Asked to provide a recipe for World War III, many historically minded analysts might mention growing belligerence by dissatisfied great powers; inconsistent system responses; and a succession of economic downturns and domestic political upheavals, followed by a short-term crisis that pushes the system to the brink. Yet a new set of risks is emerging. Today, the ambitions and risk-taking of a jostling, often increasingly assertive crowd of middle powers seeking a larger voice in world politics is causing widespread turbulence in the global system as well as new challenges for U.S. statecraft.
In such a context, international stability and the outcome of great-power rivalries will be a product of many factors beyond Russian and Chinese agitation. One of the most important will be the behavior of middle powers — the growing number of developed and developing countries uninterested in a new bipolar stand-off and determined to chart an independent course. They, as much as the United States or its great-power rivals, will play pivotal roles in determining the future of the international system. The United States has yet to demonstrate that it can operate effectively in this new context. To adapt, Washington should directly address the ambitions and disputes of middle powers — especially those that are not close U.S. allies — and to revise its strategy for competition with Russia and China in ways that take seriously the autonomous position of these other states.
In its relations with middle powers, Washington should not hesitate to insist upon a very short list of norms of acceptable behavior. But while doing so, it should move decisively toward a more inclusive and less coercive approach that prioritizes relations with middle powers as a critical component of U.S. statecraft. This means leading with a broader global agenda that addresses the concerns of middle powers, rather than seeking to exclude states from global networks through overly simplistic frames such as democracy versus autocracy. And while the Indo-Pacific is certainly a principal concern, the United States should not overshoot in regional prioritization. This will generate power vacuums that other powers rush to fill. Finally, Washington should do more to address the systemic risks of conflict escalation between small and middle powers.
Why Middle Powers Matter
In international relations literature, the concept of middle powers is fairly vague. It generally refers to nations that are not strong enough to count as “great” powers but still have significant influence and strategic importance. Typically, middle powers are characterized by a certain degree of heft — in economic, geographic, demographic, or military terms — but some relatively small states can vault into the category as a function of their international activism and influence.
As a result, the set of countries typically identified as middle powers varies. Some are fully developed, former colonial powers like Germany and Japan. Some are smaller developed nations that punch above their weight in global role and influence, including Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, and South Korea. Some are petro-powers — Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, as well as smaller Gulf states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Others are large developing states such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey, and Vietnam.
One of the leading trends in world politics — in the long run, just as important as intensifying great-power rivalries — is the growing desire of these countries for more control over the shape of the global order and greater influence over specific outcomes. This trend emerges in Turkey’s ambitions for a regional voice and influence, its attempt to position itself between the United States and Europe on the one hand and their main rivals on the other, and its growing military presence abroad. It is evident in Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s vision of a more multipolar world with a greater voice for the Global South. It shows up in European goals for greater strategic autonomy, South Korea’s renewed emphasis on a bigger regional role (with President Yoon Suk-yeol’s stated desire to become a “global pivotal state”), and Poland’s military ambitions. Some middle powers have a sense of exceptionalism that parallels those of great powers: Karen Elliott House has compared Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman to Chinese leader Xi Jinping — technocrats with grand ambitions for their countries who “see themselves as symbols of proud and ancient civilizations that are superior to the West.”
Recent months have shown the challenge to the United States of a world in which middle-power activism is a feature rather than a bug in the international system. Saudi Arabia’s defiance of the Biden administration’s efforts to lower oil prices, Turkey’s extended blockade of Sweden’s NATO membership bid, Indonesia’s refusal to bar Russia’s entry to the G20 summit in Bali, and India’s continued cultivation of economic and military equipment ties with Russia all reflect the same trend. This emerging reality is amplifying the uncertainty and the clashes of regional ambitions in world politics, and molding a significant geopolitical space between the great powers.
The rising activism of middle powers can theoretically contribute to stability by providing additional sources of balancing and diplomacy. But an equally likely outcome is that the ambitions of these countries will exacerbate other rising instabilities of the international system.
Previous power transitions show that major powers are by no means doomed to trip into the Thucydides Trap during an era of fluidity. But periods of transition do inflame a whole basket of risks. The uncertainty associated with crumbling hierarchies and the militarization of foreign policies to compensate for perceived weaknesses can heighten the dangers of advertent and inadvertent escalation associated with closing windows of opportunity. These periods are also associated with the tightening of alliances and the accumulation of crises, as well as the spillover of conflicts between political, economic, and ideological domains amid declining ideological agreement between major powers.
All these systemic instabilities increase the probability of war — and they do so in large part through the dynamics unfolding among middle and smaller powers. Worrying about how power shifts drive direct conflict between great powers is not wrong but incomplete. System-shaping wars often grow out of ambitions, aggressions, and miscalculations involving other states, which eventually pull opposing great powers into major wars, crises, and proxy wars. This pattern crops up again and again: Serbia and Austria-Hungary before World War I, the division of the Korean peninsula and the Korean War, the Suez Crisis, the Kosovo War (with the infamous Pristina Airport Incident), the Syrian and Libyan civil wars (with foreign powers vying for influence), and on to the current Russia-Ukraine war (with Western support for Ukraine via money and military equipment). The assortment of “dangerous dyads” scattered over the globe — including in the Caucasus, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia — does not bode well for regional stability.
