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Middle-Powers and Global Governance

Discussion Paper: Middle-Powers and Global Governance


Arguably, we are today in a period of transformative institutional change in the
international system periods when the structures that govern the conduct between states
require fundamental change. Previous such periods include the end of the Thirty Years
War, which resulted in the Peace of Westphalia; the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which
resulted in the Congress of Vienna; the end of the First World War, which resulted in the
establishment of the League of Nations; and the end of the Second World War, which
resulted in the establishment of the United Nations.
The role of major powers during the above periods of transformative institutional change
in the international system has been well studied. International relations is after all,
written by major powers. Lesser known however, is the role of middle-powers. Middlepowers have served important roles as supporters, facilitators, balancers, mediators and
even leaders of global governance during periods of transformative institutional change
in the international system. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and the turn to the G20 as
structure of choice to address the situation, once raises the question of how middlepowers can play a role in global governance.
What are middle-powers?
There are many definitions of the term middle-power. Most works on the subject find it
necessary to begin with their own definition to further narrow and specify the category.
These definitions can be categorized into three broad groups, based on function, capacity
and behavior.
The first broad group is definitions based on function. Definitions based on function
assign a state to the middle-power category based on specific functions that a state
undertakes in international society. This definition derived from the contribution made by
certain states in the First and Second World War and crystallized during their diplomatic
campaign to have this contribution recognized during the formation of the League of
Nations and United Nations. Australia and Canada, in particular, argued that states, which
contributed to world peace through a functional capacity or a functional capacity within a
particular geographic region, should be considered as distinct from the much larger
agglomeration of non-major power states. Thus, the definition included states, such as
1

Middle-Powers and Global Governance

Australia, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Poland, South Africa, the Netherlands and Belgium.
As noted by the Australian representative to the United Nations Conference on
International Organization, Deputy Prime Minister Francis Forde:
It will have to be recognized that outside the great powers there are certain
powers who, by reason of their resources and their geographical location, will
have to be relied upon especially for the maintenance of peace and security in
various quarters of the world... they have a special claim to recognition in any
security organization".1
However, the weakness of this definition came in its lack of objectivity. In attempts to
obtain formal recognition of the middle-power category, few states not included by the
definition would accept certain powers claiming any greater recognition than they
themselves would receive. As noted by Holbraad, would be middle-powers faced a good
deal of resistance to their policies of self-enhancement, most of it from above but also
some from below.2
The second broad group is definitions based on capacity. Definitions based on capacity
assign a state to the middle-power category based on its position situated between great
powers and smaller powers in a hierarchy of military, economic, political, and physical
capacity.3 This definition followed on from earlier functional definitions with the aim of
adding a degree of objectivity to the definition. Early examples focused primarily on
broad measurements of national power, very much in the vein of the traditional realist
geography and location; area; population; size of military forces; resources; and gross
national product (GNP). During the late 1960s and early 1970s, as statistics became more
readily available, a wider grouping of states emerged. Dependent on the capacity
measurements chosen, this could include the above mentioned states, and at times other
states previously not included in the category, such as India, China, West and East
1

Speech by the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia at the Plenary Session of the United Nations
Conference on International Organization (Plenary Speech presented at the United Nations Conference on
International Organisation, San Francisco, April 27, 1945).
2

Holbraad, Middle Powers in International Politics, 64.

See Holbraad, Middle Powers in International Politics and; Jonathan H. Ping, Middle Power Statecraft:
Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Asia Pacific (Aldershot, Hants, England; Burlington, VT, USA: Ashgate,
2005), http://www.loc.gov/catdir/toc/ecip0510/2005008927.html.

Middle-Powers and Global Governance

Germany. It could also include other states previously not in the category and not having
demonstrated a comparable functional capacity, such as Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Egypt,
Denmark and New Zealand. With time, attempts were made to refine the definition using
more elaborate measurements of capacity.
However, despite these refinements, measurements of national power inevitably remain
subjective and highly contested. 4 Measuring national power is very difficult. National
power is contextual it can only be applied in certain circumstances; perspectival
reputation can inflate or deflate measurements; highly dynamic changing rapidly due to
a range of factors; and is not absolute national power can only be measured in relative
terms. The difficulty of measuring national power reduces the usefulness of the group of
definitions based on capacity.
The third broad group is definitions based on behavior. Definitions based on behavior
assign a state to the middle-power category based on the demonstration of certain
characteristics in diplomatic practice. Gareth Evans and Bruce Grant popularized these
characteristics in their 1994 text Australias Foreign Relations. 5 These characteristic
diplomatic behaviors include diplomatic activism, niche diplomacy, coalition building
and good international citizenship.
Diplomatic activism refers to the innovative, intellectually creative and energetic use of
diplomacy to pursue national objectives. An often cited example is Australias
contribution to the establishment of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC),
which has reached near mythical status in accounts of Australian middle-power
diplomacy.6 During the late 1980s, Australian concern regarding potential exclusion from
growing regionalism in Europe, North America and East Asia grew considerably. It was
feared that Australia would be left out of exclusive regional economic blocs in East Asia
4

