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date: 28 November 2020

Searching for Middle Powerslocked

  • Laura NeackLaura NeackDepartment of Political Science, Miami University


What is a “middle power,” and what foreign policy is associated with it? Scholars and diplomats in Canada, Australia, and a more or less stable collection of northern countries—and increasingly scholars from the Global South—have proposed that the term denotes a particular international position, rights, and responsibilities. Canada has been especially associated with claims that it deserved unique representation in the halls of international power by virtue of its secondary or middle contributions to World War II and the post-war peace. Middle powers, it was proposed, were countries who both made significant contributions to that global order and were more likely than the self-interested great powers to protect the values of that order.

However, the term “middle power” never has had a clear meaning or definition, and the so-called middle powers have largely been self-electing (whether the self-election was by scholars or practitioners). Scholarly efforts to bring more rigor to the concept have failed to agree on its basic definition and membership list. This failure results largely from a fundamental disagreement over whether the “middle power” is defined by its functional capabilities, characterized by its strong moral imperative as a “good international citizen,” designated by its position in the international hierarchy, or revealed in its foreign policy behaviors. In time, the behavioral notion that middle powers engaged in “middle power diplomacy” held sway in the scholarship such that any country that pursued multilateral compromises, engaged in acts of “good international citizenship,” and promoted coalition building was labeled a middle power. This subsequently led to a growing scholarship on which states were “middle powers” based on their foreign policy behaviors. In particular, countries from the Global South who embraced multilateralism were included in the ranks of the middle powers.

The inclusion of countries from the Global South created a fundamental problem for the term, since middle power advocates portrayed them as strong supporters of the international order. Southern middle powers, on the other hand, were champions or leaders of states who stood against that order because of historical and present injustices in it. However, even those countries said to be Southern or emerging middle powers seem more interested in establishing their own status within the existing order rather than asserting a common vision on behalf of a revised order.

Ultimately, the lack of agreement about what “middle power” means leaves scholars and practitioners uncertain about whether the term is a useful guide for any particular country’s foreign policy.

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