Focusing on great-power relationships alone therefore risks ignoring the ultimate catalysts of system-changing wars. It is also a recipe for forfeiting a significant competitive advantage in great-power competition.
Happy to Hedge
Perhaps the single geopolitical stance most characteristic of middle powers is an allergy to being recruited into a new bipolar stand-off between great powers. Middle powers display many variants of this. Some are pursuing rigid non-alignment, some want to affiliate more with the United States while still pursuing “soft balancing” vis-à-vis China, and some maintain formal alliances with the United States but take a starkly different view of key rivalries. As political scientist Hunter Marston has recently argued, all these strategies make hedging not merely a matter of wanting to “balance” or “bandwagon” but instead a comprehensive and essential foreign policy vision.
This is not a 21st century Non-Aligned Movement, where a handful of activist developing nations try to build a coherent, anti-colonial third bloc in word politics. It is a more disaggregated mosaic motivated primarily by nationalism — a collection of self-interested, independent-minded nations, with far more power than their Cold War forebears, who accelerate the arrival of a complex and fluid global pattern of alignments, coalitions, and issue-specific accords.
Examples are legion. India and Indonesia both adhere to formal, longstanding grand strategies of non-alignment. Vietnam also has a formalized policy of non-alignment and a foreign policy that seeks “loose, non-binding and multidimensional” relations with great powers and others. One analyst notes that “[Turkey’s] new foreign policy is best understood not as a drift toward Russia or China” but as a “desire to keep a foot in each camp and to manage great-power rivalry.” Even Israel may become more determinedly independent of U.S. policy under its new hard-right government.
France and Germany, while turning strongly against Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, are carving out less confrontational positions on China. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has offered a foreign policy vision that rejects the idea of a “new Cold War” with China, suggesting that “China’s rise does not warrant isolating Beijing or curbing cooperation.” France’s 2022 National Strategic Review states that “France, a balanced power, refuses to be locked into bloc geopolitics.”
Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues that Middle Eastern states increasingly reflect the same mindset: “A growing number of U.S. partners are seeking to avoid choosing sides altogether and to maintain relations with all the great powers at once.” Saudi Arabia may be the leading example of this increasingly multi-dimensional, multi-partner approach to balancing. Aaron David Miller contends that “[in] today’s Cold War 2.0,” Saudi Arabia will not simply “refuse to choose sides,” but most likely “move closer to Beijing and Moscow as its own interests warrant.” Karen Young adds that bin Salman “believes Riyadh has the right to work with a shifting constellation of partners” in an increasingly “malleable” world order.
These geopolitical strategies are reflected in public attitudes. A recent meta-review of public opinion data in dozens of developing countries concluded that many “have moved closer to China and Russia over the course of the last decade. As a result, China and Russia are now narrowly ahead of the United States in their popularity among developing countries.”
Taking Middle Powers Seriously
The most recent U.S. National Security Strategy envisions a world divided between two camps — the United States and most liberal democracies on one side, Russia and China and their handful of misfit devotees, such as Iran and North Korea, on the other. There is of course an important truth in that dichotomy. But the increasing self-confidence and assertiveness of middle powers suggests a more complex geopolitical map, one with a kaleidoscope of overlapping and conflicting nodes of influence, interests, and goals on dozens of issues rather than a pair of dominant blocs. This pattern is likely to be shifting rather than static, and spectral rather than binary. It will confront the United States with a dilemma-strewn basket of issue-specific shared interests, desires to collaborate, historical baggage, disagreements, and disputes with just about any middle power.
This budding reality poses two challenges to U.S. and allied statecraft. The first is managing the risks to stability from multiple sources. The second is promoting U.S. influence in a world resistant to being recruited into Team America. Some of the implications are reasonably well-appreciated: Such a context will defeat extreme strategies of either primacy or retrenchment, to avoid overextension and power vacuums that rivals could fill. The United States should not count on strong-willed middle powers for more than they are willing to provide, especially in military terms. Washington should focus on establishing a few clear norms of shared behavior and enforcing them credibly. And it should remember that most middle powers consider themselves neither allies nor “faithful” friends: Most will expect U.S. administrations to push them on selected issues, and Washington will have to engage in a competition of coercion from time to time with Russia and/or China. With this in mind, the following four principles can help Washington to engage with middle powers more effectively.
Lead with an Agenda Partly Focused on the Concerns of Middle Powers
As Foreign Policy editor Ravi Agrawal put it: “The West seemingly expects countries to join the initiatives it wants to invest in, but it rarely shows up for everyone else’s problems.” If the United States hammers away at self-interested goals while ignoring the needs of others — for example, using security ties primarily to bolster U.S. warfighting prowess rather than address partner security concerns — it will undermine the long-term basis for teamwork. Recruiting middle powers to a vision of zero-sum competition is not likely to gain support from such countries: They are generally uninterested in a U.S. agenda focused primarily on sabotaging Chinese influence and reaffirming U.S. primacy.
