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2022: The year of the middle power

The war in Ukraine has reignited Cold War tensions, but smaller states are no longer willing to split into blocs or be coerced by major parties.

Analysis | Reporting | Africa

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, governments across the world faced a stark choice. They could line up behind Ukraine and its Western backers, or they could take Moscow’s side. 

For U.S.-based observers, the moral decision was obvious. After all, Russia was clearly the one who started the war, and Moscow’s actions blatantly violated international principles of sovereignty, self-rule, and non-aggression.

But many states ended up going for the Goldilocks option. Mid-sized powers like Turkey and India condemned the war while rejecting Western efforts to levy comprehensive sanctions on Russia. Within months, their ties with Russia and the West had largely returned to business as usual, allowing them to avoid the economic and political pitfalls of picking sides in a great power conflict.

In many ways, this is a perfect example of the most striking foreign policy shift of 2022: the geopolitical rise of the world’s so-called “middle powers.” In the past year, Turkey, India, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and numerous others have carefully expanded their influence in global affairs, taking advantage of great powers that are determined to shore up their support on the world stage.

This might sound like a Cold War redux, but there’s one key difference: Unlike last century, middle powers now have enough economic and geopolitical clout to throw their weight around without lining up behind a single superpower sponsor.

In practice, this means that India can dramatically increase its imports of Russian oil and undercut Western sanctions without facing any retaliation from the United States. And Saudi Arabia can hike oil prices during a global inflation crisis and sign expansive new economic deals with China, all while President Joe Biden fights tooth and nail to block a congressional effort to end U.S. support for Riyadh’s brutal war in Yemen.

There is, of course, one big asterisk when it comes to middle powers. Though they can be remarkably effective at pursuing their interests within the international system, they have little if any ability to shape it. In other words, there is no reason to believe that Ankara will create new international institutions, but there is also no doubt that it will take advantage of its place in NATO to earn concessions from its fellow member states.

From Washington, assertions of independence by middle powers are viewed as annoying at best and dangerous at worst. But the international system has fundamentally changed in the last few years, and it’s time for the United States to accept this brave new world, according to Sarang Shidore, the director of studies at the Quincy Institute.

“[The U.S. is] trying to make the world system in the way it sees it,” Shidore argued. “Trying to make it first fit into your vision and then trying to fashion a strategy based on that idealized world is not going to work.”

A new kind of great power competition

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were unabashed in their goals. Each side sought to create a larger, more strategically useful bloc of allies than the other, sometimes going to great lengths to transform the internal politics of states they viewed as junior partners.

When leaders resisted these efforts, Washington and Moscow would often resort to coups and strategically dubious proxy wars in order to secure their interests. The U.S. had a particular knack for covert operations, through which it helped bring friendly governments to power at least 26 times during the Cold War, according to Lindsay O’Rourke, a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute.

Middle powers were sometimes able to turn the tables when one of the superpowers had a perceived vital interest at stake. The most famous example of this came in 1973, when Arab oil producers blocked exports to countries that supported Israel in the October War against Syria and Egypt. 

This was the first time that a middle power managed to strike directly at the U.S., leading to a permanent shift in American energy policy. But the embargo, which was meant to force Israel to retreat to its original 1949 borders, failed on its own terms, and the effort was scrapped within six months.

America’s roughshod approach to the world’s smaller states continued well after the collapse of the USSR. Between 1990 and 2017 — the peak years of the so-called “unipolar moment” — the United States undertook more than 130 military interventions abroad, including numerous efforts to unseat unfriendly leaders in the Middle East.

But things have started to change. Decades of with-us-or-against-us policy by great powers have made leaders around the world skeptical of a bloc-based foreign policy. And, as the Global South has developed economically, coercion has gotten much harder. 

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the U.S. has stopped trying. Just ask Venezuela and Iran, a pair of prominent middle powers that Washington has pushed toward Moscow and Beijing through years of punitive policies. 

But that approach is little more than a unipolar hangover. And, when it comes to Venezuela, leaders in Washington have shown signals that they’re starting to sober up. 

After pretending for years that exiled politician Juan Guaido is the country’s legitimate president, the U.S. has begun engaging directly with Nicolas Maduro, the actual leader in Caracas. As Geoff Ramsey of the Washington Office on Latin America recently noted, the Biden administration has “created a set of incentives that brought Maduro back to the negotiating table” with the opposition. If this process goes well, it could end the failed attempt to drive the leftist leader out of office by economically and politically isolating Caracas.

Many factors have contributed to this shift, including the election of left-wing presidents in both Brazil and Colombia, two of Latin America’s most prominent middle powers. But the biggest reason is more about economics than great power competition. As Russia’s war in Ukraine has driven up oil prices, the prospect of blocking Venezuelan oil from reaching world markets has become less and less attractive. This is no doubt why Washington signed off last month on plans for Chevron to restart drilling operations in the country.

