Global power structures are continuously in flux. Domestic and international forces can elevate a state to a level of prominence as well as remove it from its international pedestal. In the case of middle powers, those that were traditionally positioned within the center have become squeezed by a number of different forces — be they economic, diplomatic or cultural.

In economic terms, middle powers have been overtaken by the big emerging powers. These economies are garnering significant attention from the great powers, not to mention institutions like the G8. Whether all the optimism surrounding the projection of the structural weight of the BRIC[i] states — an invention of Goldman Sachs — is warranted or not, these states nevertheless have huge ambitions as well as the capacity to back those ambitions up. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, states such as India and Brazil were self-identifying as middle powers. Yet this is certainly not the case in the 21st century, as these states have come to see themselves as much more. A good indication of this transformation is the way that each of these BRIC states has re-branded itself through public diplomacy.

As an emerging power, China’s government has begun restructuring its own understanding of what it means to be a socialist state in the 21st century and how that image is presented abroad. The state’s leadership under President Hu Jintao has capitalized on its growing power, focusing on the fostering and maintenance of solidarity within the developing world. In this capacity, China’s impact has been felt throughout Africa and much of Latin America.

Brazil has retooled its foreign policy priorities under the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Since his coming to power, Brazil has sought to present an alternative to what it views as a hegemonic United States. Through its support of forums and organizations such as MERCOSUR[ii], IBSA[iii] and the G20 focused on the international trade system, it allows Brazil to act as a protector of the global south in the face of the traditional pattern of domination imposed by the U.S. and the North more generally.

Meanwhile, India sits at the forefront of technological advancement and cultural promotion. Both the rapid progress it has achieved in science and technology and the creation of a tech-savvy work force have worked to elevate India towards a brand of leadership in telecommunications. This is specifically true in the city of Bangalore, which has been coined the “Silicon Valley of India” by the New York Times and Business Weekly and is the host of companies such as Infosys Technologies and Wipro. This entrepreneurial spirit within the field of information technology is succeeded only by India’s other great industry: Bollywood. Although currently suffering from its own economic difficulties as well as heated disputes between producers and theater operators, Bollywood continues to be a diasporic force; its popularity is seen in the Middle East and Africa, throughout Asia and in the growing market in the United States — notably witnessed through the success of Bride and Prejudice.

The case can therefore be made that from a diplomatic perspective, the space formerly occupied by middle powers is becoming more crowded. BRIC states are already giving way to a greater number of emerging economies. The publicity given to the concept of the Next 11[iv] is one way of looking at this, but so are the actions by select smaller states on an individual basis — that is, using resources or roles that have long been the hallmark of middle powers. Small or micro states like Trinidad and Tobago, Qatar, and Singapore have all pursued national branding strategies pursuant to an international course of action dedicated to eroding the vulnerabilities associated with their geographical space.

Trinidad has branded itself as the hub of the Caribbean from an economic (oil production), regional governance (hosting two major summits in 2009 alone) and cultural (Carnival) standpoint.

Qatar has pursued an internationalist profile, becoming a primary actor within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and hosting a Middle East-North Africa regional economic meeting with full support from the U.S. as well as a major WTO ministerial meeting at its capital city, Doha, thus becoming synonymous with the most recent round of trade negotiations. Qatar was even elected to a two-year term on the U.N. Security Council in October 2005.

Similarly, the Republic of Singapore, stigmatized because of its sometimes-strict nationalist practices, has sought to establish itself as a “world class” state. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan has marveled at the city-state’s rapid progress from Third World to first world in a single generation, and it is this concentration on an ethic-driven perfectionist nature that Singapore has sought to display throughout the world. Meanwhile, one of Singapore’s leading academics, Kishore Mahbubani, has gone as far as arguing that in its pursuit of becoming a “world class state,” it has in effect surpassed the standards set by other states labeled as world class.

Certainly with such a rapid permutation of states within the spheres of global influence, traditional middle powers face greater challenges in maintaining their position of effectiveness within the international system. Yet it is precisely because of these challenges by both the new “Bigs” and the up-and-coming “Smalls” that it is so timely and necessary to reassess the positions of those countries that can be considered middle powers.

At the end of the Cold War, I co-authored a book titled Relocating Middle Powers. The major theme was an optimistic one: Within some basic boundaries and guidelines, middle powers had an ascendant future. In the absence of the divisiveness that drove the latter half of the 20th century, middle powers needed to discard some of their habits of the past, specifically status seeking and explicit claims of moral superiority.

The best pathway forward appeared to be a selective one: an updating of “functionalism” and the seeking or finding of niches in issue-specific areas. The two countries featured most heavily in the book, Canada and Australia, have since interchanged the way they have interpreted the middle power in the years since.

Canada under the Liberals relocated niches in a number of high-profile and exciting but highly specialized areas such as land mines and the International Criminal Court. These initiatives allowed Canada to create a different brand, and a different approach to public diplomacy, positioning itself as a country on the cutting edge of new forms of coalitions, mixing middle powers, small states and NGOs.

