Middle Power Morass: Navigating Global Divides
Middle powers—states that lack superpower status but still play influential roles in international relations1—have the potential to forge a more stable, sustainable and cooperative balance of power, individually or in some collective constellation. While each government has individual interests and governance structures, as well as opponents and allies that drive its behaviour on the international stage, middle powers are often the champions of multilateral cooperation in areas of trade, diplomacy, security and, most recently, global health. Comprised of both advanced and emerging economies, this set of nations represents a far greater share of global GDP than the United States and China combined.2
However, if current trends persist, middle powers will struggle to reinforce resilience against crises at a time when global coordination is most needed.3 Global Risks Perception Survey (GRPS) respondents reflect this ominous outlook: “interstate relations fracture”, “interstate conflict” and “resource geopolitization” are all forecasted to become critical threats to the world in the medium term (see Figure I, Global Risks Horizon). In a destructive feedback loop, without middle power influence, geopolitical fragmentation and economic fragility will increase further, disruption will become more likely and progress on shared goals will lag.
Torn at the seams
The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the weak nodes and tenuous ties threading through the international system. Key trends point to a further weakening of multilateralism underpinned by common norms. Intensified US-China competition, more aggressive use of subversive tools of geopolitical influence and growing nationalism are fuelling the shift from a rules-based to a power-based global order.4 While these dynamics affect all states, their damaging impact on middle powers is particularly harmful because of the role these countries can—and often do—play in bolstering global cooperation in the face of shared challenges.
Ossifying economic and digital bipolarity
COVID-19 has entrenched state power and intensified rivalry between the United States and China.5 The new US administration may attempt to identify areas of cooperation with China, such as climate change and fighting the pandemic, but in the longer term, “collective leverage” against China from the United States and its closest allies is likely to deepen competition.6 China has fortified its economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region, recently formalizing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with 15 Asia-Pacific nations.7 The United States and China also both seek superiority in the digital realm by restricting technology flows and platforms, restructuring supply chains and favouring domestic investment.8 Each power will likely continue to expand its zones of influence, and in many cases this will happen outside traditional international forums.9
Misinformation, cyberattacks, targeted strikes and resource grabs are on the rise. The pandemic has shown how governments can wield conspiracy theories as geopolitical weapons by making accusations about other states.10 The next decade is likely to see more frequent and impactful dissemination of disinformation on issues of geopolitical importance such as elections, humanitarian crises, public health, security and cultural issues (see Chapter 2, Error 404).11 States and non-state actors alike will likely engage in more dangerous cyberattacks,12 and these attacks will become more sophisticated. Targeted strikes—through drones or other technologies—will become more ubiquitous.13 A warming planet will create new geographic realities, like shipping lanes in the Arctic, which could stoke resource competition. These concerns will continue to create a difficult global trade and business environment, adding to the risk of anaemic global economic growth.
Although all countries must defend against these power plays, middle powers are targeted more aggressively than smaller states (see Figure 4.1), yet many lack the defensive resources of the superpowers.14 With lagging technological and military capabilities, middle powers will need to allocate a larger proportion of their national budgets to defence or develop stronger alliances to maintain a minimum level of protection against attack.
Figure 4.1: Significant Cyberattacks 2006-2020 (Total Number)
Source: Specops Software. “The countries experiencing the most ‘significant’ cyber-attacks.” 9 July 2020. https://specopssoft.com/blog/countries-experiencing-significant-cyber-attacks/, using data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/201106_Significant_Cyber_Events_List.pdf
The economic downturn is accelerating a greater pivot inward for many governments as they seek to maintain fragile domestic political and social stability. GPRS respondents rank “livelihood crises” and “prolonged stagnation” as top short-term risks, and economic concerns figure in four out of the top five medium-term risks (see Figure I: Global Risks Horizon). These economic pressures and concomitant deepening nationalism could result in middle power governments being unwilling or unable to contribute to global risk mitigation.
In many countries, regardless of governance approach, nationalistic impulses have paralleled the pandemic-induced centralization of power.15 Policy decisions taken in 2020 may persist beyond the pandemic, enabling some governments to use repressive measures to control restive populations and allowing leaders with autocratic tendencies to pursue broader, longer-term agendas. “Political entrepreneurs” could seek to leverage growing nationalism to move governments away from globalization and cooperation.16 Restrictions on migration that were imposed during the pandemic may not be quickly eased.17
Stifled influence and weakened world order
The drivers outlined above, while universal, will reinforce specific challenges to middle power influence. In advanced middle power economies, widening defence and technology gaps are hindering leadership potential on critical transnational issues. Large, emerging markets are similarly hamstrung, with the ravages of COVID-19 further increasing vulnerability to superpower influence. The risks facing these countries could translate to more global conflict and a weaker system in which to mediate it.
