Middle Powers are reshaping global geopolitics


The author is an FT contributing editor, the chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and fellow at IWM Vienna

President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping’s meeting in Bali, on the sidelines of the G20, presented a paradox. Conducted within the familiar terms of cold war summits, at which respect and good behaviour were foregrounded, it nonetheless offered the very best evidence yet that an actual cold war has not returned.

Simply put, the insecurities and ambitions of what we would call the Middle Powers, somewhat than any grand strategy of the Middle Kingdom, are shaping the emerging geopolitical landscape.

Observed from a distance, Russia’s war on Ukraine might appear as if a rerun of the cold war stand-off between the “free world” and Russian (and Chinese) authoritarianism. A better look complicates the image.

Whereas America’s allies in Europe got here together in defence of Ukraine and against Beijing’s tacit support for Vladimir Putin’s war, other states, especially in the worldwide south, have offered a special response. This is smart within the context of the collapse of the post-cold war order.

A longstanding cold war ally, Saudi Arabia, and a current security partner, India, have recently recast their ties with the US, dishing out with their wedding rings within the hope of more open relationships. The Saudis have began to sidle as much as the Brics countries. Meanwhile the Indians have worked up a healthy appetite for discounted Russian oil (although in September Narendra Modi did rebuke Putin for launching the war).

Western appeals for solidarity with Ukraine have often fallen on deaf ears. The worldwide south stays reluctant to see Kyiv’s resistance to Russia as an anti-colonial war. Their very own postcolonial identities are shaped by struggles against European empires, or against US hegemony, not against Russia or China.

And while America has been battling a few of its allies’ newly discovered attraction to an open relationship, Russia’s friends in central Asia have also begun to precise misgivings. Within the case of Kazakhstan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine didn’t strengthen Moscow’s alliance with Astana, it principally sundered it.

The war in Ukraine has shone a highlight on the activism of the Middle Powers as the main driving force of the reshaping of the international environment. They’re a solid of strange bedfellows. South Africa, India, South Korea, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, to call but just a few, don’t have much in common.

Some are democracies, some are autocracies and others populate a gray area in between. These countries have forged their post-cold war identities in an interconnected world through which one’s major trading partners are sometimes not one’s closest allies, and where technological decoupling between the US and China will be more consequential than the ideological divide between them.

Some Middle Powers are developing countries with booming populations, others are economic powers battling demographic decline. Some earned their Middle Power status due to geographic size, others due to economic might. Some are constructive and co-operative members of the international community, others will be transactional and suspicious.

But all of them share one fundamental feature: they’re determined to be on the table and never on the menu, since all of them have the ability and ambition to shape their regions. As Shannon O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations argues in her book, The Globalization Myth, in most places on the earth globalisation translates to regionalisation. That is the important thing to the influence of the Middle Powers.

Turkey’s role within the Russia-Ukraine war is a textbook example of Middle Power activism. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been averse to cold war alliances, ingeniously crafting a Zelig-like ambition to be the bride at every wedding and the newborn at every christening. True to form, Ankara has downplayed its identity as a Nato member and US ally in exchange for the role of mediator between Moscow and Kyiv.

Middle Power activism will be salutary when identifying global solutions comparable to EU’s climate initiatives, or sanguinary when countenancing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However it is a recent normal — the trademark of the emerging international order.

One thing is for certain: there shall be no Bandung conference of 1955; no resurrection of the cold war’s non-aligned movement. There isn’t a common ideology among the many Middle Powers. Indeed, they often have divergent or competing interests. And the movement just isn’t even a movement.

Middle Powers aspire to have the worldwide influence of Washington or Beijing, yet they’re well aware of how unlikely that eventuality is. But while in the course of the cold war it was the Middle Powers that had to regulate to the whims and plans of the superpowers, today the US and China should manage a world reshaped by their activism. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the clearest example of our recent reality.

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