How we map the world, its regions, its states, is as much an act of the imagination as it is a product of empirical fact or of the effects of power. Once put in place, such mappings appear solid and immovable; yet they are always changeable, and at certain critical moments may change with astonishing speed. How those changes play out, whether the newly installed world picture bends more to the force of power, or embodies an imaginative vision, will depend in part on the imaginative resources available at the time. In that sense, what we call geopolitics is as much about belief as it is about physical power and space.

The cosmopolitans: (from left) Nehru, Tagore and Gandhi all sought a deep imaginative engagement with the wider horizons of Asia.

Yet there is a persisting unclarity to Obama’s vision. And now, with Osama’s death, with the demise of the idea of Democrats Sans Frontieres popularized by the Bush administration, with Europe’s wobbly sense of itself, with a series of revolutions under way in the Arab world that are redrawing its contours, and with China’s search for an alternative world order which gives it greater primacy, it is not an idle matter to ask ourselves: Do we have any imagined map of the world of our own—one that can guide us to act so as to reshape the world in better ways?

Also Read Sunil Khilnani’s earlier Lounge columns

Today’s geopolitical map is a motley combination of expansive state associations such as the UN, alongside more exclusive clubs, driven by region and interest: BRICS, IBSA, G-20. These associational experiments, largely the concoction of policy wonks and bureaucrats, have a certain interest, but don’t reflect any compellingly imagined world map: In fact, they are symptomatic of the absence of any such map. Until such groupings can carry imaginative potency, they will not acquire wider resonance. Bookending these associational efforts are two classical powers, both with their worldviews in flux: the US, reassessing its place in the world as it senses the limits of its power, and China, humming with various strong internal impulses that produce an overall effect at once inchoate and unsettling.

It’s an opportune moment, yet we are showing little imagination. The conventional Indian answer to the question of what sort of world we might want to see is a rather stale bureaucratic one. Our standard line is: We want a multipolar world, with power evenly diffused to sovereign states. To that end, we follow policies (even those not entirely consistent): We seem to continue to believe that the UN Security Council is the Valhalla of international power, while at the same time strolling into whatever new club will have us. We flirt multilateral, and date bilateral.

In trying to work out for ourselves how we might like the world to look, we need to allow ourselves—at least as a thought experiment—to get beyond both the inherited and often nostalgic frames that have guided our foreign policy, as well as the vocabulary of alliances and strategic partnerships that dominate today’s global power play.

Certainly in our past history we’ve had individuals who have proposed strong alternative imaginings of the world map—resisting the grip of the dominant conceptions of the day, based as they usually are on nation states and the supposedly inevitable structures associated with them. Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, moved from an early belief in the British empire as a genuine Commonwealth in which all its members would have equal rights (during World War I he urged Indians to declare loyalty to King and Emperor, as he did himself) to, briefly, an endorsement of the idea of a restituted Caliphate which he imagined would form a unity with India against British domination—before coming still later to a view of India as a large civilizational space, not confined by the boundary police that states rely upon (after India’s Partition, Gandhi believed he’d be able to travel to Pakistan without anything like a passport). Jawaharlal Nehru, for his part, envisaged a world in which Asia, led by China and India, would be the prime mover; and in the context of the Cold War, where newer and weaker states like India and China had little chance to assert themselves, he tried to create an alternative space through the concept of non-alignment.

In this May month of his 150th birth anniversary, it would be equally interesting to re-examine some of Rabindranath Tagore’s conceptions of the world and India’s place in it: not least because of his interest in Asia, particularly in Japan and in China—a region and, in China’s case, a country, that will play large determining roles in our future.

Tagore’s sense of the world moved from—and between—a strong sense of the local, anchored in his own Bengali language and culture, and a deep imaginative engagement with the wider horizons of Asia and the world. Like Gandhi, Tagore was a parochial cosmopolitan. And as with Gandhi, Tagore’s sense of the world was not confined by the limits of the nation state: His imagination, formed in the heyday of the world’s largest, and most internally diverse empire—the British empire—saw the diversity he valued as best served by large, baggy territorial units—somewhat like empires. Civilizations were safer containers for plural cultures; unlike the new, culturally exclusive model of the nation state that had come to grip the imagination of Europe and now, to Tagore’s chagrin, was also spreading like a contagion across Asia. As against this Tagore himself advocated a notion of pan-Asianism, a romantic view of spiritual and aesthetic linkages that stretched from Bamiyan to Bali, from Nalanda to Nara.

What are the imaginative resources for Indian thinking about Asia? A fundamental question turns on whether “Asia" might refer to some common essence stretching across this huge amorphous territorial and cultural space—Confucian ties and links that unify, as the Chinese would like to imagine, or, even more hopefully, some common Buddhist heritage? Or, in the absence of any such element, is Asia simply a term to refer to an amalgam of many nation states that happen to inhabit a part of the world that Europeans called Asia—states which, for their own diverse interests, may or may not wish to come together?

In China and Japan, emperors and intellectuals over the past two centuries and more sought to identify their own place in the world by engaging with the puzzle of their relationship to Asia. Should they seek an escape from Asia, in order to modernize, or should they incorporate Asia and use it to achieve their modernizing aspirations? In the early decades of the last century, the Japanese pursued plans to dominate Asia, to create a Japanese imperium in the form of Greater East Asia—a project that ended in disaster. In China, leading intellectuals imagined an Asia united in revolutionary struggle, led by a vanguard of Chinese liberators—an internationalist dream that ended in failure.

As it happens, I think Tagore’s optimistic pan-Asianism is, in terms of its contemporary relevance, probably pretty much as defunct an idea as is the abhorrent idea of Greater East Asia and the at least as depressing notion of revolutionary internationalism. The point of alluding to Tagore’s vision is not to rehearse such imaginings for present purposes, but to see them as staging points in a cumulative history of Indian thinking about our place in Asia and the world. Only then can we begin to develop, out of that distinctive history, our own vocabulary and mapping, rather than struggling to adopt conceptual structures formed in other contexts, driven by other needs—the language, for instance, of the contemporary profession of international relations.

Today, the question of Asia has been reduced to a sequence of regionalisms, framed around regional markets, security alliances and financial stability. The political and economic interests embodied here remain fundamental. But if the idea of Asia is to provide the basis for real regional connections and cooperation, it will need more.

We need to reimagine our own immediate neighbourhood; and Asia itself. That means creating a mapping in which China can figure differently from how it is conventionally seen by Indians. If, for instance, we think of ourselves more as a sea-bound and oceanic nation, rather than a defender of a beleaguered northern mountain border, just imagine how much we could expand our greater capacities—both positive and restraining—in relation to, for example, China.

So one crucial shift in our imagination would be to open our thinking more towards the oceans and the seas. And as it happens, Tagore is one of the great poets of water—some of his most powerful images are of rivers and oceans.

Shaping the world order is certainly about producing the goods and providing the services it needs, and about the ability to command military force. These are necessary strengths, but they are not sufficient. Shaping the world order is as much about shaping intellectual frameworks: by producing the conceptual resources—the maps—that come to define that order. In that task, there is still much work to be done.

Sunil Khilnani is director-designate, India Institute, King’s College, London. Write to him at