home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

Middle Power Diplomacy

Lecture to Asia Pacific College of Diplomacy, Australian National University, 17 May 2019

My immediate successor as Foreign Minister, the Coalition’s Alexander Downer, and the person who I hope will be our new Foreign Minister after tomorrow’s election, Labor’s Senator Penny Wong, are unlikely soulmates. But both have gone on record as bristling at the characterisation of Australia as a ‘middle power’. For Downer, we were a ‘pivotal’ power, and it was demeaning to suggest otherwise: ‘we are not “middling” or “average” or “insignificant”…we are a considerable power and a significant country’, he said in 2006. For Penny Wong, we are a ‘substantial’ power’ – ‘we are better than middling’ she said in an AFR interview in February this year.

My own view is different. To me ‘middle power’ language has no connotation at all of mediocrity or insignificance. ‘Middle powers’ are best described as simply those states which, objectively, are not economically or militarily big or strong enough, either in their own regions or the wider world, to impose their policy preferences on anyone else – but which are nonetheless sufficiently capable, credible and motivated to be able to make an impact on international relations. What to me matters most in identifying middle powers is not in fact, for reasons I will explain, any objective measure of size – of GDP, population, landmass or anything else – but rather the effectiveness with which they practice what I describe as ‘middle power diplomacy’.

In turn, I would describe middle power diplomacy in terms of its characteristic motivation and method. Its characteristic motivation is belief in the utility, and necessity, of acting cooperatively with others in addressing international challenges, particularly those global public goods problems which by their nature cannot be solved by any country acting alone, however big and powerful. And its characteristic diplomatic method is coalition building with ‘like-minded’ states – those who, whatever their prevailing value systems, share specific interests and are prepared to work together to do something about advancing them.

As I hope I will make clear in the course of this talk, countries practising middle power diplomacy can play, and have played, very significant, substantial and distinctive roles not just in regional but global affairs. Australia has had a fine record in the past in this respect, and can have one again in the future.


But first, some more on the concept of middle powers. The idea of middle powers – as distinct from great or major powers on the one hand, and small powers on the other – being potentially significant actors in international affairs, has been traced back to Jan Smuts writing about the League of Nations in 1918 (and more adventurously to the Archbishop of Milan in the 16th century, or even Thomas Aquinas in the 13th) but it really only came into its own with Canada’s firm embrace of the concept after 1945. Since then it has waxed and waned in political usage, and in the academic literature.

The high point for academic attention was a flurry of books and journal articles in the 1980s and 1990s – largely stimulated, it seems, by the very visible activism of Australia, Canada and Norway in those decades – but not much has been written in more recent years about either middle powers, or the accompanying concept of middle power diplomacy. That may reflect the reality that most analytical attention in recent years has been focused on some rather dramatic movements which have been occurring at the tectonic plate level, with the rise of China to challenge the U.S. But I suspect it also has a lot to do with the reality of political developments since the late 90s in the two most commonly identified middle powers, Australia and Canada, which both largely changed course in their international behaviour.

The conservative governments of John Howard from 1996 to 2007 and Stephen Harper from 2006 to 2015 simply had nothing like their predecessors’ commitment to either middle power language or the international activism that went with it. In Australia, some of that activism, and language, returned with Kevin Rudd’s years as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, but went missing again with the re-election of the Coalition in 2013. There is some sign of Canadians once again starting to act like the energetic liberal internationalists of old following the election of Justin Trudeau in 2015, but the country’s achievements since then have been more rhetorical than real.

All that said, middle power language has never disappeared entirely, with some recent developments helping to keep it alive – notably the movement on the ‘humanitarian consequences’ of nuclear weapons, led by Norway, Mexico and Austria and culminating in the negotiation of the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty in 2017, a process boycotted by all the major powers. My own strong view is that the concept of middle powers, and especially middle power diplomacy, remains highly relevant and useful, most of all in identifying ways in which countries that don’t on the face of it have the military or economic strength to change the world can nonetheless make a major contribution to doing so.

