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Rise of the Middle Powers

May 2, 2024


Being called “middling” has traditionally been more of an insult than a matter of fact. It means something is not terrible but it also isn’t great — it’s mediocre. That’s sort of how so-called “middle powers” have been treated historically. Wikipedia explains, “In international relations, a middle power is a sovereign state that is not a great power nor a superpower, but still has large or moderate influence and international recognition. The concept of the ‘middle power’ dates back to the origins of the European state system. In the late 16th century, Italian political thinker Giovanni Botero divided the world into three types of states: grandissime (great powers), mezano (middle powers), and piccioli (small powers). According to Botero, a mezano or middle power ‘has sufficient strength and authority to stand on its own without the need of help from others.'” According to Alejo Czerwonko, Chief Investment Officer for Emerging Markets Americas at UBS Global Wealth Management, middle powers are having a moment. He explains:


The global geopolitical map is experiencing its deepest reconfiguration in decades. Global trade is being rerouted, supply chains are being redesigned and new security alliances are being forged. All of this is happening as the world is being forced to acknowledge the need to accelerate the energy transition and harness the power of artificial intelligence. Some countries have more to gain than others in this quickly evolving order — if they play their cards right. What they have in common is an opportunity to leverage their spot in a multipolar world as ‘middle powers’ and ‘geopolitical swing states’ — terms that describe countries that are using their ability to avoid picking sides to their advantage, ultimately to pursue their domestic interests with flexibility.”[1]


International relations expert Miras Zhiyenbayev cautions that any attempt to pigeon hole countries can be misleading. He explains, “The allure of neatly slotting nations into hierarchical compartments often overshadows the more intricate nuances of their actual global engagements. Traditionally, these powers have been perceived through the lens of economic metrics or military prowess, with a nod towards their penchant for multilateral diplomacy and reverence for international law. Yet, as the contours of geopolitics evolve and the number of these actors burgeons, it is increasingly evident that such cookie-cutter classifications are, at best, rudimentary and, at worst, misleading.”[2] Academics Jeffrey Robinson and Andrew Carr agree that the “middle power” classification is no longer viable. They argue, “Middle power theory no longer helps us distinguish or interpret these states. Changes in the international environment, especially the weakening of the US-led international order, suggest this finding will endure. As such, we argue for the historicization of the concept of ‘middle power’.”[3] Keeping that in mind, let’s nevertheless explore why middle powers are becoming major players on the international stage.


Middle Power Free Agency and Cooperation


Several years ago, Bonnie Bley, a former Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute focusing on Asia, suggested the rise of middle powers was linked to their free agent status as well as their penchant to work together. She explained, “New data on UN voting patterns tracks how often any two countries are aligned in their votes on resolutions at the UN General Assembly. The data reveals that in 2018, middle powers largely ignored the voting preferences of superpowers US and China in favor of banding together with minor and middle powers. South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Pakistan, and the Philippines all failed to register either the US or China as one of their top three voting partners among regional players, preferring to align with smaller Asian players instead.”[4] Henry L. Stimson Center analysts Mathew Burrows and Robert A. Manning agree that the freedom middle powers enjoy permits them to cooperate with different countries depending on the issues involved. They explain, “The fragmenting world order is prompting a dizzying array of shifting alignments. Middle powers, a mix of democratic and authoritarian-leaning states, are aligning with either the United States or China — or neither — depending on the issue and their interests. They are, in effect, multi-aligned.”[5]


In today’s geopolitical environment, Burrows and Manning insist that middle powers see few advantages in taking sides. They add, “For these reasons, two Australian experts assess that middle powers have ’tilted towards mini-lateral groupings and cooperation in the areas of security, technology, trade, and economy. The logic is simple, to achieve their national interests, middle-sized and like-minded formulas of cooperation are more effective than large, deliberative multilateral organizations.’ Middle powers are, in effect, choosing not to choose. … Unlike the Cold War’s nonaligned movement, many Global South countries are not rejecting alignment but pursuing multi-alignment on specific issues, based on their calculus of their own interests, colonial legacies, and a sense of inequality on certain matters, such as economic or strategic issues like the wars in Ukraine or between Israel and Hamas.”


International relations expert Ali Mammadov asserts that this newfound free agency means we are entering the age of middle powers. He writes, “Despite their limited capabilities compared to great powers, middle powers strategically leverage the evolving global power distribution to secure opportunities for themselves.”[6] He adds, “Acknowledging that great powers rely on them for global influence, middle powers engage in power games, oscillating between collaboration and opposition to further their own interests. Generally, intensive high-stakes competition among great powers and sporadic collaboration present fertile grounds for middle powers to assert their influence. This prompts a critical examination of the evolving dynamics in international relations and the necessity for a nuanced approach in the face of an increasingly multipolar world.”


Concluding Thoughts


As free agents, middle powers no longer feel compelled to take sides. As Czerwonko notes, “The willingness of some of these middle powers to design and implement multidecade transformation plans makes them likely winners of the evolving global order. … The largest opportunities lie in the intersection of those countries that are offered the chance, and those taking concrete steps, to convert their potential into reality.” According Mammadov, this newfound freedom means middle powers no longer need to approach great powers with hat in hand. He explains, “The expanding role of middle powers in the evolving multipolar world presents challenges and opportunities for global players. As the dynamics continue to shift, adapting strategies to engage with middle powers becomes imperative. The world is in flux, and embracing a flexible and inclusive approach to international relations is essential to navigate this complex landscape.” This “middle power moment” will last as long as there are no serious consequences for not taking sides. If the world becomes more authoritarian, taking sides may become a necessary survival strategy. Let’s hope this “moment” lasts a long time.


[1] Alejo Czerwonko, “Is this a pivotal moment for the rise of the ‘middle powers’?” World Economic Forum, 22 March 2024.
[2] Miras Zhiyenbayev, “Widening the Scope – Emerging Prominence of Middle Powers in Global Governance,” Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development (CIRSD), Winter 2024.
[3] Jeffrey Robinson and Andrew Carr, “Is anyone a middle power? The case for historicization,” International Theory, 26 July 2023.
[4] Bonnie Bley, “A middle-power moment,” The Interpreter, 23 August 2019.
[5] Mathew Burrows and Robert A. Manning, “Empowered Middle Powers and Potential Unthinkable Alliances,” The Henry L. Stimson Center, 21 March 2024.
[6] Ali Mammadov, “The Age of Middle Powers Has Arrived,” The National Interest, 13 January 2024.

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