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Strategies for Middle Powers

09 Jun 2017
By Dr Christian Downie
Photo: Josh Harper (Flickr)

Familiar great and rising powers have the most influence in shaping the international order. With careful strategy and by playing to their strengths, however, middle powers such as Australia can also prompt positive outcomes at the upcoming G20 meeting.

The Group of Twenty (G20) has emerged as the most dramatic example of the changing balance of power in the international system. When it meets next month in Germany much attention will focus on the major powers, such as the US, and the rising powers, such as China, or (heaven forbid) Donald Trump’s latest antics.

However, less attention will be on the behaviour of so-called middle powers like Australia. The assumption is that these nations, such as Australia, Mexico or South Korea, have limited power to affect international outcomes. They do not have the economic heft or military strength to match it with the largest nations in the world.

Yet in the G20, where power is now diffused among multiple nations, rather than simply dominated by the US, the attributes traditionally associated with middle powers, such as agenda-setting and coalition-building, could provide the capacity to influence international outcomes across a range of policy domains, from finance and trade to energy and the environment.

In this context, it is important for Australian policymakers to identify what strategies they can use to shape G20 outcomes. Recent research on the role of Australia in the G20 identifies three strategies that are likely to be important.

Great power manager

In the 1980s, Australia invested considerable energy in attempting to restrict the growth of economic conflict between major powers, such as the US and Japan or the US and the EU. For example, on trade Australia was a strong proponent of an open multilateral trading system bound by agreed principles and rules. Today, the focus has shifted to limiting potential conflicts between the US and China.

Accordingly, in forums like the G20, Australia can and should work to identify opportunities for the US and China to cooperate. For example, at the G20 Summit in Brisbane in 2014, Australia used its position as G20 president to put global energy governance reform on the agenda.

Indeed, the Brisbane summit was the first time that leaders held a dedicated discussion about reforming the rules governing energy at the global level. While Australia by no means led the discussions, by identifying an issue that the US and China had an interest in and coordinating their input into the draft principles, Australia was able to facilitate cooperation between the major powers.

Emerging power advocate

As a middle power, Australia has longstanding interest in maintaining an open, peaceful liberal international order. It is therefore in Australia’s interest to bring rising powers, such as China, India and Brazil, among others, into the existing international order as responsible stakeholders.

This requires acknowledging that the existing institutional architecture does not reflect the rising power of these countries. Indeed, many of the world’s most prominent international organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the International Energy Agency (IEA), do not reflect the power of these nations in their governing arrangements, including in many cases their memberships and voting rights.

Hence one strategy for a nation like Australia is to advocate on behalf of these nations. In the G20 this can be done by pursuing issues that appeal to these states. An obvious issue is to push for reform of these international organisations. Should the G20 fail to recognise and reflect the rising power of countries such as China, those countries have the resources to change the system themselves and establish alternative global institutions, which may not always be in Australia’s interest.

Issue-based coalition builder

Traditionally, middle powers have been influential when they have set the agenda and built issue-specific coalitions to support their positions—as, for example, Australia did to support trade liberalisation in the 1990s. These strategies are central to middle powers, which do not have the structural sources of power that great powers do.

In the G20, the changing distribution of power provides new opportunities for middle powers to build coalitions. This is especially so for Australia. Australia is not a member of the G7 or the BRICS—the main formal groupings in the G20—but it is uniquely well positioned to connect countries from both groups because of its strong ties to the G7 countries, location in Asia, and close economic relationship with China.

The very existence of the G20 is testament to the shifting distribution of power in the international system. Typically, the focus has been on the actions of major powers and rising powers. While these countries will no doubt shape the future of the globe, with the right strategies, middle powers, including Australia, can also play an important role.

Dr Christian Downie is a fellow and the higher degree research convenor in the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) at The Australian National University. 

This is based on Christian Downie’s presentation to AIIA NSW on 6 June 2017.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.