Trying to define ‘middle powers’ with any precision, and coming up with a list of, say, twenty or thirty or maybe more countries that would command universal acceptance as such, is an exercise fraught with peril. Objective criteria like GDP, population size, physical size and military capability can be no more than starting points. For example, using latest World Bank figures, Australia, which would be on everyone’s list, ranks only 56th in the world on population size, although it is 13th on GDP; Norway, which would be on nearly everyone’s list, is 120th on population, but jumps to 28th on GDP, and 3rd in the world on GDP per capita.

Given the problems of balancing out these competing wholly objective criteria, one approach is to supplement these metrics with more subjective criteria, such as perceived economic and political significance, or perhaps – much more normatively – the degree of general respect such countries command. But such criteria, particularly any normative ones, by their very nature are wholly unlikely to command general consensus. And perceptions will vary anyway according to context. For example, Australia may be perceived as a major power in its own South Pacific region – albeit one having increasing difficulty in getting its way these days – but not in the wider world.

Even if one could reach complete agreement on a single set of ordering criteria which established a clear hierarchy among the world’s 193 UN member states, a further problem that arises is where one draws the cut-off lines above and below the ‘middle power’ group. Where is it to be drawn between middle powers and those who have greater stature or inherent influence? And where is the line to be drawn between middle powers and ‘small’ powers? Hugh White, in his forthcoming book How to Defend Australia, argues that Australia’s relative weight in our own region is declining fast – whereas in the 1980s our GDP was slightly bigger than China’s and India’s, and bigger than the whole of South East Asia put together, we are now 5 per cent of China’s and less than half of Indonesia’s – and that, at least in defence terms, to remain a middle power and not be reduced to a small power we will have to work a lot harder and spend a lot more.

The initial lists of middle powers that started appearing in the 1980s tended to incorporate countries like China, France, the UK and Japan, with the very top group containing only the ‘great powers’, viz. the U.S. and Soviet Union. As I for one argued at the time, a more intuitively acceptable approach would be to distinguish middle powers not just from ‘great’ powers but from ‘major’ powers, which list would include China, France and the UK at least because of their permanent membership of the Security Council, and Japan, India and Germany as well. If I were writing that now I would have to not only move China from major to great status, but also add at least Brazil to the ‘major powers’ category, and perhaps – although rather more arguably – Indonesia, Nigeria and South Africa as well. But again there is never likely to be ready consensus achievable about any such judgement.

These difficulties have led some writers to suggest that the best way of defining middle powers is by reference to their behaviour. The argument is that what really matters is not what countries are, in terms of various quantitative measures, but what they do – for example, their tendency to pursue multilateral solutions to international problems, their tendency to embrace compromise positions in international disputes, and their tendency to embrace some variation on the theme of ‘good international citizenship’ to guide their diplomacy. This approach is, I think, getting pretty warm when it comes to defining the key characteristics of what we might define as ‘middle power diplomacy, as I will come back to shortly. But it’s not very helpful in defining ‘middle powers’ themselves, because the argument is essentially circular – describing as middle powers those states which behave in a way characteristic of states who are already considered to be middle powers…

Moreover, if you adopt a behavioural definition, what do you say about a state like Australia, which is universally regarded as a middle power, when it stops behaving like one, as when the conservative government of John Howard was in office from 1996 to 2007, when middle power language was explicitly rejected and disappeared entirely from our diplomatic vocabulary? Does it then stop being one?

For reasons which by now should be obvious, I don’t think there is an enormous degree of utility in trying to get an agreed list of who, at any given time, are the world’s middle powers The description would certainly seem to include, among a score or more of few, all members of the new MIKTA grouping, established in 2013 – Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia – who are all members of the G20, and have economies ranked by the World Bank as the 12th, 13th, 15th, 16th and 17th largest in the world. But should it also include those manifestly small powers who punch well above their weight – not only Norway, but in our own region Singapore? I think so, but there will never be universal agreement on this issue.


