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date: 16 August 2017

Searching for Middle Powers

Summary and Keywords

What is a “middle power,” and what foreign policy is associated with it? Scholars and diplomats in Canada, Australia, and a more or less stable collection of northern countries—and increasingly scholars from the Global South—have proposed that the term denotes a particular international position, rights, and responsibilities. Canada has been especially associated with claims that it deserved unique representation in the halls of international power by virtue of its secondary or middle contributions to World War II and the post-war peace. Middle powers, it was proposed, were countries who both made significant contributions to that global order and were more likely than the self-interested great powers to protect the values of that order.

However, the term “middle power” never has had a clear meaning or definition, and the so-called middle powers have largely been self-electing (whether the self-election was by scholars or practitioners). Scholarly efforts to bring more rigor to the concept have failed to agree on its basic definition and membership list. This failure results largely from a fundamental disagreement over whether the “middle power” is defined by its functional capabilities, characterized by its strong moral imperative as a “good international citizen,” designated by its position in the international hierarchy, or revealed in its foreign policy behaviors. In time, the behavioral notion that middle powers engaged in “middle power diplomacy” held sway in the scholarship such that any country that pursued multilateral compromises, engaged in acts of “good international citizenship,” and promoted coalition building was labeled a middle power. This subsequently led to a growing scholarship on which states were “middle powers” based on their foreign policy behaviors. In particular, countries from the Global South who embraced multilateralism were included in the ranks of the middle powers.

The inclusion of countries from the Global South created a fundamental problem for the term, since middle power advocates portrayed them as strong supporters of the international order. Southern middle powers, on the other hand, were champions or leaders of states who stood against that order because of historical and present injustices in it. However, even those countries said to be Southern or emerging middle powers seem more interested in establishing their own status within the existing order rather than asserting a common vision on behalf of a revised order.

Ultimately, the lack of agreement about what “middle power” means leaves scholars and practitioners uncertain about whether the term is a useful guide for any particular country’s foreign policy.

Keywords: middle power, Canada, state type and foreign policy behavior, international system


This article searches for the meaning of “middle power” by examining the scholarship that makes use of the term. In a 2012 New York Times opinion piece titled “The Rise of the Middle Powers,” the author hailed the rise of “the 10 to 20 influential states” that weren’t permanent members of the UN Security Council or “global giants” like Japan, India, and Germany, but who could “play an outsize role” through “proactive and nonaligned diplomacy” in influencing “the rise of China in ways that the United States cannot” (Gilley, 2012). Some of this would be familiar to people who study middle powers, some of it would start arguments. The middle powers listed throughout the piece were Indonesia, South Africa, “post-Mubarak Egypt,” Canada, Mexico, Bangladesh, Sweden, Ghana, Australia, and Turkey. Not all of these states have been considered “middle powers,” and middle powers never engaged in “nonaligned diplomacy” or managed the “rise” of a global power. The concept of the “middle power,” one might argue, was used too cavalierly and without precision. This op-ed got “middle powers” all wrong, or partially wrong. Or, perhaps, this op-ed just revealed that the term “middle power” has never been used with much precision in foreign policy or foreign policy analysis.

What does “middle power” mean? Who are the “middle powers”? This article searches for middle powers by examining the scholarship as it developed and in its present form. The first section will briefly discuss how middle power scholarship is related to foreign policy analysis to situate this discussion in this collected work. Next, we examine the political origins of the concept and role of “middle power,” followed by a section discussing the efforts of scholars to systematize the study. Then, we consider the relationship of “middle power” to the international order, especially after the Cold War and into the present time. The penultimate section considers the expansion of the term to include regional, emerging, or Southern middle powers. Finally, this article concludes with some thoughts about what the term “middle power” means and whether it has ever been a useful term for analysts of foreign policy.

“Middle Power” and Foreign Policy Analysis

The use of the term “middle power” by practitioners and scholars predates slightly the field of foreign policy analysis (FPA) and its predecessor comparative foreign policy (CFP). CFP was started by a group of American scholars determined to systematize the study of foreign policy. One of those scholars, Rosenau (1966), proposed that CFP should have a central methodology and central theory like other sciences. The central methodology would be comparative case study using large datasets on the different foreign policy behaviors of states, their material capabilities, and their government types. These scholars set their graduate students to the task of collecting and assembling this data. The central theory would be formulated based on initial case studies using and manipulating the data. To get CFP scholars started, Rosenau proposed a “pre-theory.” This pre-theory links CFP to the present discussion of middle powers.

