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Reader riposte: More on middle-powerdom



28 March 2008 13:24

From Edward Cohen, a former Lowy Institute intern now studying for the MPhil in International Relations at Cambridge University:

The recent post by Allan Gyngell and email from Hans van Leeuwen raise an interesting question: what is 'middle power diplomacy' and how does Kevin Rudd intend to express it?

The notion of a 'middle power' initially seems to suggest a position in the international hierarchy, occupying a sort of intermediate position on the basis of quantifiable criteria such as economic and military strength or population size. Alternatively, a middle power could be defined by geography. On this view, a state that occupies a physical or perhaps political position between great powers is a middle power. But these material definitions don't really go to the core of the concept.

Carl Ungerer's op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald today attacks the view held by some international relations academics that middle power diplomacy is a 'normative' concept. This is the idea that states with mid-level capabilities can aspire to be more trustworthy actors in international politics because they can exercise leadership without recourse to force. Some discussion of the concept in the 1980s and 1990s that came out of Canada — another country with a claim to the middle power title — also suggested that middle powers are those which have earned a certain status due to their contributions to international peace and security. This view now seems rather smug and sets a very difficult standard for states with power comparable to Australia's or Canada's.

A better way to understand middle power diplomacy — and one that probably gets closer to what Rudd means — is to define it by what its proponents generally seek to do: pursuing multilateral solutions to global problems and, critically, using their own particular areas of technical expertise in an activist and pro-active fashion to advance the policy agenda in a way most likely to have an impact. It is a way of using limited resources to achieve a maximum payoff. This is not all that far from Russell Trood's recent call for 'selective global activism' as a guiding principle for Australian foreign policy.

Alexander Downer's famous 'Myth of Little Australia' speech attacked the physical definition of a middle power in order to reject the overall approach to diplomacy to which the concept actually refers. If Australia was a 'pivotal power', as he suggested, then it could play in the great powers' game.

Rudd is seeking to rekindle what the Labor party sees as Australia's 'golden era' of middle power diplomacy that Gareth Evans oversaw as Foreign Minister under Hawke and Keating. While the PM has reintroduced the concept into public debate and says it will be a guiding principle after it was unceremoniously dumped from the Howard-Downer approach, we have had little indication yet as to what specific initiatives it will produce. Many policy ideas are on the table, but the test for Rudd will be whether he is able to match Australia's limited resources to initiatives that are likely to succeed.

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