Difficulty in defining middle powers does not, and should not, stop us talking about ‘middle power diplomacy’. There is real utility in doing so, both descriptively and prescriptively: this language accurately describes the way in which a number of states have in fact conducted themselves, and I believe it is a useful way of encouraging some states who don’t normally think of themselves as international movers and shakers to do more.

Middle power diplomacy as I see it is, to repeat, the kind of diplomacy which can, and should, be practised by states which are not big or strong enough, either in their own region or the wider world, to impose their policy preferences on anyone else; but who do recognize that that there are international policy tasks which need to be accomplished if the world around them is to be safer, saner, more just and more prosperous (with all the potential this has, in turn, to affect their own interests); and who have sufficient capacity and credibility to be able to advance those tasks.

Middle power diplomacy has been exercised in a variety of ways over the years. To focus again just on Australia and Canada, in the early post-World War II years both concentrated heavily, and very visibly, on building international institutional structures that would, both by their existence and their mode of operation, give weight to middle power and other voices, and dilute some of the authority that would otherwise be exercised by the U.S. and the other then great powers. Thus Australia’s Dr Evatt’s efforts with the founding of the UN to strengthen the role of the General Assembly at the expense of the Security Council. And thus the role of both countries in building the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), strengthening regimes such as the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), and developing major programs in the global South like the Colombo Plan.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, and continuing for most of the later Cold War years, it was difficult to maintain that kind of proactive approach. Canada – unlike Australia for most of this time – did remain active internationally active, but its focus shifted more, under Lester Pearson and for most of the time under Pierre Trudeau, towards playing a relatively quiet middle-man role as a mediator and conciliator, helping to defuse some East-West tensions and to put out various smaller conflict brushfires elsewhere. Much effort was also put into giving backroom technical support in the negotiation of complex international regimes like the Law of the Sea treaty.

In the 1980s trade issues came to the fore, with Australia initiating in 1986, in the context of the Uruguay Round, the Cairns Group of agricultural exporters, a classic middle power diplomatic lobbying exercise; and then, in 1989, APEC. The period when I was Foreign Minister, from 1988 through to the change of government in 1996, was one of intense international activism for Australia across not just trade and economic issues but a broad range of environmental and security issues, in which – taking advantage of the new fluidity in the international political environment associated with the end of the Cold War – we played, for example, major roles in initiating bans on mining and oil drilling in the Antarctic, the UN peace plan for Cambodia, the ASEAN Regional Forum as a major new security dialogue forum, and generating international debate on the peace and security role of the UN. In the arms control and disarmament area, those roles extended to establishing the Australia Group and concluding the Chemical Weapons Convention, and sponsoring the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

While I think it is fair to say that Australia was seen as the leading advocate and practitioner of middle power diplomacy during this period, we were by no means the only player in this game, with Norway, for example, being particularly active in initiating the Oslo peace process in the Middle East, and Canada leading – with us – the charge against South African apartheid. And over the next decade, through to the mid-2000s, as Australia dropped out of the picture, these two countries continued to play leadership roles on issues like the Ottawa-initiated Landmines Treaty and the Oslo-initiated Cluster Munitions Treaty, again classic exercises of international diplomatic leadership by non-major powers.

In subsequent years the wheel has turned again in terms of the most visible examples of middle power diplomacy. Canada, until it disappeared from sight with the election of the Harper Government in 2006, played a classic role in initiating in 2000 the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, in response to the continuing horror of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes which had shocked the world’s conscience in Rwanda and the Balkans during the 1990s, and in leading the charge to see the new concept of “the responsibility to protect” unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly at head of state and government level in 2005.

Australia under the Labor Government elected in 2007 bounced back into a self-consciously activist role, with Prime Minister and now Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd describing us as “a middle power with regional and global interests” and busily engaged in constructing institutions and policy on everything from the G20 and response to the global financial crisis, to climate change at Copenhagen, the creation of new security and economic architecture in the form of an expanded East Asia Summit, to responding to the events in Libya and Syria, to re-energising the debate on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. But then with the re-election of the Coalition we largely went back to sleep again except on trade and bilateral issues, with the important exception of some unexpectedly serious activism on the Security Council during our 2013-14 term there, particularly on the issue of humanitarian access to Syria.