The pre-theory was a set of hypotheses that linked three national attributes to foreign policy choice and behavior: size (population), economic system (developed or underdeveloped), and political system (open/democratic or closed/not democratic). Rosenau grouped these attributes into eight “ideal nation-types” (1966, p. 133). He then proposed that CFP scholars should study states that fit into these eight categories using different levels of analysis and variables. East and Hermann (1974, p. 272) explain that “the concept of nation-type [made] it unnecessary to examine individual nationals in considering the certain types of foreign policy activity. To this extent, [scholars could] move away from analysis of discrete objects and concentrate on classes of objects and the different patterns of foreign policy associated with each.” That is, the “pre-theory” would guide initial research, which would facilitate the development of general statements linking state type with certain foreign policy behaviors. The more evidence generated that a country of type A was likely to engage in behavior B under certain conditions, the more certain we could be that we had discovered a “law” of foreign policy (Neack, 2014, pp. 95–96).

The notion that middle powers engage in certain predictable foreign policy activities under particular conditions is a direct corollary to the pre-theory. Rosenau and other CFP scholars were observing the same world as the early middle power scholars, all of whom were interested in moving beyond the study of, for instance, India’s foreign policy to the study of the foreign policies of large, underdeveloped, open states (using one of Rosenau’s nation-types). Or they sought to move beyond the study of Canada’s foreign policy to the study of middle power foreign policy.

Foreign policy analysis as a field of study is the second, broader generation of CFP (Neack, Hey, & Haney, 1995). In the second generation, FPA scholars in effect abandoned the pre-theory and embraced diversity, refining theories borrowed from international relations and comparative politics that speak to the factors that shape foreign policy making and behavior.

The Political Beginning of “Middle Power”

At the conclusion of World War I, the League of Nations was created as a way to maintain global order and prevent another world war. How the League should be organized seemed obvious to some: Great Britain wanted a simple great power–others division that would be reflected in a central Council populated only by the great powers (Wood, 1988, p. 8). This caused some controversy and stirred discussions about designating some non-permanent Council seats to countries of “intermediate” and “minor” status. This, in turn, caused more controversy with Brazil threatening to quit the League if it were labeled “middle” (Wood, 1988, p. 8). Thus, the stage was set for later efforts to codify “middle power.”

As World War II was winding down and as the soon-to-be victors started planning the shape of a yet another international organization designed to maintain global order and prevent yet another world war, Canadian diplomats and scholars asserted their claim to Canada’s special status. In an aptly titled chapter, “The Canadian Doctrine of the Middle Power,” MacKay writes that the middle power concept had “a political, rather than a scientific, origin” (1969, p. 133). In the spring of 1944 during discussions about how to construct a world organization to prevent another global war, Winston Churchill suggested that the organization should led by a central council consisting of the big Allied powers, while Canada would sit on a regional council for the Americas. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King strenuously objected:

We would wish to have our own right of representation, if not as one of the big three or four, at least as one of the medium powers that would be brought into the World Organization in some relation which would recognize that power and responsibility went together and (would) recognize our individual position.

(MacKay, 1969, p. 133)

In a subsequent speech to the Canadian House of Commons, King offered the first definition of “middle power,” a definition that would persist to the present period despite other definitions to come, and so it is worth quoting at length here. King also explained the structural constraints that forced Canada into insisting on its status as a middle power:

The simple division of the world between great powers and the rest is unreal and even dangerous. The great powers are called by that name simply because they possess great power. The other states of the world possess power—and, therefore, the capacity to use it for the maintenance of peace—in varying degrees ranging from almost zero in the case of the smallest and weakest states up to a military potential not very far behind that of the great powers.

In determining what states should be represented on the Council with the great powers, it is, I believe, necessary to apply the functional idea. Those countries which have most to contribute to the maintenance of the peace of the world should be most frequently selected. The military contribution actually made during this war by the members of the United Nations provides one good working basis for a selective principle of choice.

(as quoted in Glazebrook, 1947, p. 308)

The “United Nations” mentioned here is not the international organization founded in 1945 but the war alliance led by the United States and United Kingdom. Contributions to the “maintenance of the peace of the world” started during the war and would continue into the post-war period as per the agreements, values, and leadership of the Allies. Middle-level contributions were secondary contributions only when compared to that of the great powers, and these contributions qualified the middle powers for special representation.

