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Middle Powers in the Multipolar World

Authors: Arta Moeini, Christopher Mott, Zachary Paikin, and David Polansky 

Affiliation: the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD)

Organization/Publisher: the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD)

Date/Place: March 26, 2022/ USA 

Type of Literature: White Paper 

Number of Pages: 30 

Link: https://peacediplomacy.org/2022/03/26/middle-powers-in-the-multipolar-world/ 

 

Keywords: Middle Powers, Realism, Regional Security Complexes (RSCs), Multipolar World

 

Brief:

The paper posits that the shift towards a multipolar world in the international system will increase opportunities and risks more than ever at the intermediate level. As a result, the authors are eager to provide a theoretical framework for studying the potential impact that middle powers can have on the emerging geopolitical landscape.

The article is divided into two main sections. The first section addresses the lack of a clear and widely accepted definition or criteria for what constitutes “middle powers.” While the Global Trends Report 2030 predicted that middle powers will continue to gain prestige and significant influence in global politics in the coming years, it did not explain why or how this will happen, or provide a specific definition or criteria for identifying middle powers. The authors suggest that the main reason for the lack of attention to this concept in IR theory is the dominance of universalism and rationalism, which has made it difficult to determine which countries can be considered middle powers and understand their potential influence on the world stage.

To address this issue, the authors propose using neoclassical realism, cultural realism, security studies, and neo-regional theory to develop a new and original definition of middle powers. In this context, they believe that the theory of regional security complexes developed by Buzan and Weaver can provide a useful framework for understanding middle powers by considering the post-Cold War structure, assessing the relative balance of power, and examining the interrelationships within it between regional and global trends.

The article argues that the conflict between great powers, particularly following the rise of Russia and China, may create security concerns for middle powers that push them to form or join regional complexes in order to enhance security interdependence and balance power. Unlike great powers, middle powers do not seek global hegemony but rather limit their intentions and activities to their specific regional security complexes due to their relative strength. This distinguishes them from secondary or marginal countries. However, as they exert influence over smaller neighbors, this can sometimes lead to global repercussions as peripheral states unite with outside powers to balance power. This can be seen in Eastern Europe, where countries like Poland and Lithuania rely heavily on NATO to balance against Russia. By adapting the model of the regional security complex to include the concepts of “middle powers,” “peripheral states,” and “cultural complexes,” middle powers can be seen as anchors for these regional complexes, with the regional security complex forming around them.

The article argues that it is necessary to consider the geographical roots and relative positions of middle powers in relation to their neighbors, as well as the interests of the great powers, in order to clearly define and understand their strategic direction. While South Korea has economic and cultural influence, this has not been enough to prevent China and Japan from restricting its strategic freedom due to its position as a central geopolitical fault line between the two countries and even Russia. Similarly, Canada and Mexico are limited in their ability to act independently due to their proximity to the United States. The report suggests that the reemergence of realpolitik and cultural sovereignty among civilizational states, which have strong geographical roots and historical cultural identities, is contributing to the return of middle powers. Cultural realism suggests that multiculturalism does not prevent competition between civilizations along fault lines for control of regions, and that such competition is in line with realistic principles and can lead to fluctuating relationships of friendship or hostility depending on context and the balance of power. Many of the most significant and persistent conflict zones and sources of global instability are located in the gray areas between major cultural complexes, including Ukraine, Iraq, Korea, Yemen, Syria, and Karabakh.

The second section of the article aims to identify middle powers by examining the strategic behaviors they adopt, using case studies to show how these states act in practice. It is clear that middle powers do not all behave in the same way, so structural classification is not useful; they can instead be divided into revisionist and status quo middle powers. The report refers to Paul Kennedy’s previous study, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” in which he discusses both revisionist and status quo middle powers and their key roles in geopolitical crises. The report analyzes the various ways in which middle powers can be classified as revisionist or status quo-oriented.

Revisionist middle powers, like Iran and Turkey, often seek to overthrow the current power dynamics in their regional security complexes (RSCs) in order to increase their own relative power. They may do this directly, through proxies, or through a combination of both. These middle powers tend to operate in a realistic manner and have a high risk tolerance, which gives them more options but also increases their risks. Iran, for example, has become a revisionist middle power since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, while Turkey has gradually become more revisionist in the past two decades due to its embrace of “Neo-Ottomanism.”

Middle powers of the status quo are generally satisfied with the balance of power within their regional security complexes. Their primary strategy is to operate within the existing great-power-led system to advance their own goals while also strengthening their soft power and reputation in the international community through participation in regional and multilateral (liberal) organizations. Germany is a prime example of this type of middle power, as a leading member of the European Union and active player in NATO, with its sovereign economic endeavors and diplomatic initiatives.

The strategic trajectories of middle powers, whether they are defined as status quo or revisionist, can extend beyond their own regions if they cooperate with the United States, a great power that aims to maintain the international order based on Western liberal ideology. In a multipolar world, the United States will remain a superpower in the status quo, with many traditional allies, especially middle powers that also seek to maintain and strengthen friendly relations with it. However, these efforts will not prevent middle powers from pursuing their own independent goals or even promoting domestic political agendas that may sometimes conflict with Washington’s liberal consensus. In contrast, the geopolitical intentions of revisionist powers are more ambiguous and unpredictable. 

The conclusion of the paper is that a multipolar world will increase the geopolitical importance of regions and enhance the ability of middle powers to lead them. Great powers will be less likely to intervene from “above.” Middle powers can be identified by their geographical roots, historical and cultural origins as civilizational states, strong economic and military capabilities compared to their neighbors, and regional ambition. As middle powers, they have the ability to influence the world stage in many ways, such as acting as mediators and reducing system-wide instability. According to cultural realist theory, the conflict between Russian and continental European armed forces on the fault line in Ukraine was predictable without the diluted role of diplomacy. At the same time, revisionist middle powers are bolder in asserting their will, which can lead to significant geopolitical consequences. It is important to consider the presence of middle powers when understanding the full scope of major events.

The authors caution that ignoring the influence of middle powers could have serious consequences, citing the example of the Bush administration’s failure to recognize that while the United States would not have a permanent presence in Iraq, Iran would remain a permanent neighbor. However, the authors note that this discussion is just the beginning of a broader conversation about the role of middle powers in international politics, particularly as shifts towards multipolarity are expected to increase their prominence in the future.


By: Ryma Meddah, MA in IR and International Law

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