Are there any common threads running through all the disparate activity by various countries that I have been describing? I think there are, as I summarised at the outset, both in terms of method and motivation.

The characteristic method of middle power diplomacy is coalition building with ‘like-minded’ countries. It usually also involves ‘niche diplomacy’, which simply means concentrating resources in specific areas best able to generate returns worth having, rather than trying to cover the field. Countries which are not powerful enough in most circumstances to impose their will may still be persuasive enough to have like-minded others see their point of view, and to act accordingly.

The concept of ‘like-mindedness’ has been changing in interesting ways. In the past the countries in whose company Australia certainly felt most comfortable were those sharing the abiding values of Western liberal democracy, the living standards of advanced industrial societies, and preferably speaking English as well: Britain, the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and occasionally the Scandinavians and some other West Europeans. And other countries had their equivalent comfort groupings. But for all of us these days, the term ‘like-minded’ much more often describes those who, whatever their prevailing value systems, share specific interests and are prepared to work together to do something about them.

In an age when nearly all of us are preoccupied (Donald Trump’s America unhappily excepted) with the group of transnational problem issues that Kofi Annan used to describe as ‘problems without passports’ – from climate change to health pandemics to terrorism and the like – many more interests are seen as shared than was the case before, and many more countries are seen as potential allies in cooperating to protect and advance them.

The kind of coalitions that Australia and others have built in recent years, in the pursuit of what I have been describing as middle power diplomacy – whether one is talking about the Cairns Group or APEC, or the Friends of RtoP or anything else – are by no means confined in their membership to middle-power countries, to the extent that these can ever be defined. They often include great or major powers, and those with very much less influence as well; and the memberships keep changing. The point of middle power diplomacy is not so much who is embraced by it, as how the process of change is initiated and carried through. Australian coalition building, like that of others, has been inherently eclectic: we have sought to build in each case the kind of alliance most suited to the particular issue in question.

Just a little more on the characteristic motivation for middle power diplomacy which I described at the outset as a belief in the utility, and necessity, of acting cooperatively with others in solving international problems, particularly those problems which by their nature cannot be solved by any country acting alone, however big and powerful. This is essentially what I have often described elsewhere as ‘good international citizenship’. The crucial point to appreciate about good international citizenship as a foreign policy motivation is that this is not something separate and distinct from the pursuit of national interests; it is not some kind of foreign policy equivalent of boy scout good deeds. On the contrary ‘being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen’ should itself be seen as a third category of national interest, right up there alongside the traditional duo of security and economic interests.

The argument is that, by being seriously committed to cooperative international problem-solving, national interest is advanced in two very hard-headed and practically measurable ways. First, through simple reciprocity: my help for you today in solving your terrorism or piracy or health pandemic problem might reasonably lead you to be willing to help solve my environmental or refugee absorption problem tomorrow. And secondly, through reputational benefit: the perception of being a country willing to take principled stands for other than immediately self-interested reasons does no harm at all to one’s own commercial and wider political agendas (as the Scandinavians in particular have long understood, with squeaky-clean, universally respected Sweden being long one of the world’s biggest arms sellers…)

What does it take for middle power diplomacy – motivated as I have described, and carried out by the kinds of methods I have been describing – to be really effective? There seem to me to be four factors primarily involved, which I would describe as opportunity, capacity, creativity and credibility.

First, there has to be a real opportunity for potentially effective action. There is no prestige, or likely result, in enthusiastically pursuing ideas which are premature, over-ambitious, or for some other reason unlikely to generate any significant body of support. We have to recognise that in an Asian setting, where great or major power rivalry – above all now between China and the US, but also Japan and China, China and India, India and Pakistan – provides so much of the context and dynamics, the scope for middle powers to be really influential, on the big peace and security issues in particular, may be very limited. On the other hand the Cairns Group, APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum (and now the EAS), the UN peace plan for Cambodia, the Antarctic wilderness park initiative, the G20, the responsibility to protect, and the Ottawa and Oslo treaties are all examples of ideas advanced by ourselves and others whose time had clearly come.

