In 1954, when Canada led the West’s efforts to implement a truce after the Indochina War, the goals of an aspiring “middle-power” state were lofty. “Just as local conflicts can become general war,” the Canadian government wrote, “so conditions of security… will serve the cause of peace everywhere. If Canada can assist in establishing such security and stability in Southeast Asia, we will be serving our country, as well as the cause of peace.”
But last month, as Chinese and Indian soldiers squared off in another regional brawl, Canada, like most of the world’s middle powers, was largely silent. As some Canada watchers noted on social media, Ottawa had ceded the peacekeeping narrative to the reality of China’s rise.
More than an attack on Canada’s foreign policy, these historical bookends raise an important question for international relations: in an increasingly bipolar world shaped by the United States and China, do middle powers still matter?
Middle powers – loosely defined as countries that rank in the top-20 global economies and pose minimal military threat to their neighbors – have been a balancing force between the US and China for decades. Examples are plentiful. For instance, in 2018, Japan led efforts to salvage an international trade deal after the Trump administration walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP). The result, known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, included the original TPP countries minus the US. This followed decades of middle-power diplomacy shaping norms on everything from the control of chemical weapons (led by Australia) to the establishment of modern peacekeeping, access to medication and civil society mobilization (Canada).
In the context of China, however, the effectiveness of middle powers has been more uneven. During much of the 1980s and 1990s, middle powers managed to extract Chinese concessions on a variety of issues, such as environmental protection, human rights and the rule of law. Following the Chinese crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989, middle powers-backed UN resolutions even carried stiff economic sanctions.
But as China’s regional influence grew, the willingness of middle powers to publicly challenge China waned. By 1998, most signatories of UN punitive measures had lifted sanctions, and over the next decade middle powers adopted a bilateral approach in their dealings with Beijing. In exchange for dropping public forms of criticism, human rights and other liberal norms were instead discussed behind closed doors.
Transparency concerns aside, the softer approach did yield some successes. In one particularly noteworthy initiative during the 2000s and early 2010s, Australian-led diplomacy resulted in human rights training for Chinese judges, prison officials and legal workers. China’s positive response to these forums underscored Beijing’s willingness to engage more broadly on such issues, just as long as the threat of public embarrassment was shelved.
But after the global financial crisis and the arrival of President Xi Jinping, the frequency of these closed-door discussions decreased. Now, they rarely happen at all.
Part of the challenge for middle powers today is one of allegiance. The influence of middle powers is derived from their alignment with the global hegemon; for decades that was the US. But as the economic and ideological rivalry between Washington and Beijing has intensified during the presidencies of Xi and Donald Trump, US-backed middle powers have seen a weakening of their position.
This was not entirely unexpected. Canada, for one, had predicted this decline. As China scholar Bruce Gilley noted in 2011, with China in the ascendant and the US in retreat, “It may be appropriate to ask… how Canada can retain its global influence at a time of rising new powers by being nimble, open and capable.” He did not offer much of an answer.
Ironically, however, a new middle power moment may have arrived with the Covid-19 pandemic. As China and the US squabble over its origin and fight to control access to medical supplies and a possible vaccine, countries like France, Japan and Germany have marshalled their resources to deliver strong international responses, while in the Middle East, the UAE has delivered aid to more than 70 countries. Middle powers are also leading by example: some of the most successful early containment efforts were orchestrated by South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand.
To some scholars, this geopolitical awakening is the pandemic’s silver lining. Writing in Foreign Affairs last month, Bruce Jones, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, predicted, “If they can translate their initial diplomatic efforts into sustained responses to the next phase of the pandemic, middle powers just might succeed in leading the world out of the crisis.”
Harsh V Pant, a professor of international relations at India’s Observer Research Foundation, is equally upbeat. He argues that the collective response of middle powers “is indicative of the rise of regional powers with substantial capacity and appetite to influence, if not set, the global agenda.”
And yet, there is no denying that a future led by middle powers is far from a foregone conclusion. Without the US and China at the table, middle powers will have limited capacity to stave off any global depression sparked by the pandemic. Moreover, unless countries like France, Germany, India and Japan forge stronger multilateral partnerships, the retreat of the superpowers could produce a scenario where global responsibilities are poorly defined.
Averting this chaos would require middle powers to build on their successes fighting Covid-19 by forging a model of international cooperation independent of Washington or Beijing. It would also require adopting a more proactive approach to global affairs – think Canada 1954 rather than Canada 2020. None of this will be easy. But if they succeed, the world’s middle powers will matter much more than they already do.
Greg C Bruno is the author of “Blessings from Beijing: Inside China’s Soft-Power War on Tibet.” He was a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and is a former opinion editor at The National in Abu Dhabi and Project Syndicate in Prague.