Mid­dle pow­ers steady a ship as the US rocks it


In the global jun­gle, is it pos­si­ble for any­one but the big­gest beasts to com­mand all that is within sight – and most of what is not? Do mid­dle pow­ers even mat­ter in a world in which the US is steadily un­der­min­ing the in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions it helped build and in which China is in the as­cen­dant? The is­sue was partly ad­dressed in Canada’s re­cent elec­tion cam­paign – if only by leav­ing it largely un­ad­dressed. In­ter­na­tional issues such as cli­mate change and mi­gra­tion were raised but Canada’s larger for­eign pol­icy chal­lenge – that of rel­e­vance – was not. Ste­fanie von Hlatky, an as­so­ciate po­lit­i­cal stud­ies pro­fes­sor at Canada’s Queen’s Univer­sity, noted to­wards the end of the cam­paign: “It’s hard out there for a mid­dle power. Even the most cre­ative for­eign pol­icy ideas that can­di­dates could pro­pose might sound like mag­i­cal think­ing in the age of Trump.”

So does mid­dle-power sta­tus now re­ally mean a pro­found and de­bil­i­tat­ing lack of power? Not re­ally. Col­lec­tively, mid­dle pow­ers do have in­flu­ence. Taken to­gether, for ex­am­ple, Ja­pan, Ger­many, the UK, France, Canada, South Korea and Aus­tralia ac­count for more than one-fifth of the global econ­omy. They are also im­por­tant trad­ing na­tions. This is a good rea­son to pay at­ten­tion to both the the­ory and prac­tice of mid­dle-power sta­tus. More broadly though, mid­dle pow­ers have an ur­gent and com­pelling shared in­ter­est in main­tain­ing a world or­der with rules that re­spect their eco­nomic and se­cu­rity interests and pro­tect them from the whims of great pow­ers. His­tor­i­cally, a mid­dle power was first de­fined in the 16th cen­tury by Gio­vanni Botero, a mayor of Mi­lan. The sys­tem of Euro­pean states was crys­tallis­ing and Botero cre­ated cat­e­gories: gran­dis­sime, mez­zano, pic­ci­oli – or em­pire, mid­dle power, small power. To be a mez­zano, a state had to be con­sid­ered ca­pa­ble of stand­ing on its own.

In real terms, a mid­dle power is not about be­ing mid-sized; the term is not a ref­er­ence to ge­o­graph­i­cal area or even GDP. A gen­er­ally ac­cepted def­i­ni­tion comes from a 2012 the­sis by a King’s Col­lege Lon­don PhD can­di­date. It says a mid­dle power is “a state ac­tor which has lim­ited in­flu­ence on de­cid­ing the dis­tri­bu­tion of power in a given re­gional sys­tem, but is ca­pa­ble of de­ploy­ing a va­ri­ety of sources of power to change the po­si­tion of great pow­ers and de­fend its own po­si­tion on mat­ters re­lated to na­tional or re­gional se­cu­rity that di­rectly af­fect it”.

That is a mouthful, but it is clear that a mid­dle power will not be pushed around. The con­cept of mid­dle pow­ers fea­tured in diplo­matic de­bates at the peace set­tle­ment of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and in the early stages of the es­tab­lish­ment of the United Na­tions af­ter the Sec­ond World War. At the time, Cana­dian prime min­is­ter Macken­zie King sug­gested that “mid­dle­pow­er­hood” could se­cure the in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence of coun­tries like his. Aus­tralia’s for­eign min­is­ter raised this idea as well. Ever since, mid­dle-power sta­tus has been con­sid­ered a trade­mark of both coun­tries’ for­eign pol­icy.

But in the years since Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion to the US pres­i­dency, mid­dle pow­ers have been faced with a greater re­spon­si­bil­ity than sim­ply man­ag­ing their own interests. They now need to pro­tect the very rules-based or­der within which they have flour­ished for more than 70 years. They have taken up the task rel­a­tively se­ri­ously. Ear­lier this month, Dutch prime min­is­ter Mark Rutte told the Syd­ney-head­quar­tered Lowy In­sti­tute think-tank that mid­dle pow­ers such as Aus­tralia and the Nether­lands must work to­gether “to in­flu­ence and shape in­ter­na­tional de­bate”. If not, he said, “a world in which might makes right is never far away”. As an ex­am­ple of the “di­rect and tragic” ram­i­fi­ca­tions of a break­down of “the in­ter­na­tional rules­based or­der”, Mr Rutte cited the shoot­ing down of a Malaysia Air­lines flight in 2014 over Ukraine. It claimed 298 lives, in­clud­ing 193 Dutch cit­i­zens and 27 Aus­tralians. What he meant was the dif­fi­culty of bring­ing any­one to ac­count for down­ing the air­craft.

There have been other sig­nif­i­cant dec­la­ra­tions of in­tent by mid­dle pow­ers. Ear­lier this year, the Franco-Ger­man pro­posal for an “al­liance for mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism”, Shinzo Abe’s promise that Ja­pan would “pre­serve and con­tinue the free, open, and rules-based in­ter­na­tional or­der”, and Cana­dian for­eign min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land’s in­sis­tence on “dou­bling down on an im­proved rules-based in­ter­na­tional or­der”. There was also In­dia’s chief ca­reer diplo­mat Vi­jay Gokhale’s call to “strengthen mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism” by push­ing back against uni­lat­eral ef­forts to undo the “es­tab­lished in­ter­na­tional mech­a­nisms gov­ern­ing the global com­mons”.

Aside from talk, how­ever, have mid­dle pow­ers man­aged to ac­com­plish any­thing in the past few years? Three lim­ited suc­cesses are worth not­ing.

From Oc­to­ber 2018, Canada has con­vened what it calls a “work­ing group of like-minded na­tions” to re­form the World Trade Or­gan­i­sa­tion, not least its slow dis­pute res­o­lu­tion sys­tem. Sec­ond, af­ter US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump with­drew from the 12-coun­try Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, Ja­pan urged the re­main­ing mem­bers to con­tinue with­out the deal’s prin­ci­pal and big­gest spon­sor. A re­named agree­ment – cov­er­ing about 13 per cent of the global econ­omy – was launched. Sig­nif­i­cantly, it is still open to the US – as in­deed to other in­ter­ested coun­tries such as South Korea, Colom­bia, In­done­sia, Thai­land and the UK – thereby hold­ing out the prospect of cre­at­ing a multi-re­gional global eco­nomic trad­ing zone in the fu­ture. Third, the Paris cli­mate change pact did not col­lapse – de­spite the US with­drawal – be­cause mid­dle pow­ers reaf­firmed their com­mit­ment. They also en­larged the sphere of co-oper­a­tion to in­clude re­gional gov­ern­ment lead­ers, such as the Cal­i­for­nia gover­nor, to show the strength of the ef­fort on the ground.

Per­haps mid­dle pow­ers now mat­ter even more than em­pires.

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