Secondly, there has to be a sufficient physical capacity to follow the issue through. This implies a certain minimum of physical resources, including a sufficiently wide network of diplomatic posts, which it may be difficult for any country smaller than a middle-sized one to match. It also means that for anyone other than a major power, and maybe even for some of those, there will be a limit to the number of major issues that can be simultaneously pursued: selective ‘niche’ diplomacy, while often good tactics, is also compelled by realistic necessity. Resources simply have to be concentrated where they are likely to have the most useful impact. The capacity to follow an issue through also involves energy and stamina. Many good ideas, well capable of implementation, fall by the wayside in international affairs simply because institutions, or the individuals who constitute them, tire. One widely acknowledged reason for the impact made, for example, by Australia’s peace plan for Cambodia was the sheer persistence with which, over a long period, the proposal was followed through at both official and ministerial level.

Thirdly, there has to be in most cases a degree of intellectual imagination and creativity applied to the issue – an ability to see a way through impasses and to lead, if not by force of authority, then at least by force of ideas. The application of physical resources to a problem without accompanying ideas is unlikely to result in anything much more than the appearance of activity. Of course, creativity and imagination are not the sole prerogative of middle power diplomacy; nor should they be assumed to exist in the case of any particular state seeking to practice this kind of diplomacy. But the point is that what countries which are not major powers may lack in economic, political or military clout, they can often make up with quick and thoughtful diplomatic footwork. And resolution of just about any significant problem in international affairs – be it bilateral or multilateral in character – needs just that.

And fourthly, effective middle power diplomacy involves credibility on the part of the country applying it. The mix of ingredients here will vary from case to case. Perceived independence from the influence of larger powers will often be one such ingredient. The maintenance of traditional alliance relationships (such as Australia’s with the United States) is not in issue here – rather simply the need for any country aspiring to play an active diplomatic role of its own to make clear that it is not acting as a mere cipher or stalking horse for some protector, and that its policy choices and priorities are entirely its own.

The maintenance of credibility is also crucially dependent on avoiding any charge of hypocrisy: any country which preaches abroad what it fails to practice at home cannot be expected to be taken very seriously for very long. Thus Australia’s domestic commitment to internationalising our own economy was critical to our credibility in multilateral trade negotiations and APEC; similarly any continuation of our poor race relations record in the past would have made it very difficult for us to be heard internationally on apartheid. Within MIKTA, Turkey is in danger of losing any moral authority abroad because of its increasing domestic repression under President Erdogan, and Indonesia will need to take care with perceptions of its rising Islamist intolerance.

Great and major powers have had a long-ingrained belief – that is only gradually changing as the realities of a complex, interdependent and rather more opinionated world catch up with them – that it is really only they who matter in the international scheme of things. Some of their diplomats manage to conceal these sentiments better than others but – as I have had plenty of occasions to experience over the years, and I suspect there will be a number in this audience in the same position – the belief dies hard that while small and medium sized states, especially those that are failed, failing or otherwise irresponsible, are undoubtedly capable of causing major global problems, their positive contribution is mostly useless, sometimes irritating and at best marginal.

But the truth of the matter is that, when the kind of conditions I have described are satisfied, lesser mortals conducting middle power diplomacy can certainly on occasion accomplish what great or major power diplomacy will find difficult. To take just some of the major issues with which I was involved, it is generally acknowledged that APEC would have had much more difficulty getting off the ground if the U.S. or Japan had been its instigator: each side may have feared the worst of the other, and the smaller powers may well have felt their own interests were at risk. Similarly with the Chemical Weapons Convention: as the U.S. itself acknowledged, it needed someone who wouldn’t frighten the horses to make the running. And with the Cambodian conflict, Australia’s ability to talk comfortably to every country involved in the Cambodian conflict, exploring a new UN-focused approach to its settlement and building a new coalition for action out of some very unpromising components, owed much to the fact that we were not carrying any great or major power baggage, had no axes to grind, and no particular security or economic interests of our own to protect.