Very quickly, a moral imperative was linked to the aspirations of Canada for middle power representation. Middle powers “could be entrusted to use their power responsibly in the interest of the world community” (MacKay, 1969, p. 137, emphasis added). As the Cold War developed and the superpowers amassed nuclear weapons, this imperative would grow more urgent as the self-identified middle powers claimed that they were the only states able and willing to be collectively responsible for protecting the international order, especially when smaller states could not and greater powers would not (Neack, 2014, p. 184; see also Holmes, 1984). The idea that middle powers’ moral superiority distinguishes them from other states remains a feature of the scholarship. For example, Youde and Slagter profess that the “middle power states’ position in the international system makes them almost beyond reproach; minor powers have more reason to support them to oppose them and major powers are reluctant to criticize them too much lest they alienate potential allies” (2013, pp. 125–126).

Canadian efforts to gain special middle power representation on the United Nations Security Council failed. Holbraad contends that this failure derived from resistance from above and from below as the smaller powers particularly “saw no special advantage in recognizing an intermediate class of powers, since it implied a relegation of themselves to a level of status and influence even lower than the one they occupied together with the secondary powers in a simple division between great powers and others” (1984, p. 564; see also Wood, 1988, p. 11). Holbraad (1984, p. 76) notes, despite the claims that middle powers shared similar values, goals, and international functions, there was no solidarity among the self-identified middle powers and so they did not work together to secure themselves special representation. And, speaking in terms of narrow Canadian interests, Holmes expresses relief that Canada’s UN efforts failed: “God knows what would have happened when the cabinet had grasped the financial and manpower implications of maintaining that heady status” (1984, p. 380).

At the end of the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years, Canada was the state most identified—and it was really self-identified—with efforts to acknowledge the middle power contributions to world peace and order. Maybe the first listing of middle powers in this era appeared in in the “Standing Instructions” to the Canadian delegation to the United Nations in 1946, which noted that the delegation should “establish a close working relationship with the other middle powers: Brazil, Mexico, the Netherlands, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Australia, India (and Poland if it secures reasonable freedom of action)” (quoted in Wood, 1988, p. iii). Wood (1988, p. 9) notes that Canada’s efforts in this period received endorsements (and presumably self-nominations) from New Zealand, Brazil, Australia, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, Poland, Belgium, and Sweden.

It is important to note here that these middle powers were not “in the arithmetical middle” but were instead states that “just missed being great powers” (MacKay, 1969, p. 138) in terms of what they had provided and could provide to the international community. The issue was political—these states, and particularly Canada, wanted recognition and representation that was in line with their political identities. Over time, the definition of middle power would change, yet the term—however defined—remained a way to distinguish the political importance of middle powers. For example, A. Cooper (2013) argues that the seat of global governance has shifted from the old global institutions (presumably including the United Nations) to the G-20, “a self-selected and exclusive top-tier club.” And, “in the case of the G-20 a cluster of middle powers was accorded equality of club membership in the original institution design” (Cooper, 2013, p. 971). This “equality of club membership” was not afforded to the other 180 or so states not significant enough to gain national-level membership in the G-20. D. Cooper makes a similar claim when he says the G-20 is the “great harbinger and hope for greater middle power influence on global governance” (2013, p. 24).

Efforts to Systematize

Canadian Prime Minister King’s functional principle was about both what a middle power had done and what it could do, identifying states “which are capable of exerting influence in international affairs in specific instances, [which] differentiates them from all the rest” (Chapnick, 1999, p. 74; see also Holmes, 1966). Adding the moral imperative to this functional justification was an effort to make the functional middle power role less situational and more permanent. A middle power was both a state that has played and could play an influential role in global affairs and was prepared to take on the responsibility of “middlepowermanship” when others would or could not. This sense of moral purpose would help advocates of certain middle powers get around the tricky situation posed for their states by the functional model: “Whereas the greatness of great powers persists, the influence of middle powers fluctuates constantly” (Chapnick, 1999, p. 74). Why grant special representation to particular middle powers if any given state might perform middle power functions in any given set of circumstances?

A more recent article by Tow and Rigby (2011) unwittingly demonstrates the functionalists’ problem. Tow and Rigby set out to describe how two middle powers—Australia and South Korea—figure into China’s security policy, but they ultimately describe China as having assumed “entrepreneurial postures increasingly compatible with middle-power viewpoints” on specific issues like North Korean denuclearization and countering terrorism (2011, p. 159). China is one of two great powers in Tow and Rigby’s treatment, but apparently great powers can also play middle power functions in some instances.

