In international relations, a middle power is a sovereign state that is not a superpower nor a great power, 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 (empires), 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."
No agreed standard method defines which states are middle powers. Some researchers use Gross National Product (GNP) statistics to draw lists of middle powers around the world. Economically, middle powers are generally those that are not considered too "big" or too "small," however that is defined. However, economics is not always the defining factor. Under the original sense of the term, a middle power was one that had some degree of influence globally, but did not dominate in any one area. However, this usage is not universal, and some define middle power to include nations that can be regarded as regional powers.
Middle power status is usually identified in one of two ways. The traditional and most common way is to aggregate critical physical and material criteria to rank states according to their relative capabilities. Because countries' capabilities differ, they are categorized as superpowers (or great powers), middle powers or small powers. More recently, it is possible to discern a second method for identifying middle power status by focusing on behavioural attributes. This posits that middle powers can be distinguished from superpowers and smaller powers because of their foreign policy behaviour – middle powers carve out a niche for themselves by pursuing a narrow range and particular types of foreign policy interest. In this way middle powers are countries that use their relative diplomatic skills in the service of international peace and stability. Both measures are contested and controversial, though the traditional quantitative method has proved more problematic than the behavioural method.
According to Eduard Jordaan of Singapore Management University;
All middle powers display foreign policy behaviour that stabilises and legitimises the global order, typically through multilateral and cooperative initiatives. However, emerging and traditional middle powers can be distinguished in terms of their mutually-influencing constitutive and behavioural differences. Constitutively, traditional middle powers are wealthy, stable, egalitarian, social democratic and not regionally influential. Behaviourally, they exhibit a weak and ambivalent regional orientation, constructing identities distinct from powerful states in their regions and offer appeasing concessions to pressures for global reform. Emerging middle powers by contrast are semi-peripheral, materially inegalitarian and recently democratised states that demonstrate much regional influence and self-association. Behaviourally, they opt for reformist and not radical global change, exhibit a strong regional orientation favouring regional integration but seek also to construct identities distinct from those of the weak states in their region.
Another definition, by the Middle Power Initiative: "Middle power countries are politically and economically significant, internationally respected countries that have renounced the nuclear arms race, a standing that give them significant international credibility." Under this definition however, nuclear-armed states like India and Pakistan, and every state participant of the NATO nuclear sharing, would not be middle powers.
Middle power diplomacy
According to Laura Neak of the International Studies Association:
Although there is some conceptual ambiguity surrounding the term middle power, middle powers are identified most often by their international behavior–called 'middle power diplomacy'—the tendency to pursue multilateral solutions to international problems, the tendency to embrace compromise positions in international disputes, and the tendency to embrace notions of ‘good international citizenship’ to guide...diplomacy. Middle powers are states who commit their relative affluence, managerial skills, and international prestige to the preservation of the international order and peace. Middle powers help to maintain the international order through coalition-building, by serving as mediators and "go-betweens," and through international conflict management and resolution activities, such as UN peacekeeping. Middle powers perform these internationalist activities because of an idealistic imperative they associate with being a middle power. The imperative is that the middle powers have a moral responsibility and collective ability to protect the international order from those who would threaten it, including, at times, the great or principal powers. This imperative was particularly profound during the most intense periods of the Cold War.
According to international relations scholar Annette Baker Fox, relationships between middle powers and great powers reveal more intricate behaviors and bargaining schemes than has often been assumed. According to Soeya Yoshihide, "Middle Power does not just mean a state’s size or military or economic power. Rather, 'middle power diplomacy' is defined by the issue area where a state invests its resources and knowledge. Middle Power States avoid a direct confrontation with great powers, but they see themselves as ‘moral actors’ and seek their own role in particular issue areas, such as human rights, environment, and arms regulations. Middle powers are the driving force in the process of transnational institutional-building." (Soeya Yoshihide)
Characteristics of middle power diplomacy include:
- Commitment to multilateralism through global institutions and allying with other middle powers.
- High degree of civil society penetration in the country's foreign policy.
- A country that reflects and forms its national identity through a 'novel foreign policy': Peacekeeping, Human Security, the International Criminal Court, and the Kyoto Protocol
The Middle Powers Initiative (MPI), a program of the Global Security Institute, highlights the importance of middle powers diplomacy. Through MPI, eight international non-governmental organizations are able to work primarily with middle power governments to encourage and educate the nuclear weapons states to take immediate practical steps that reduce nuclear dangers, and commence negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons. Middle power countries are particularly influential in issues related to arms control, being that they are politically and economically significant, internationally respected countries that have renounced the nuclear arms race, a standing that gives them significant political credibility.
