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Stuck in the Middle – “Middle Power” Defined

Australia defines itself as a “middle power”, but what does that mean for our diplomatic and military clout?

The idea of middle powers within international relations has been the centre of significant debate. There is currently little consensus about what a middle power is, how they behave and what the term offers to the literature. The identity side of the debate is compounded when individual states attempt to lay claim to the term. Australia and Canada have attempted to define themselves as middle powers, essentially self-selecting into the role. That method of identification is the kind that endlessly frustrates scholars of international relations, as it forces them to weave webs between states in ways that collects their intended states, and excludes others.

Unsatisfied with this result, theorists have approached the matter from other perspectives. Middle powers have been defined in three different ways: self-selected, institutional or the result of a quantitative result. The institutional definition looks at states through the lens of their behaviour within international institutions, seeking common patterns. Quantitative approaches attempt to define these states by ranking various metrics, such as military power or the size of their economy.

The former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, employed the first and third schools of thought in his attempt to place Australia on the list when he claimed “as the 12th largest economy in the world and the 4th largest in Asia, Australia is by definition a middle power”. Prof Hugh White of the ANU employed a benchmark similar to the definition of a Kim il-Sung style Juche state when he stated “militarily, no country can count as a middle power” unless “it can fend off a major-power attack on its territory, and make a substantial contribution to a regional coalition with allies and friends.” The constructivists however, defined a middle power as a state that exhibits certain behaviours or is perceived as such.

Each of these definitions has its complications. A quantitative approach produces a result that proves either too much or proving too little. The patterns that emerged when the data was placed under analysis did not produce a decisive outcome. The self-selecting approach is useful inasmuch as it identifies which states think they are a middle power. Aside from that, the constructivist approach proves little, and leaves us with an answer bordering on a tautology, that a middle power is whatever a middle power thinks it is. The institutional approach is interesting, but it is difficult to rank states by something as subjective as influence or involvement. The approach risks a selection bias in the sample.

Recent thinking by Dr Andrew Carr attempts to set a new benchmark, with his concept of ‘systemic impact’. This position borrows interestingly from Chinese conceptions of Comprehensive National Power (CNP) in an attempt to judge what the middle powers are. Such a view is interesting but it is essentially an extension of the quantitative approach. This approach forges new and interesting tools for unpacking the term, but in doing so it shifts the ambiguity from the term “middle power” to that of systemic impact, without necessarily informing the former. The definition is more promising when it introduces Middle Power nations as “states able to provide for their own defence but without great capacity for coercing others. These states should also be able to shape parts of the international system, not the overlying structure, but at least refining specific parts it in ways that suit their interests.”

Dr Carr’s definition goes a long way towards unpacking the term but essentially arrives at much the same place as that preferred by Professor White. What both miss, however, is a hierarchical approach to the question. A middle power is a state that exists between two very different types of states. As a result of this, the answer is to look at the structures that make the term middle power meaningful and useful. Even if Dr Carr’s answer reached a final, highly persuasive conclusion, the reader is apt to ask ‘so what?’ A middle power definition is useful only as far it explains something about the international system.

I suggest that the best approach is to look up and down along those lines of hierarchy to unpack the definition further. What defines a state’s place within a hierarchy? For a middle power the state should exist within that definition for the long term. This would exclude states that have the potential to achieve hegemony over a great power. For a middle power then to challenge its asymmetric power relationship with a great power could be life threatening. Thus, a middle power is a state that exists within a long-term asymmetric power relationship with a great power. Australia has no prospect for overthrowing the United States, nor could it, on its own, seriously challenge China. Thus a middle power is a state locked out of the great power rivalry and this will have identifiable behavioural impacts. This then acts as the causal factor in their preferences within international institutions; middle powers face the common need to manage long-term asymmetric relations with great powers. As such, we can now see a structural and cohesive definition emerging that develops the term into a powerful conceptual lever.

A middle power also exists within a power architecture that does not place it in the bottom category of powerful states. New Zealand, for example, is itself caught in a long-term asymmetric relationship with Australia. East Timor is likewise strategically dominated by the presence of Indonesia. Thus, middle powers exist in a situation where they hold other states within long-term asymmetric relations. Just as Indonesia holds East-Timor in strategic asymmetry, so too Saudi Arabia holds Yemen. Thus we now have a clear method of identifying the middle powers and a mechanism that places these states within a similar strategic situation. This explains their common preferences and, while this status emerges from their CNP, it also explains how a state like Australia can be contextually powerful within their geography, when similar levels of CNP would probably not confer on them the same status if they existed within Europe. Thus, it uses the other definitions but also does so in a way that establishes a hierarchy that can then be used to unpack behaviour and interest.

Robert Potter is currently a Research Assistant Volunteer at the John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He took part in a research program in North Korea and China in 2013, and been a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University – Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, School of International and Public Affairs. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.

Published June 25, 2015