Caught in the middle
Middle powers are uniquely positioned to offer alternative pathways for the world on trade, security and technology. However, growing capability gaps may force a choice between two rival blocs rather than allowing the middle powers to develop a diverse network of mutually beneficial agreements. For example, either the European Union (EU) (which accounts for nearly a third of global merchandise trade)18 or India (which is projected to become the world’s most populated country in 2027)19 could provide a counterbalance in the evolving geopolitical order in areas such as manufacturing and trade, but they will struggle to stand apart in digital and defence realms.20
Growing competition between the United States and China may also hinder other regional powers that might otherwise wish to pursue a balancing strategy. Middle Eastern governments could be thrust into a tug of war, with renewed US diplomacy efforts juxtaposed against increased Chinese economic initiatives in the region.21 In Latin America and Africa, China’s deepening economic ties could potentially rival historic security-based alliances and cultural connections with the United States.22
Forced to choose sides, governments may face economic or diplomatic consequences, as proxy disputes play out in control over economic or geographic resources. The deepening of geopolitical fault lines and the lack of viable middle power alternatives make it harder for countries to cultivate connective tissue with a diverse set of partner countries based on mutual values and maximizing efficiencies. Instead, networks will become thick in some directions and non-existent in others. The COVID-19 crisis has amplified this dynamic, as digital interactions represent a “huge loss in efficiency for diplomacy” compared with face-to-face discussions.23 With some alliances weakening, diplomatic relationships will become more unstable at points where superpower tectonic plates meet or withdraw.
At the same time, without superpower referees or middle power enforcement, global norms may no longer govern state behaviour. Some governments will thus see the solidification of rival blocs as an opportunity to engage in regional posturing, which will have destabilizing effects.24 Across societies, domestic discord and economic crises will increase the risk of autocracy, with corresponding censorship, surveillance, restriction of movement and abrogation of rights.25
Economic crises will also amplify the challenges for middle powers as they navigate geopolitical competition. ASEAN countries, for example, had offered a potential new manufacturing base as the United States and China decouple, but the pandemic has left these countries strapped for cash to invest in the necessary infrastructure and productive capacity.26 Economic fallout is pushing many countries to debt distress (see Chapter 1, Global Risks 2021). While G20 countries are supporting debt restructure for poorer nations,27 larger economies too may be at risk of default in the longer term;28 this would leave them further stranded—and unable to exercise leadership—on the global stage.
Middle power weaknesses will be reinforced in weakened institutions, which may translate to more uncertainty and lagging progress on shared global challenges such as climate change, health, poverty reduction and technology governance. In the absence of strong regulating institutions, the Arctic and space represent new realms for potential conflict as the superpowers and middle powers alike compete to extract resources and secure strategic advantage.29
If the global superpowers continue to accumulate economic, military and technological power in a zero-sum playing field, some middle powers could increasingly fall behind. Without cooperation or access to important innovations, middle powers will struggle to define solutions to the world’s problems. In the long term, GRPS respondents forecasted “weapons of mass destruction” and “state collapse” as the two top critical threats: in the absence of strong institutions or clear rules, clashes—such as those in Nagorno-Karabakh or the Galwan Valley—may more frequently flare into full-fledged interstate conflicts,30 which is particularly worrisome where unresolved tensions among nuclear powers are concerned. These conflicts may lead to state collapse, with weakened middle powers less willing or less able to step in to find a peaceful solution.
From alliances to partnerships
No individual country, regardless of governance approach, will be perfectly equipped to address the mounting societal, economic and environmental risks the world faces. In this geopolitical context, it is critical that middle powers can exercise leadership to reinforce global resilience. While many institutions of the post–World War II architecture have weakened over the last two decades, gaps remain in the international space for leaders to fill with innovative collaborations. At the same time, middle powers represent the first and best hope for reforming and repositioning flagging international institutions.
Issue-based plurilateral arrangements offer one opportunity. Where transnational challenges lack successful global governance structures, such as regulation of cyberspace and digital information flows, middle powers could lead inclusive partnerships to earn back trust where it has declined. Ad hoc and informal arrangements around shared goals—such as COVID-19 vaccines, digital and cybersecurity partnerships, and climate change mitigation and adaptation—can contribute to resilience between states by increasing interactions among members of the networks. Such arrangements are already emerging: for example, France and Germany’s Alliance for Multilateralism addresses issues such as disinformation, misinformation and gender equality.31 The Arctic Council is a forum for cooperation that could potentially take on more regulatory functions as climate crises increasingly impact the region.32 Most recently, the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-Accelerator), a global collaboration effort designed to accelerate development, production and equitable access to tests, treatments and vaccines, has been called the “biggest multilateral effort since the Paris climate agreement.”33
Such “thematic diplomacy” could also contribute to the reform of existing institutions.34 What UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called “a surplus of multilateral challenges and a deficit of multilateral solutions”35 could, in fact, be an opportunity to reform international architecture by refocusing priorities on long-term crises, ensuring productive use of stakeholder time and resources, and preventing collateral damage.36 Middle powers have a unique role to play: championing inclusivity, increasing predictability of funding, channelling resources towards multilateral initiatives, and insisting on adherence to international norms that are increasingly flouted will all provide critical support to a weakening system.37
Opportunities also lie with innovative collaborations between state and non-state actors. For example, partnerships involving the private sector and academia delivered the fastest vaccine development process to date. Canada, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have pledged nearly US$1 billion to a financing mechanism that will support 92 low- and middle-income countries to access a vaccine.38 And many middle power governments are partnering with sub-national entities and investors on initiatives to tackle climate change.39 Green investment plans could offer a resilience win-win for public and private actors to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change, still the greatest threat facing the world in the decades to come.