What would this approach look like in practice? The United States badly needs a fresh, serious, and well-funded initiative in sustainable development, perhaps built around the U.N. 2030 agenda. It could lead in designing — with China — a relief program for developing world debt and the promotion of equitable growth. It could significantly increase its stake in the Green Climate Fund for developing nations particularly vulnerable to climate change, and boost U.S. leadership on and support for global pandemic preparedness and health security. It could back reform of international institutions such as the World Bank and take quick action on U.S. regulations and policies especially irksome to middle powers and their populations, such as the massive wait times for U.S. visas. In security terms, U.S. efforts to provide middle powers with active, defensively oriented denial capabilities can help to insulate them against revisionist aggressors (including other middle powers) without triggering regional arms races and while relieving the direct defense burden on the United States.
Favor Inclusion over Exclusion
With a deepening reliance on direct and indirect sanctions, the default U.S. foreign policy approach has become punitive and exclusionary: Play by our rules or suffer the consequences. But this is a hangover from the post-Cold War era of U.S. primacy. Middle powers in the 21st century middle are of a different demographic, economic, and military size than their 20th-century forebears. Forcing these middle powers to accept policies antithetical to their own interests will antagonize both their domestic audiences and their foreign policy elites. This also prompts adversaries and partners alike to create mechanisms in important areas such as finance and trade to circumvent U.S. sanctions. This directly undermines U.S. leadership and power. The global consensus on norm enforcement is not as ironclad as some might hope or believe — and the United States cannot change this reality by fiat.
Favoring inclusion calls for careful treatment of issues such as export controls, sanctions, and trade policy, which risk pushing unilateralist positions on others. A frame of autocracy versus democracy is too simple for the emerging era. Among other things, it precludes working with partially free countries like Poland, Hungary, and Nigeria to promote human rights through positive encouragement, private pressure, and investments in civil society rather than through sanctions. Favoring inclusion would also call for a rethinking of generalized U.S. isolation of countries that violate liberal norms but pose no aggressive threat such as Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
Don’t Overdo Regional Prioritization
Three U.S. administrations have now advertised a “pivot to Asia,” reflecting an assessment that the threat from China is the dominant U.S. national security challenge. The problem with this understandable impulse is that most middle powers lie outside Asia and are unwilling to be drafted into an anti-China coalition. The risk is that, in the regions that become de-prioritized (notably the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa), the United States neglects relationships with critical middle powers, leaving ample room for China to fill the void. The rhetoric of regional prioritization alone has powerful consequences — it creates the impression that the United States has abandoned these countries, strengthening the hands of U.S. opponents. This maxim would suggest shifting more diplomatic and security cooperation resources back to Latin America, Africa, and selected areas of the Middle East. It means recruiting hundreds more foreign service and aid professionals focused on those regions. It also requires tailoring regional approaches within webs of multilateral, minilateral, and bilateral cooperation across issue areas such as trade, climate, and security.
Address the Escalation Risks Posed by Middle Powers
Wars are as likely to emerge from rivalries and ambitions among the middle powers as from direct Russian or Chinese actions. Systemic wars, or those wars that lead to the breakdown of international systems, result from conflicts that start small but spread geographically, drawing in other states. This is not necessarily due to often-overstated risk of entrapment, whereby great powers get dragged into wars by the adventurism of smaller allies and proxies. When this has happened in the modern era — for example in Korea and Vietnam — the great powers involved have managed to keep the conflict localized. Instead, the bigger risk today is from conflicts that begin with middle powers fighting either each other or great powers. This is particularly pertinent at a time when middle powers are increasingly becoming important military-strategic actors.
This means that rather than focus on great power rivalry alone, Washington should keep channels of communication open with middle powers and rivals alike, building crisis management tools and investing military and diplomatic expertise on relations with dozens of middle powers. This in turn requires more attention to crisis escalation in international military education and security sector assistance efforts. It will also require coordinating with Russia and China where necessary — and when interests align — to head off instability when middle-power disputes or ambitions threaten war.
The United States may be rushing into an overly narrow conception of geopolitics, obsessed with China and (to a lesser degree) Russia, treating a vital set of middle powers as necessary adjuncts to those rivalries rather than as strategic actors in their own right. The emerging system is likely to end up not so much as two great magnets pulling the world into a binary system, but rather as one with multiple great-power gravitational centers operating amid an increasingly influential, self-confident, and independent set of middle powers. Such a world will be governed by a different dominant-system dynamic than that of the Cold War. Both in terms of the risks of conflict and instability, and the global alignment of influence, middle powers could well prove to be the center of gravity for world politics and critical force multipliers from a U.S. perspective. The U.S. approach to the challenges of the coming decades should reflect this complex reality.
Originally published in War On The Rocks, by Tim Sweijs and Michael J. Mazarr, April 4, 2023
Tim Sweijs is the director of research at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies and a senior research fellow at the Netherlands’ War Studies Research Centre.
Michael J. Mazarr is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.