashmir.  Refreshingly, sub-Saharan Africa is actually relatively well-represented (with 5 or 6 countries, depending on how you count Mauritius), but the picks are kind of odd: Zambia and Ethiopia make the cut, but not Nigeria.

Perhaps the weirdest region of all is the Americas south of Mexico: the only two other Latin American countries listed are Cuba and Panama!!  Where’s Brazil, the world’s fifth largest country by both population and area?  Or Argentina?  At first I thought someone at the Panamanian Embassy in New Delhi had cleverly paid off the city’s educational printers, but a bit of research suggests that there may be more going on here than I first realized.  According to this surprisingly detailed Wikipedia page, one of the largest communities of Indians in the Americas is located in Panama City and traces its origins back to Sikh laborers brought in to help build the Panama Canal.  Apparently relations between the two countries are a flourishing example of South-South cooperation.

Who knows, perhaps there’s similarly cool things underlying some of the other apparently odd choices on this poster.  But I stand by my statement that Hungary really shouldn’t have made the cut, lol…


* Nepal has a cool flag!
** Not including Turkey, Russia, or Israel.

GDP Sure Stinks as Our Go-To Measure of Economic Activity

Measuring the size of national economies is hard.  That’s clearly true in the case of developing countries, where underlying economic data is often not available, made-up, or deliberately manipulated.  But even for rich countries it’s difficult to know how to factor in all the different kinds of economic activity humans engage in.  How should the value of multinational corporations be divvied up across the various countries they are present in?  How should public goods provided by the state be valued?  Should you attempt to measure non-market transactions, like the labor traditionally provided by “stay-at-home” mothers?  What about accounting for negative externalities, like the increasing threat of climate change?  What base year should you use?  And how should you deal with (highly variable) exchange rates?  The Economist recently asked if Brexit had helped France’s economy overtake the U.K.’s, and the best it could come up with was a tepid “probably”.

Every now and then methodological changes by national statistical authorities visibly highlight the artificiality of GDP figures. Consider the following few cases:

  • On November 5, 2010, Ghanaians went to bed thinking their country had a GDP per capita of about $753, placing them among the poorest countries in the world.  The next morning they woke up, however, to newspaper accounts proclaiming that the National Statistics Office had changed the base year for calculating GDP from 1993 to 2006, which (along with other methodological changes) had caused the country’s per capita GDP estimate to jump to $1318.  Overnight Ghana had become a solidly middle-income country!  Woohoo!
  • A recent European change in the way the investments of multinational corporations are counted in GDP figures caused Ireland’s GDP to grow by 26% in 2015…  at least on paper.  But, as an economist at University College Dublin tactfully put it, “It’s complete bullshit!”
  • Speaking of bovine shit, India’s 2015 GDP revisions for the first time officially included the value of the “organic manure” that the country’s livestock produce.  Just like that, India’s GDP increased by 9.1 billion rupees (roughly $135 million), but not before some serious academic work had been done calculating the “average evacuation rates” of various species (who says academics never have any fun!).  The Wall Street Journal has a good primer on India’s new GDP figures… and how other “real-world” statistics like the quantity of exports don’t seem to corroborate them much.

Perhaps the solution, then, should be to just get rid of GDP altogether, as more and more people are suggesting.  But then how would the hordes of quantitatively-minded political science Ph.D.s indulge in their favorite pastime of building econometric castles out of data made of sand?