Geopolitics

Middle powers: what are they and why do they matter?

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New multilateralism ... 'middle powers' such as Canada and Australia play a growing role in international relations. Image: Unsplash/NASA

David Elliott
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Geopolitics

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Middle powers are influential states that sit below superpowers and great powers.
  • They could be instrumental in forming a new multilateralism to help solve global challenges.
  • The topic was discussed in the Davos 2024 session ‘Middle Powers in a Multipolar World’.

António Guterres’ Special Address at Davos 2024 was stark. The United Nations Secretary-General warned that the world must act now in the face of “serious, even existential threats” posed by climate change and the development of artificial intelligence without guardrails.

“We have no effective global strategy to deal with either,” he said. “Geopolitical divides are preventing us from coming together around global solutions.”

He was, however, optimistic that a solution could be found in building a new multipolar global order through “a reformed, inclusive and networked multilateralism”.

Middle powers – which have long played an important role in international innovation and mediation – could be key to realizing this vision, according to a new World Economic Forum whitepaper, Shaping Cooperation in a Fragmenting World.

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What are middle powers?

Great powers are often defined as countries with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. These countries exert economic, political and military dominance over the world.

Middle powers sit below these great powers but still exert influence over global politics – they are states with extensive diplomatic, economic, multilateral, and sometimes military, clout, the Forum’s whitepaper points out. They comprise Global North countries including Australia, Canada and South Korea, and Global South nations including Argentina, Brazil and Indonesia.

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There is no exact or agreed definition of a middle power, however. The term is “imprecise and contested”, according to the Forum whitepaper, which also notes that some countries referred to as middle powers are today rising in stature; such as India, which might be better described as a major power. Others “accrue middle power status by dint of ‘punching above their weight’ in global affairs”, such as Norway.

The whitepaper suggests a more accurate term could be “states with global influence”, although this would still be challenging to measure.

Whatever term they are grouped under, middle powers play a vital and growing role in international relations.

Among the panel of the 2024 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting session ‘Middle Powers in a Multipolar World’ was Dino Patti Djalal, Founder and Chairman, Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia.

“I think in the 21st century, the world order will be shaped not by the great powers or major powers but by the proliferation of middle powers,” he said, adding that there are more middle powers across all the world's regions than ever before, and each of them has the size, ambition and resources to play a greater role.

Djalal highlighted examples of emerging alignments between middle powers in the Global South and those in the West, such as Australia and India, adding: “It’s a hugely significant geopolitical development.”

The collective strength of middle powers was underlined by another panel member, Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School of Government: “The latent power of the 27 members of the EU, if you add it all up, if [they’re] all acting in some more or less uniform fashion, actually does end up having superpower.”

World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.
Middle Powers in a Multipolar World session Image: World Economic Forum

What do they mean for multilateralism?

Far from leading to more fragmentation in the world, alignments between middle powers can help drive the new multilateralism Guterres highlighted at Davos.

Djalal spoke of Indonesia’s membership of organizations, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and how establishing a network of different relationships strengthens international relations: “It doesn’t make the world more fragmented but I think it adds more content to the world order. I think the more middle powers are less attached to great powers, in my view, the texture of world affairs will become better.”

This view was echoed by Demeke Mekonnen Hassen, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia. “The international order has to be fair and reasonable. We don't want to see unipolarity and we don't want to see and encourage rivalries.

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“Instead, [we need] multiple actors who are able to look and address the structural problem of the world – especially the poor societies, underdeveloped countries – it’s a very important time for that.”

Karoline Edtstadler, Federal Minister for the European Union and Constitution, Federal Chancellery of Austria, also highlighted the importance of collective action in uncertain times: “We have to develop a strength together. We have to care for the big things, we have to negotiate with other superpowers and middle powers, we have to find ways to cooperate more closely.”

The Forum's whitepaper, Shaping Cooperation in a Fragmenting World, proposes establishing a “middle/major powers” grouping to leverage the influence of middle powers on the global stage. This diplomatic mechanism would link Western major and middle powers with non-Western ones, such as Brazil, India, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

This group would have “the diplomatic flexibility and heft to raise the costs to the great powers for actions or behaviour that seriously undermined the multilateral order and the quiet diplomatic channels to help find de-escalatory off-ramps and similar mechanisms”.

Some quotes from the meeting session have been lightly edited for clarity.

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GeopoliticsDavos Agenda
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