Global Cooperation

Why it's time for 'middle powers' to step up on geopolitics

Flag hanging to one side fo the image: With major powers and the UN unable to prevent or end many wars, maybe this is the moment for middle powers.

As major economies and the United Nations struggle to prevent wars, is this the moment for middle powers to step up? Image: Getty Images/istock

Robin Pomeroy
Podcast Editor, World Economic Forum
Sophia Akram
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Horizon Scan: Cecilia Malmström

  • On geopolitics: with tensions brewing between superpowers, old and new, can so-called ‘middle powers’ step up?
  • Two experts explain the role of middle powers and how they are in a unique position to broker challenging diplomatic quandaries.
  • Listen to the podcast here, on any podcast app via this link or on YouTube.

“If you look at how we have managed to advance cooperation and multilateralism, both during the Cold War and the post-Cold War, the middle powers play this extremely important role in both phases.”

So says Bruce Jones, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Jones says middle powers are countries that don’t have enough power to compete with major powers such as the United States or China, but can play an important role in geopolitics, such as Canada, Norway and Brazil.

He and Susana Malcorra, a former Argentinian foreign minister and fellow podcast guest on this episode of Radio Davos, discuss the balancing and constructive role middle powers can play in an increasingly multipolar world. Both contributed to the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council report: Shaping Cooperation in a Fragmenting World.

Here are some highlights from the podcast.

Have you read?

The role and potential of ‘middle powers’

Bruce Jones: We're living in a world in which the scale of distrust among the top powers is extremely high. The risk of conflict we already see conflict in Europe, there's a serious risk of a conflict with the United States and China. This is not a world where cooperation, just as it's been over the last 30 years or so, is going to cut the mustard.

The whole point about them is, you take a country like Canada or Australia or Norway or Brazil, etc, they don't have nearly the same level of tension or antagonism with the Chinese or with the Americans or with the Russians, as those countries might have with one another. And so they're able to pose things or suggest solutions and have that be received by the various top powers with some degree of open-mindedness.

Look at the role that Turkey played in helping with the UN to broker the Black Sea grain deal to avoid some of the worst global consequences of the conflict spilling out into the Black Sea.

Susana Malcorra: Necessity is conflict, no question. I mean, the level of tension that the world is facing shows that a conflict prevention and conflict solution is absolutely necessary.

I think it is clear that we need an approach to Ukraine that puts some roadmap on the table.

Implications for business

Bruce Jones: I think we're going to see a much deeper rewiring of globalization than we've seen so far, and that's going to be driven by a lack of confidence in China ...

Ngozi [Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General] of the WTO has talked, I think, very convincingly about the number of countries in the Global South that are ready to move up the value chain and could be sources of investment.

Susana Malcorra: This means also that corporations need to look at middle powers, first as potential enablers of change... But they also need to look at middle powers as potential destinies of certain shifts in the way that the supply chains are put together.

So, in a way, what is very important as a message to corporations is that they need to look at a world that is much more nuanced than just reading the black-and-white option between big powers.

Risks and opportunities

Susana Malcorra: It's clear that this shifting of power not only affects and brings attention to the US versus China, it adds complexity at a regional level.

It adds complexity and rebalances power in a much larger landscape. So yes, there is certainly potential risk that the rise of middle powers could bring an additional level of tensions, or different level of tensions.

Bruce Jones: The [international] institutions themselves don't have agency in and of themselves; they're not independent actors. They're instruments that the powers can use to solve problems. But when there's such distrust and tension between the powers, they tend not to win.

Susana Malcorra: And the [United Nations] as we know it was created reflecting the reality of 1945, where the powers and the power distribution were totally different.

So that in itself is not conducive sometimes to find solutions because the Security Council, which is the centre organ to address the questions of conflict in the world, has five countries; five representatives that are permanent and they have veto power.

So when you have these tensions between the US and Russia, and the US and China, they have the ability to block each other in any proposal, something we have seen recently in the case of Gaza.

So that's why something new is needed to establish that connection between the two sides that are in such a deep mistrust of each other, to potentially build some bridges.

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