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Middle Powers  

Marion Laurence

Formal diplomatic recognition of “middle powers” began with the Congress of Vienna, but the concept gained increasing currency after World War II because medium-sized countries like Canada used it to distinguish themselves from smaller states and secure a relatively favorable position in the postwar order. Early definitions of middle powers focused on states that lacked the system-wide influence of great powers but whose resources and capacities were recognized as being more significant than those of small states. The term’s exact meaning remains contested, but early definitions capture three important dimensions of the concept. First, it is inherently relational, from both a material perspective and a social perspective, and often used as a residual category. Some scholars define middle-power status using material factors like geographic size or population, while others emphasize social roles and recognition, but all of these approaches focus on a state’s position, roles, and status relative to other states. Second, the middle-power concept is both state-centric and practitioner-adjacent. National policymakers invoke, reify, and continually reinvent the concept to achieve specific foreign policy objectives. Third, the middle-power concept is bound up with wider debates about global order. Middle powers were long conceptualized as good international citizens and champions of the liberal world order. The rise of “emerging” middle powers raises questions about their orientation toward existing global institutions. Going forward, the most pressing questions about middle powers and their foreign policy behavior will be linked to broader conversations about geopolitical change and the future of contemporary global governance arrangements.