Self-defined by nation states
The term first entered Canadian political discourse after World War II. Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, for example called Canada "a power of the middle rank" and helped to lay out the classical definition of Canadian middle power diplomacy. When he was advocating for Canada's election to the United Nations Security Council, he said that while "...the special nature of [Canada's] relationship to the United Kingdom and the United States complicates our responsibilities," Canada was not a "satellite" of either but would "continue to make our decisions objectively, in the light of our obligations to our own people and their interest in the welfare of the international community." Canadian leaders believed Canada was a middle power because it was a junior partner in larger alliances (e.g. NATO, NORAD), was actively involved in resolving disputes outside its own region (e.g. Suez Crisis), was not a former colonial power and therefore neutral in anti-colonial struggles, worked actively in the United Nations to represent the interests of smaller nations and to prevent the dominance of the superpowers (often being elected to the United Nations Security Council for such reasons), and because it was involved in humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts around the world.
In March 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd defined his country's foreign policy as one of "middle power diplomacy", along the lines of similar criteria. Australia would "influence international decision-makers" on issues such as "global economic, security and environmental challenges".
Middle power or great power?
The overlaps between the lists of middle powers and great powers show that there is no unanimous agreement among authorities.
Nations such as France, Russia and the United Kingdom are generally considered to be great powers due to their military and strategic importance, their status as recognised nuclear powers and their permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council. Some academics also believe that Germany and Japan are great powers, but due to their large advanced economies and global influence as opposed to military and strategic capabilities. Italy also has seen much discussion among academics and commentators regarding its status as a great power, particularly for its position in the G7 and the nations influence in regional and international organisations. Although broad academic support for India as a great power is uncommon, recent years have seen some in the field of political science, such as Malik Mohan (2011) and Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski (2012) put forward the assertion that India holds the status of a great power too.
Yet sources have at times referred to these nations as middle powers:
- United Kingdom
List of middle powers
As with the great powers, there is no unanimous agreement among authorities as to which countries are considered middle powers. Lists are often the subject of much debate and tend to place comparatively large countries (e.g. Brazil) alongside relatively smaller ones (e.g. Norway). Clearly not all middle powers are of equal status; some are considered regional powers and members of the G20 (e.g. Australia), while others could very easily be considered small powers (e.g. the Czech Republic). Some larger middle powers also play important roles in the United Nations and other international organisations such as the WTO.
The following is a list of countries that have been, whether in the past or more recent, considered middle powers by academics or other experts:
- Czech Republic
- New Zealand
- Saudi Arabia
- South Africa
- South Korea
- United Arab Emirates
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- Charalampos Efstathopoulosa, 'Reinterpreting India's Rise through the Middle Power Prism', Asian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 19, Issue 1 (2011), p. 75: 'India's role in the contemporary world order can be optimally asserted by the middle power concept. The concept allows for distinguishing both strengths and weakness of India's globalist agency, shifting the analytical focus beyond material-statistical calculations to theorise behavioural, normative and ideational parameters.'
- Robert W. Bradnock, India's Foreign Policy since 1971 (The Royal Institute for International Affairs, London: Pinter Publishers, 1990), quoted in Leonard Stone, 'India and the Central Eurasian Space', Journal of Third World Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2, 2007, p. 183: 'The U.S. is a superpower whereas India is a middle power. A superpower could accommodate another superpower because the alternative would be equally devastating to both. But the relationship between a superpower and a middle power is of a different kind. The former does not need to accommodate the latter while the latter cannot allow itself to be a satellite of the former."
- Jan Cartwright, 'India's Regional and International Support for Democracy: Rhetoric or Reality?', Asian Survey, Vol. 49, No. 3 (May/June 2009), p. 424: 'India’s democratic rhetoric has also helped it further establish its claim as being a rising "middle power." (A "middle power" is a term that is used in the field of international relations to describe a state that is not a superpower but still wields substantial influence globally. In addition to India, other "middle powers" include, for example, Australia and Canada.)'
- Verbeek, Bertjan; Giacomello, Giampiero (2011). Italy's foreign policy in the twenty-first century : the new assertiveness of an aspiring middle power. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books. ISBN 978-0-7391-4868-6.
- "Operation Alba may be considered one of the most important instances in which Italy has acted as a regional power, taking the lead in executing a technically and politically coherent and determined strategy." See Federiga Bindi, Italy and the European Union (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2011), p. 171.
- "Italy plays a prominent role in European and global military, cultural and diplomatic affairs. The country's European political, social and economic influence make it a major regional power." See Italy: Justice System and National Police Handbook, Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: International Business Publications, 2009), p. 9.
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As long as Russia's rationality of government deviates from present-day hegemonic neo-liberal models by favouring direct state rule rather than indirect governance, the West will not recognize Russia as a fully fledged great power.
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- Yasmi Adriansyah, 'Questioning Indonesia's place in the world', Asia Times (20 September 2011): 'Countries often categorized as middle power (MP) include Australia, Canada and Japan. The reasons for this categorization are the nations' advanced political-economic stature as well as their significant contribution to international cooperation and development. India and Brazil have recently become considered middle powers because of their rise in the global arena—particularly with the emerging notion of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China).'
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- Weak States in the International System (By Michael I. Handel)
- Relocating Middle Powers: Australia and Canada in a Changing World Order (Book info)
- Middle Power Internationalism (Book info)
- Emerging Powers: Governance in a Changing Global Order (A Queen’s Centre for International Relations annual report)