Most exercises in middle power diplomacy will not produce especially spectacular results. Most of the time, trying to achieve progress on problems of the global commons and securing other global public goods like free trade – with all the free-rider, weak-link, sovereign-preference and other constraints on collective action that they involve – involves very slow boring through very hard boards. But the cooperative internationalist approach that is at the heart of middle power diplomacy is, in the kind of world in which we now live, the only way to solve the world’s problems. And in generating acceptable solutions, countries not of major power status are as well-equipped as anyone else, and in a number of cases better equipped, to deliver the goods.

Looking forward, it remains the case that middle powers, acting effectively in the way I have described, can make a serious contribution to better international relations in three main ways:

  • agenda setting: bringing new ideas to the table which bigger players are carrying too much baggage, or too stuck in their ways, to embrace: examples in our own region, and from my own time in office, include the, creation of APEC and ARF, and the Australia-Indonesia initiated peace plan for Cambodia;
  • bridge-building: between developed and developing countries: one of the major aspirations of MIKTA; and
  • building critical masses of support for global or regional public goods, and rule-based international order, policy change (e.g. climate change; the responsibility to protect (R2P) against mass atrocity crimes; and arms control treaties, like those abolishing cluster bombs and land mines, and also hopefully now nuclear weapons elimination – although in this context some of the key middle powers do give greater weight to being US allies than good global citizens).

While recognising the reality of limited opportunity, let me offer three examples where the middle powers of our own region – practising the kind of middle power diplomacy I have described – could, in my judgement, have a significant impact.

First, in setting the agenda for the East Asian Summit, which has all the ingredients to become the preeminent regional dialogue and policy-making body, containing as it now does all the major regional players (including now the United States and Russia), meeting at leader-level, and mandated to address both economic and political issues. Its eighteen members include a majority of middle powers – most of the ASEANs, Australia and South Korea (and New Zealand could also be so described, because of its tradition of multilateral activism).

Second, in visibly pushing back against excessive Chinese assertiveness and overreach, including in the South China Sea. While China manifestly does not want to provoke violent conflict anywhere, it is clearly intent on recreating as much of the historic, hegemonic, tributary relationship with its southern, and perhaps eastern, neighbours as it can get away with, and a united front of middle powers might be more effective in resisting this than relying on an increasingly erratic United States. There has been much talk of the ‘Quad’ in this context – the idea of India, Australia, Japan and the United States showing a united front, diplomatically and to some extent militarily (with joint exercises and the like) – and I don’t oppose continuing to cautiously develop that cooperation. But I am much more attracted, in this context, to developing such a united front grouping which would harness the collective middle-power energy and capacity of a number of regional states of real regional substance – in which, for example, India, Australia and Japan would be joined by South Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Third, some of us are in a position to influence the global nuclear weapons elimination debate, and should do more than we have. Had Australia and South Korea (along with our larger neighbour Japan) been willing to support President Obama’s move toward a ‘No First Use’ commitment, the world might have taken a significant step toward reducing the salience and legitimacy of the most indiscriminately inhumane and existentially threatening weapons ever invented (though the support of Central and Eastern Europe NATO allies would probably also have been necessary).

There is a big job to be done in bridging the gap between those who, on the one hand, will settle only for the kind of absolutism embodied in the Nuclear Ban Treaty, and on the other hand, the nuclear armed states and those sheltering under their protection who want essentially no movement at all on disarmament. Working for a meaningful and achievable half way house solution, with a credible – not incredible – road map towards ultimate elimination, is a task in which regional middle powers, including Australia, South Korea and Indonesia can be extremely important players.

Raw economic and political power will always count for a lot in international affairs. But it does not count for everything. Middle powers with a sense of where they want to go, and with the credibility, resources, and energy to follow through, can have a major impact in making this region and the wider world safer and saner. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.