United States and Arroyo Center, Measuring National Power in the Postindustrial Age (Santa Monica,
Calif: RAND, 2000), 13.
5

Evans and Grant, Australias Foreign Relations: in the World of the 1990s, 2nd:344348.

See Ungerer, The Middle Power Concept in Australian Foreign Policy; Stewart Firth, Australia in
international politics: an introduction to Australian foreign policy (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin,
1999), 3334; Derek McDougall, Australian foreign relations: contemporary perspectives (South
Melbourne, Australia: Longman, 1998), 6667; Fedor Mediansky, Into the New Millenium, in Australian
Foreign Policy: Into the New Millenium (Melbourne: MacMillan, 1997), 287298; and Evans and Grant,
Australias Foreign Relations: in the World of the 1990s, 2nd:132133.

Middle-Powers and Global Governance

and North America as had occurred with Britains entry into the European Common
Market. Australia had few options. The intellectually creative and energetic use of
diplomacy to support the open regionalism of APEC was the most promising.
Niche diplomacy refers to the pursuit of limited and highly specific diplomatic objectives.
Middle-powers by their nature have limited diplomatic resources to pursue their
objectives. They must therefore concentrate their resources within a specific niche area in
order to maximize their returns. 7 Often cited examples include Australias efforts in
agricultural trade liberalization during the 1980s and 1990s and Canadas efforts in
human security throughout the same period.
Coalition building is the mainstay of middle-power diplomatic practice. Middle-powers
do not have enough political influence to pursue objectives on their own, but have
enough political influence to convince like-minded states of their shared goals.
Coalition building allows middle-powers to build momentum towards the achievement of
diplomatic objectives, ultimately allowing them to punch above their weight.8 An often
cited example of coalition building is Australias establishment of the Cairns Group of
Agricultural Trading Nations during the Uruguay Round multilateral trade liberalization
negotiations. This allowed Australia to increase its influence over larger powers through
combining the weight of states with shared interests.
Good international citizenship refers to the view that the state has a responsibility and
role to play in fostering peace and security and promoting human rights, justice and
equality. Practically, this entails an awareness of the need for global cooperation to solve
global problems, a commitment to international standards of human rights, and a
willingness to provide humanitarian aid and assist in development. It supports the notion
that there is an ethical dimension within the self-help rationalism of national interest.
Thus, in pursuing good international citizenship, which serves a global good, a state at
7

See Ungerer, The Middle Power Concept in Australian Foreign Policy; Stewart Firth, Australia in
international politics: an introduction to Australian foreign policy (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin,
1999), 3334; Derek McDougall, Australian foreign relations: contemporary perspectives (South
Melbourne, Australia: Longman, 1998), 6667; Fedor Mediansky, Into the New Millenium, in Australian
Foreign Policy: Into the New Millenium (Melbourne: MacMillan, 1997), 287298; and Evans and Grant,
Australias Foreign Relations: in the World of the 1990s, 2nd:132133.
8

Evans and Grant, Australias Foreign Relations: in the World of the 1990s, 2nd:346.