This more pragmatic approach is similar to that of China, which tends to ignore the internal politics of foreign countries in favor of a focus on economic cooperation. This is particularly apparent in the Middle East, where Beijing has recently expanded economic ties with a range of autocratic leaders.

The region’s middle powers have had particular success in balancing between great powers, in part because of their strategic location or natural resources. 

Turkey has led the pack on this front. Through its careful balancing act between Russia and the West, Ankara has rapidly expanded its geopolitical clout, in part because of its role in mediating a deal that restarted Ukrainian grain shipments in the Black Sea. 

And now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has started to cash in on his expanded leverage. As Finland and Sweden have pushed to join NATO, the populist leader has taken advantage of the alliance’s consensus-based decision-making to force changes in their stances toward Turkish human rights abuses. Even the U.S. Congress, which has largely viewed Erdogan as persona non grata in recent years, dropped its opposition to selling American fighter jets to Turkey following a pressure campaign.

Gulf powers have also succeeded in navigating choppy political waters. “The Gulf states have made it clear they’re not going to pick and choose sides in geopolitical battles they don’t feel concern them,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. 

“Having benefited from the rise in energy prices as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they feel they have more leverage,” Ulrichsen told RS. “They're becoming more assertive, I think, in choosing how and when to deploy that leverage in the international system.”

This helps to explain how Saudi Arabia has managed to expand ties with Russia and China while still forcing Biden to drop his campaign promise to turn Riyadh into a “pariah” following the 2018 killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And other Western leaders have followed suit, including French President Emmanuel Macron, who de facto Saudi leader Muhammad bin Salman visited in Paris earlier this year. 

Further east, several large Asian countries have also started to forge their own geopolitical paths. Despite Western pressure, Indonesia refused to boot Russia from this year’s G20 summit in Bali, and Indonesian leader Joko Widodo has met with both Russian and Ukrainian leaders in an effort to encourage peace talks between the two countries. And India has continued to import vast quantities of Russian goods while strengthening ties with American leaders over a shared concern over China’s rise.

As Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s former UN ambassador, recently argued, the United States will have to accept this new reality if it wants to craft an effective strategy in Asia. “Singapore wants to stay friends with the United States and China,” Mahbubani said. “The rest of the world would appreciate a more thoughtful strategy moving forward.”

The world as it is

So far, American leaders have struggled to adapt to the rise of middle powers. 

Despite India’s renewed importance, it’s been almost two years since the U.S. had a confirmed ambassador in New Delhi. Meanwhile, leaders in Congress have fought for months to force Biden to designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism — a move that could force Washington to sanction any entities that do business with Moscow, including many U.S. partners.

As Shidore told RS, the Biden administration has also alienated numerous middle powers by pushing a narrative of global politics as a battle between autocracy and democracy. “These kinds of labels may resonate in Washington, but [they] mean very little for these middle powers,” he said. “They just see this as empty rhetoric.”

For Shidore, a better policy approach requires an effort to deal with other countries on their own terms instead of trying to fit them into the international trends of the day.

Take the case of Brazil, where left-wing firebrand Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will take over as president next month. Observers expect Lula to break with his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro’s foreign policy, which focused on forging close ties with Washington, in favor of a return to Brasilia’s traditional non-aligned approach.

“Lula holds that Brazil benefits most from an independent foreign policy that does not go out of its way to ingratiate itself with the U.S. or its geopolitical rivals du jour,” said Andre Pagliarini, a professor at Hampden-Sydney College. “The idea here is that Brazil does not usually have a stake in the squabbles of larger, wealthier powers and that it makes no sense to choose sides when it can be to Brazil’s benefit to keep all channels of trade and communication open.”

This shift will provide a crucial test for Washington, which bristled at Lula’s efforts to pursue an independent foreign policy during his first stint as Brazil’s president. 

If the Biden administration seeks to work with Lula, then it could see significant progress toward resolving the political crisis in Venezuela and protecting the Amazon rainforest, a key part of any effort to fight climate change. If Washington chooses to shun the left-wing leader, it will likely struggle to get much of anything done in Latin America, a region in which Brazil has significant economic and political clout. 

“[Lula] sees his ability to work productively with Washington, Beijing, Moscow, Caracas, and Havana as a potentially legacy-defining feat,” Pagliarini said. “He’ll want to be able to say he built bridges instead of casting his lot with one side or another.” 

America’s adversaries will no doubt jump at the chance to work with Brazil on a range of non-zero sum issues. The question for 2023 is whether Washington will do the same.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi on May 01, 2017. Prime Minister's Office (GODL-India), GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons
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