Era of ‘middle powers’?

Published September 11, 2023
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

ARE ‘middle powers’ more important today in geopolitics? Which countries are middle powers and why do they have rising clout in the present era? How do we define them and assess their influence on the international stage? Is soft power also a factor in their global standing?

The notion of middle powers has long been around. But it has acquired new relevance in the current geopolitical context whose defining features are increasing multipolarity and the US-China competition. There is no consensus in the growing literature about how to define middle powers. However, there is general agreement that these countries are neither among the world’s superpowers nor are they small powers as they have the ability to influence geopolitics.

This is due to their economic strength, military muscle or other attributes, including demographic characteristics, regional weight, soft power, diplomatic conduct and activism. This gives them significant leverage in global affairs and ability to build multiple relationships.

They include countries from the developed world and Global South, such as Germany, Japan, Canada, Brazil, India, South Africa, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Indonesia. They are a heterogeneous group of countries with varying governance systems as well as political and strategic interests. Pakistan is in some respects a middle power but its economic weakness has significantly limited and diminished its global influence.

The global debate about the role of middle powers has intensified as a consequence of the US-China stand-off. This hasn’t mimicked the Cold War in terms of dividing the world into a ‘tight’ bipolarity. But, as several analysts have noted, it has, instead, offered opportunities and leeway to countries to increase their leverage by playing off that rivalry and pursuing an ‘independent’ path.

Moreover, structural changes and dispersal of power in the international system — the very currency of power also having changed — has created an enabling environment for middle power activism and for them to wield influence. As Alec Russell recently wrote in a thoughtful Financial Times op-ed, “The age of the Western set menu is over. And the new menu, while heavily influenced by two lead chefs, is still being written” — a reference to middle powers who now seek a seat at the table.

Last month’s BRICS summit in South Africa renewed focus on middle powers and their aspiration to reconfigure the global order and rewrite the rules of the game. Expansion of the group by addition of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Argentina, UAE and Ethiopia, with China working for enlargement, underlined how these emerging economies were seeking a bigger role by using the bloc as a countervailing force to US-led Western groupings, such as G7.

They also advocate reform of the international financial system and Bretton Woods institutions. As widely acknowledged, this expansion has increased the weight of BRICS, which represents over a quarter of the global economy and accounts for a major share of the world’s oil resources.

These countries are seeking to shape geopolitics by activist diplomacy in a multipolar world.

Among decisions to emerge from the Johannesburg summit was for finance ministers of member countries to explore how to reduce dependence on the US dollar. As Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president put it, “BRICS has embarked on a new chapter to build a world that is fair” and “inclusive”. Whether or not that ambition is realised, the bloc has become an important platform for middle powers to make their global presence felt.

While many middle powers are capitalising on the US-China competition to strengthen their bargaining position they also seek to enhance relations with both global powers. They want to avoid getting in the crosshairs of that confrontation but to also reap advantages from it. This has urged both the US and China to pay more attention to middle powers to ensure they don’t get entrenched in their rival’s camp.

Saudi Arabia’s recent foreign policy conduct offers a good example of how a middle power is manoeuvring in this geopolitical environment to position itself as a significant global player.

Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has pursued initiatives that have set a new foreign policy direction and raised its diplomatic game. Riyadh loosened its traditionally close ties with the US to significantly boost its economic ties with China. Its rapprochement with long-time regional rival Iran, brokered by China, greatly increased its leverage with Washington.

This development so alarmed the Biden administration that it urged Washington to hasten plans to pursue a ‘grand bargain’ in the Middle East. This involves Saudi Arabia normalising relations with Israel in return for a mutual security pact with the US and Riyadh committing to scale back ties with China. In fact, Riyadh is driving a tough bargain by making several demands — a defence pact with Washington, a civilian nuclear deal, missile defence system/ other high-tech weapons and substantial Israeli concessions for the Palestinians.

Whether or not this so-called ‘big deal’ materialises it shows how Saudi Arabia has deftly managed to position itself between the two superpowers and wield influence with both. Meanwhile, Riyadh has moved to boost oil prices, to Washington’s annoyance, but at the same time it is poised to join the US-devised infrastructure deal that will connect Arab countries by a railways network.

Turkey is another country adept at the middle power diplomatic game, which has been widely commented on. A member of Nato, Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has followed an assertive foreign policy in the region and beyond, maintaining ties with both the US and Russia. Ankara has played off the Ukraine conflict to further project its power and increase its leverage. It sought to mediate between Russia and Ukraine and (with the UN) brokered the Black Sea Grain Deal between them in July 2022. This allowed safe passage for shipment of grain from Ukraine, a big exporter, through the Black Sea, whose maritime routes are controlled by Turkey. Ankara also used its leverage over the issue of Nato’s expansion to secure concessions from the US and EU.

Other middle powers including India have derived similar benefits from their activist diplomacy in a multipolar world. Indeed, their growing role in shaping geopolitics has led some analysts to describe this as the ‘new normal’ at a time when the world is in a state of flux.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2023

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