Middle-Powers and Global Governance

the same time gains diplomatic credibility and in certain cases may directly serve national
interests. An often cited example is Australias support for the Antarctic Treaty System,
including the ban on non-research military activity and ban on mining activity. Promoted
as an effort to preserve the pristine environment of Antarctica, the initiative demonstrates
good international citizenship, yet it also serves national interests as a means to regulate
other states activities, which may impact Australian sovereignty in territorial claims.
Middle-powers and global governance
Australian and Canadian scholars undertook much of the early research on middlepowers. Both states emerged from the Second World War with a clear recognition that
they were not major-powers, yet at the same time recognized the need to distinguish
themselves from the larger body of lesser powers to which they belonged. Whilst early
attempts to carve out a distinct diplomatically recognized niche at the nascent United
Nations failed, the ideal remained strong. Middle-powers, it was believed, had a distinct
role to play. Subsequent research has highlighted four distinct roles that middle-powers
can play in the international system supporter, facilitator, mediator and in certain
circumstances, leader.
The most prominent role that middle-powers play is major-power supporter. Middlepowers are status quo powers. They are satisfied with their level of economic well-being;
satisfied with their degree of political influence and satisfied with the current military
balance of power. Middle-powers act as agents of stability in international politics,
seeking to ensure the existing conditions are maintainedto their own advantage. With
an inherent self-interest in the maintenance of the status quo, they often act in support of
major powers. This is particularly prominent in states that see sponsorship of the major
power as critical to their core national security interests.
Middle-powers also play the role of facilitator. Middle-powers facilitate interaction
between states. They can act can bridges in international forums between developed and
developing states (South Korea and Argentina); between European/Western states and
Asian states (Australia and Singapore); or between predominantly resource supply states
and predominantly resource demand states (Australia and Canada). This role was

Middle-Powers and Global Governance

promoted in South Korea during the administration of Roh Moo-Hyun, which viewed
middle-powers as playing roles as pivots or balancers between major-powers.9
Middle-powers also play the role of mediator. Middle-power benefits from their size.
They are capable of securing the diplomatic resources required, yet at the same time are
perceived as non-threatening and are not perceived as acting to enhance their own
power within a region. An often-cited example is the role of Australia and Canada in
aiding in the Cambodia peace settlement. Both states played important roles in supporting
the initial stages and coordinating major-power support for the later stages.
Middle-powers have also taken lead roles in a number of issues in which major powers
are unable to take a leading role. The most prominent of these issues during the 1990s
have been the areas of human security and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) nonproliferation. When a major power seeks to enforce non-proliferation there are inevitably
accusations of inequality. The major power already has a nuclear capacity; does not want
a lesser to acquire it; and has done little to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons as
required under international treaties. Yet, when a middle-power does the same, its nonthreatening nature provides a degree of credibility to the call to support non-proliferation.
As noted above, ultimately, middle-powers are no less self-interested than major
powers. Middle-powers have a vested interest in the maintenance of the status-quo. They
seek to ensure that their position relative to lesser powers is maintained and they seek to
ensure that their position relative to major powers is maintained. This is accomplished
through the spreading of norms and values; the building of institutions to enforce these
norms and values; and in certain cases the participation in efforts to enforce these norms
and values.

See Dae Yeob Yoon, US-China Relations and Koreas Middle Power Strategy: Theory, Perception and
Policy, Tongil Yeongu (Journal of Korean Unification Studies) 15, no. 2 (June 2011): 135176; Soo
Hyung Lee, Pivotal Middle Power Theory and Balanced and Pragmatic Diplomacy in the Participatory
Government, Hankuk Gwa Kukje Jeongchi (Korea and World Politics) 24, no. 1 (2008): 217249; and
Soo Hyung Lee, Poland as a Pivotal Middle Power and International Security Institution, Hankuk Gwa
Kukje Jeongchi (Korea and World Politics) 25, no. 4 (2009): 6386.

Middle-Powers and Global Governance

Constraints on middle-powers in global governance


Research demonstrates that middle-powers, while utilizing similar diplomatic methods,
do not always act in a consistent or coordinated way due to the state-specific constraints
on diplomatic activism. 10 This can include constraints on diplomatic capacity and
diplomatic credibility as well as constraints resulting from the domestic and international
political environment.11
Middle-powers must have adequate human capacity (educated and well-trained diplomats
and support staff), physical capacity (a sufficiently wide network of well-resourced
diplomatic posts) as well as supportive, creative and intellectually imaginative policy.12
As noted, due to economic size, middle-powers cannot cover the entire spectrum of
diplomatic issues and must focus upon specific niche areas. What distinguishes middlepowers from lesser powers is their capacity to cover these niche issues. Middle-power
diplomatic activism is constrained or even curtailed, when the state can longer maintain
this capacity.
Middle-powers must also maintain diplomatic credibility. Credibility refers to the
willingness of the international community to recognize a middle-power as capable of
carrying out an initiative and acting independently of major-powers in a way that is
neither hypocritical nor compromised by pure self-interest (although, as noted by Evans
and Grant, middle-power diplomatic initiatives are ultimately always self-interested).13
Middle-power diplomatic activism is constrained when they are perceived as incapable of
carrying out an initiative and/or perceived as acting hypocritically or acting for a major
power.
Domestic politics can also constrain middle-power diplomatic activism. The electoral
cycle, partisan politics and government policy all affect the ability of middle-powers to
pursue diplomatic initiatives. Ravenhill notes governments, for electoral reasons as well

