With the international system shifting away from Pax Americana and toward a more multipolar world, a class of state actors usually called ‘middle powers’ is the subject of increased attention in policy and academic debates. Despite their rising prevalence, however, references to middle powers are often imprecise, inconsistent, surface level, and ad hoc—reflecting a general bias toward great powers and/or universalism that privileges systemic (global) analysis in mainstream international relations. Drawing on neoclassical realism, cultural realism, security studies, and new regionalist theory, we seek to fill this gap and propose a new and original definition of middle powers across four vectors.
We show that middle powers are better defined by their 1) enduring regional presence and geographic rootedness, 2) considerable economic and military capacity relative to neighbors, 3) historical and cultural pedigree as civilizational states, and 4) the regionally-focused, limited extent of their ambitions — they seek not world domination but a sphere of influence in their near-abroad matching their historical range and scope. The latter offers a key contrast with great powers. The limited, concrete aims of middle powers along with a proper focus on vital interests, territorial sovereignty, and realpolitik born of necessity preclude imperial designs and often mitigate against ideological decision-making.
Given the decline of unipolarity, growing disruptions and backlashes to globalization, and the fracturing and realignment of the global financial and political-economic system, region-based economic and political dynamics are likely to become ever more central to international politics. Understanding future geopolitical trends will depend on recognizing the reality and centrifugal force of multiplicity at the regional or sub-system level to which middle powers are anchored in a cohesive unity—with each civilizational node, the fulcrum of a regional security complex (RSC).
Analogously, some of the premises and theories of neo-realism, traditionally conceptualized globally, are more salutary when applied regionally, where they can be more concretely observed. We identify two strategic postures as especially salient among middle powers, framing and informing their interactions with great powers and their attitude toward the prevailing systemic order (‘liberal international order’ in our case). ‘Status quo middle powers’, for which we offer Japan and Germany as examples, are those satisfied with the relative balance of power in their RSC and working to sustain the extant order in an entente with the status quo great power. In contrast, we present Turkey and Iran as ‘revisionist middle powers’. These states are discontented with their overall standing and the relative balance of power in their RSC and seek to upend the current order for a new one that elevates them, often in alignment with the revisionist great power.
While by no means the last word on the topic, we hope this study can stimulate further thinking and debate on middle powers, especially given the advent of multipolarity and the renewed space and importance that it offers the world’s many regions. Secondarily, this work is also intended as a contribution to a more open and less monolithic conception of the international system—where a revitalized concept of multiplicity, the reality of global cultural pluralism, and an emphasis on the role of ‘culture complexes’ combine to propel civilizational states as foundational units in a more fluid, dynamic, and multiplex global system, one that is more inter-civilizational than international. Ex Uno Plures (out of one, many), we say.
The study is a project of the International System 2050 program at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.
Read the full white paper at the download link.
Dr. Arta Moeini (@ArtaMoeini) is the Research Director of the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy. Dr. Moeini is also a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship in Washington D.C as well as an elected member of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters.
Dr. David Polansky (@polanskydj) is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy and a political theorist who writes on U.S. foreign policy, geopolitics, and the history of political thought/