Under the Conservatives, Canada has alternatively relocated itself in a varied form of functionalism — one that focuses on big and risky endeavors — with its significant troop deployment in Afghanistan dominating attention.

Both variations confirmed that the “what” and the “where” of middle power activity could be contested. The Liberals referred to Canada as a middle power, and so too have the Conservatives. Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated such a fact before the Council of Foreign Relations in 2007. But how each government qualified the term displayed a difference of opinion.

For Lloyd Axworthy, a former liberal foreign minister, Canada’s importance was to be found in positioning Canada normatively — doing good and being seen to do so. Under Axworthy’s management of foreign affairs, Canada’s primary focus was on human security through a utilization of soft power and alliance formation. For Stephen Harper, the current Prime Minister, this approach was misguided. It sent the wrong signal of who Canada was and who it should be allying itself with internationally — neglecting traditional partners like the U.S. and U.K. It also was interpreted as devaluing the issues on which Canada could make a difference. Such issues were more militaristic in nature and less dedicated to diplomacy and multilateralism. Under the Harper government, funds slowly began eroding from Canada’s traditional soft power organs like the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), while the Department of National Defense received significant increases in funding.[v] In keeping with this approach, Afghanistan is not only seen as important in of itself, but also as a signal to the world that Canada — the country that fought at Vimy Ridge, the beaches of Normandy and in Korea — is back.

But of course this alternative view raised controversy as well. Critics argued against the position of subordination inherent in the strategy, which involves removing Canada from a position of leadership in world affairs and reducing it to a helpful follower. Members of the opposition were quick to argue against Harper’s streamlining of Canadian foreign policy with that of the United States, arguing instead for greater ties with Europe and Asia. Steven Staples, president of the Rideau Institute on International Affairs, an Ottawa-based advocacy group, has pointed out that under the Bush-Harper years, Canada’s natural foreign policy tendencies were held back and suppressed to harmonize with the United States. With the new Obama administration, this course of action puts Canada at a disadvantage largely due to the new president’s advances towards renewing a sense of global multilateralism in international politics.

In contrast, while the definition of a middle power in Canada transformed from multilateral internationalism to great power ally, Australia went in the other direction. Under the Australian version of the Liberals (more akin to the Canadian Conservatives), John Howard’s government branded Australia as a reliable ally to the United States and United Kingdom, most notably in the country’s stance towards the invasion of and subsequent armed conflict in Iraq. With the return of the Labor Party to government, however, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has sought to rebrand Australia as an assertive middle power with keen interests in furthering multilateralism. Since coming to power in 2007, Rudd has expressed his desire to get Australia a seat on the Security Council at the U.N. and to increase Australian involvement in discussions on issues such as multilateral security, economic engagement, human rights and the environment. Rudd’s version of a middle power has served Australia well in getting to the table in events that have allowed not just the traditional large powers, but some middle powers as well. The classic case is the push by Australia to join the G20 at both the finance and the leaders’ level.

If Canada and Australia have shifted their identities as middle powers, the same can be argued for traditional European middle powers. In some ways it can be said that this cluster of middle powers has become entrapped in the Brussels architecture, surrendering sovereignty for a position within the EU. Certainly they do not have the capacity to exert or project the middle power image of independence as they did through to the end of the Cold War. Sweden, with its arms sales and immigration issues, is no longer considered the moral superpower it once was. Meanwhile Norway, a non-EU member, has continued to maintain a high level of dynamism in its diplomacy, which is based on the model of traditional middle powers with respect to mediation (Sri Lanka and the Middle East).

The EU structure has also made it more difficult for European middle powers to gain access to forums such as the G20 on any continual or sustained basis. While sometimes awarded one off entry to such forums, states like Spain and the Netherlands must do so often on the coattails of other EU leaders and countries; such was the case when French President Nicolas Sarkozy allowed Spain to use one of its seats at the November 2008 G20 meeting in Washington, D.C.

Yet if the state-centric diplomatic approach has ebbed within the global hierarchy, other forms of branding have become ascendant. Few if any countries have as many distinct or clear commercial brands as the traditional European middle powers. Some commentators, like the University of Leipzig’s Dr. Jürgen Häusler, have argued that in the current global marketplace, it is indeed the brands that create nations and not the other way around, in the way that the quality of a brand represents the craftsmanship, work ethic, etc. of an entire state. The term “Made in Germany” is associated with the high level of craftsmanship of its auto industry. Italian fashion is thought to be of top quality thanks to brands such as Armani, Zegna and Brioni.

Other states associated with brands include the Netherlands, synonymous with ING and Shell Oil, and Finland, with Nokia. Sweden is now synonymous with Ikea, whose founder Ingvar Kamprad was listed by Forbes as the fifth wealthiest person in the world in 2009 and whose large bold blue and yellow box stores represent Sweden worldwide.

European middle powers also have built on their brands in other ways, marketing cultural institutions, former leaders and NGOs. Sweden, once more, is recognized the world over much in part through the Nobel Prize. NGOs such as Switzerland’s Médecins sans Frontières or Green Peace, which was founded in Vancouver and is now headquartered in Amsterdam, also serve to buoy and/or sometimes define their respective states’ images even as the organization, itself, grows global in scope.