10

John Ravenhill, Cycles of Middle Power Activism: Constraint and Choice in Australian and Canadian
Foreign Policies, Australian Journal of International Affairs 52, no. 3 (November 1998): 325.
11

See Ravenhill, Cycles of Middle Power Activism.

12

Evans and Grant, Australias Foreign Relations: in the World of the 1990s, 2nd:346347.

13

Ibid., 2nd:344348.

Middle-Powers and Global Governance

as to satisfy the personal vanity of their leadership, usually desire to emphasise the
originality of their contribution to public policy.14 In Australia and Canada, changes of
government have resulted in changes towards or away from characteristic middle-power
foreign policy.15
Finally, international politics can also constrain middle-power diplomatic activism. A
middle-power diplomatic initiative must be timed with the international agenda to
maximize its chances of success. This means that the international agenda must not be
too full (and alternatives limited); the international environment must be stable; and
above all, the international environment must be secure.
Middle powers are followers in issues relating to international security. During periods of
heightened security tension, middle powers revert to following major power leads in
order to profit from a coincidence of interests.16 In 1947, Professor George Glazebrook
writing about middlepowerism in the second issue of the journal International
Organization noted: during the period of hostilities the primacy of the great powers in
all the major questions of common interest was in principle accepted when a peace
settlement was made and permanent international organizations established, the lesser
powers thought that they should have a part in the decisions.17
In the context of South Korea, constraints on diplomatic capacity and diplomatic
credibility, as well as constraints resulting from the domestic and international political
environment, constrain the ability to pursue middle-power diplomatic initiatives. The
strongest constraint on South Koreas ability to pursue and sustain middle-power
diplomatic initiatives is of course North Korea.
South Korean middle power activism is closely aligned to major power policy during
periods of heightened security tension. Conversely, during periods of lower security
tension, South Korea seeks a greater role in decisions regarding the peninsula. This is true
14

Ravenhill, Cycles of Middle Power Activism, 323.

15

Ibid.

16

Fenton Cooper, Richard Higgot, and Kim Nossal, Bound to Follow: Leadership and Followership in the
Gulf Conflict, Political Science Quarterly 36, no. 3 (1991): 391410.
17

George Glazebrook, The Middle Powers in the United Nations System, International Organization 1,
no. 2 (1947).

Middle-Powers and Global Governance

for all middle-power states and their interaction with Korean peninsula issues.18 Yet, to a
degree, it also affects South Koreas interaction across the breadth of diplomatic
activity.19
Ultimately, the most significant constraint on middle-powers playing a larger role in
global governance is the attitudes of other middle-powers and smaller powers. During the
formation of the United Nations middle-powers actively sought to establish a specific
category reflecting their role in the Second World War and their relative economic,
physical and military strengths.20 Yet, in these attempts to obtain formal recognition of
the middle-power category, few states not included by the category would accept certain
powers claiming any greater recognition than they themselves would receive. As noted
by Holbraad, would be middle-powers faced a good deal of resistance to their policies of
self-enhancement, most of it from above but also some from below.21 Middle-powers
can play the roles of supporter, facilitator, mediator and in certain circumstances, leader.
Yet, without the support from other middle-powers and smaller powers, their ability to
play any role beyond major power supporter is curtailed.

18

See Robertson, South Korea as a Middle Power: Capacity, Behavior and Now Opportunity.

19

See Ch`i-yong Pak, Korea and the United Nations (The Hague; Boston, Mass.: Kluwer Law International,
2000).
20

See George Glazebrook, The Middle Powers in the United Nations System, International Organization
1, no. 2 (1947); Lionel Gelber, Canadas New Stature, Foreign Affairs 24, no. 2 (January 1946): 277289;
and William Fox, The Super-Powers at San Francisco, The Review of Politics 8, no. 1 (January 1946):
115127.
21

Holbraad, Middle Powers in International Politics, 64.