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Reader riposte: Defining 'middle power'

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COMMENTS

28 March 2008 12:07

Carl Ungerer is Director of the National Security Project at ASPI:

The Prime Minister’s recent speech mentioning ‘creative middle power diplomacy’ has the foreign policy community scratching its collective head. Where did this come from? What is a middle power? If we’re a middle power, who else is in the club? Is there a special handshake? There is even some confusion among the experts as to where the concept originated from. Martin Indyk thought that Tony Street invented the idea in 1981. Hugh White and Peter Hartcher seem to think that Gareth Evans was the father of middle powerism. And, Howard’s former adviser Andrew Shearer, in a rather partisan effort, says that Rudd’s ideas are old hat because Howard and Downer ran the most activist foreign policy in the history of Commonwealth. (That’s a very long bow, Andrew).

Before the commentariat become too confused and agitated by the reference to ‘middle power’ diplomacy, perhaps they should read into the long and detailed history of the concept in Australian foreign policy. It was Doc Evatt in 1945, on the eve of the San Francisco conference, who first characterised Australia as a ‘middle power’. In fact, the term was not even his. It was the Canadians like Mackenzie King and Hume Wrong who thought it might be a useful way of distinguishing the Dominions from Imperial preferences. In several of his San Francisco speeches, Evatt used the terms ‘middle power’ and ‘security power’ interchangeably. For Evatt, the middle powers were those states ‘which by reason of their resources and geographic position will prove to be of key importance for the maintenance of security in different parts of the world’. Sound familiar? This is precisely the same formulation that Kevin Rudd and Labor have been using for years. And the return of an activist and independent foreign policy will be a welcome respite from a decade of conceptual drift.

For those wanting a fuller account of the history of the middle power idea in foreign policy, see my article in the Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 53 no. 4 (2007). Pp. 538-551.