This increasingly multiplied or diversified role seems to be the template for the growing number of non-European middle powers as well. South Africa no longer has the unique advantages of the Mandela factor in state terms, though, as a former leader and human rights activist, he certainly aids the country’s image. Moreover, the record of South Africa in mediation has been less than exceptional as of late. Its policy of quiet diplomacy with respect to the Mugabe regime has been labeled an embarrassment, leading only, it is argued, to the greater suffering of Zimbabweans. Meanwhile, its attempt to aid negotiations between Israel and Palestine through diplomatic contact with Hamas has been panned as naïve, with skeptics warning such diplomacy puts South Africa at risk of appearing accepting of Hamas’ methods.

Still, if South Africa has hit the wall diplomatically, it maintains abundant advantages familiar to most middle powers. The country has access to many international forums, including the G8 through its involvement with the so-called Heiligendamm 5[vi] as well as being represented within the G77, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Commonwealth. South Africa has had success with its variety of commercial brands, and it has democratic credibility, something the state shares with its IBSA partners Brazil and India. Finally, it has a huge cultural and symbolic presence, as evidenced by its hosting capacity for the World Cup of Soccer in 2010.

Arguably, Mexico has some similar forms of opportunity. In terms of diplomatic access, Mexico stands up well in comparative terms to other middle powers, championing humanitarian issues like migration. Dominated by isolationist tendencies for most of the late-20th century, the government of Mexico has grown beyond its self-imposed seclusion with respect to its foreign policy, choosing a more open international position, as evidenced through its work with the G-77, the WTO and the OECD. In doing so, the modern progressive Mexico has managed to combine marketable commercial brands such as Corona with new forms of democratic credibility and growing international renown.

Yet Mexico’s international persona is held back much in the same way by that which stagnates South African progress, namely crime and social inequality. The current problems surrounding the state’s warring drug cartels and the subsequent fighting located throughout much of Mexico’s northern region have done much to harm the image of Mexican progress. Yet Mexico’s international status is also hampered by some of its more traditional foreign policy norms such as its practice of non-intervention in the affairs of other states. Such policy issues limit the potential for global reach available through practices like peacekeeping.

One of the most striking features of a middle power is the diversity of ways it is projected in the world, be it diplomatic, commercial and/or normative. Sometimes this leads to internal debates, as evidenced in Australia and Canada. In other cases it means that some states fit more awkwardly into the model. Another feature of a middle power is persistence.  All middle powers concentrate on maintaining some form of middle power status through smooth and rough times. Their role is not one-off but sustained, albeit expressed differently on a case-by-case basis.

What is true of the traditional middle power states mentioned above remains true for the growing number of countries that have moved into what appears to be a new form of middle power role. As was the case in the past, some of the new middle powers will be more edgy than others. A good example in Asia is Malaysia, a democracy with good diplomatic access through multilateral organizations like APEC[vii] and the ASEAN[viii], but also a country that has sought to assert its will where possible.

In Latin America, the putative models of middle powers cover a huge spectrum, something akin to the variants on the Left. At one end of the spectrum is Venezuela, a country that has shifted completely away from its reputation for mediation in the 1980s to a country that builds coalitions largely on the basis of opposition to the United States. At the other end of the spectrum is Chile — arguably not a MP by size, but one by tone of behavior — which has consistently acted as a mediating presence in locations like Haiti and has developed a strong commercial acumen as well as connections with civil society.

There is then not one single model for a “middle power.” Each state belongs to the categorical middle ground between the weak and the strong while maintaining its own unique qualities and nuances critical to each state’s middle power status. Still, there are characteristics that give this international position some embeddedness: working well with others, a mix of commercial and NGO strengths, and an ability to modify the state’s brand. If flexible in style, it is the comfort in the middle that binds them as a category. Many other countries have diverse identities, including, of course, the BRIC states, while some are tied into a status that they don’t like, such as the more progressive states in the Middle East — states that have a strong desire to improve their global brand. Middle powers can be squeezed hard by the prevailing forces of power in the world. By their very nature, middle power states are sometimes seen as floundering or in decline. Certainly each state can differ on where the middle is as well as their place within it, but all have a high degree of aptitude as well as a sense of safety associated with being in the middle. It is identities such as these that play well for how middle powers project themselves in the world.

Dr. Andrew F. Cooper is Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo and Associate Director of The Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario. In 2009, he was the Canada-U.S. Fulbright Research Chair at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.


[i] Brazil, Russia, India, China

[ii] The MERCOSUR (Merado Común del Sur) trading block includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, with associate members Bolivia, Chilé, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

[iii] India, Brazil and South Africa’s trilateral development initiative.

[iv] The Next 11 (or N-11), identified by Goldman Sachs as the economies that promise growth in the 21st century are Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Turkey and Vietnam

[v] Jennifer Campbell, “Erosion of Diplomatic Corp will cost Canada, Clark says”, Ottawa Citizen, 14 February 2009. Available at:

[vi] China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico.

[vii] Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation

[viii] Association of Southeast Asian Nations