Chapnick (1999) would, no doubt, disagree with the notion that a great power can take on the functions of middle powers in some circumstances. His reading is that the functional model recognizes only great powers and all others, and in the functional model

there is no objective way to differentiate small states that might sometimes qualify for middle power status from those that will never qualify. Thus, middle powers are actually small powers of temporarily elevated stature. They lose their middle quality as soon as their ability to contribute to a given issue in international affairs decreases. Paradoxically, the functional approach to “middlepowerhood” denies the existence of middle powers; middle power status is a mirage that can disappear as quickly as it emerges.

(p. 75)

Functionalism persists, as we will discuss later in this essay, but middle power proponents sought to refine and systematize “middle power” so that it applied to a particular group of states only and was no longer “invariably nonsystematic and intuitive” (Higgott & Cooper, 1990, p. 599). Wood (1988) explains that real-world developments made such efforts necessary:

The first such development was the emergence of “non-alignment” as both an idea and a movement, led by middle powers like India, Egypt, Indonesia and (perhaps, at the time) Ghana—which sought to place themselves “in the middle” between the competing alignments of the Western and Eastern blocs.

(p. 10)

The second development was that a different set of middle powers had begun to play important roles in global security, particularly but not exclusively as United Nations peacekeepers. Thus, there were at least two groups of states in some kind of intermediate category playing distinct roles in global affairs.

To systematize “middle power,” Wood (1988, p. 17) proposes starting with a list of middle powers (he calls this a “loose tier”) based on a ranking of states by gross national product (GNP). This follows a string of scholars who had also used single measurable attributes, particularly GNP, to delineate great, middle, and small powers. Without explaining his criteria for distinguishing the cut-offs between the groups, Wood presents a list of 33 states that he calls “mid-sized economies in the modern world—middle powers” (1988, p. 18).1 Then, Wood explains that “since the objective . . . is not to attempt to construct rigid new categories, but to examine the position, behavior and potential” of middle powers, he applies behavioral criteria to his middle power list, which does “modify the list while necessarily introducing more judgmental and controversial elements” (1988, p. 18). That is, since the objective list is inaccurate for Wood’s purposes, subjective tinkering is employed to tease out the countries that clearly are not “natural” middle powers, leaving behind those that are obviously middle powers.

Neack (1991, 1993) wades into the literature at this point with the goal of testing whether the so-called middle powers actually do engage in the international security–maintaining practices attributed to them. Chapnick (1999) categorizes Neack’s work as part of the “hierarchical approach” to studying middle powers, an approach that “seeks to organize states according to their international standing” (Chapnick, 1999, p. 74), but Neack seeks to move beyond a simple ranked list. Using data on five national indicators from three post–World War II periods and using the statistical technique of cluster analysis, Neack (1993) finds three clear state groupings. But the so-called middle powers are not in Neack’s “middle state” group. Indeed, the states that had been called middle powers up to this point in the literature—Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Japan, Australia, and, yes, Canada—all cluster in the great state category.2 The middle state group includes most of the Latin American countries, the newly industrialized countries of Asia, and some of the less affluent southern European countries. Then Neack investigates whether the middle states are more or less likely than the other groups of states to participate in mediation and UN peacekeeping and finds that the “middle states” were not peacekeepers or peacemakers. Instead, she argues that most UN peacekeeping up to 1990 had been performed by Western “great states” (see Neack, 1995) in support of the Western-constructed international order. Being aware of the political uses of “middle power,” Neack intentionally uses the category “middle state.”

At a meeting of the International Studies Association in 1992, Neack presented her data analysis on “middle states” and conclusions. In the question-and-answer session that followed, a renowned scholar on Canadian foreign policy congratulated her on the analysis, and then said this: We know that Canada is a middle power, so the analysis should be redone to put Canada back in the middle group. What he meant was that Canada thinks of itself as a middle power, acts like a middle power, and is known to be a middle power. Thus, Canada is a middle power. This, in a nutshell, is the behavioral definition of middle power. Within a year, the most famous statement of the behavioral approach, Relocating Middle Powers, by Cooper, Higgott, and Nossal (1993), would provide a formal behavioral definition of middle power that would appear in most of the scholarship in the next two decades. More on this shortly.

Systematic efforts to delineate middle powers as a group continue to the present—whether one labels the effort as part of the “hierarchical” approach or not—just as functionalism continues. And, in the tradition of “intuitive” listings of middle powers, sometimes the product of such analyses is manipulated a bit to make the list fit what scholars know. For example, in a 2015 article on middle powers in the Asia-Pacific, Emmers and Teo develop a quantitatively derived list of middle powers based on “population size, geographical area, military expenditure, GDP, GDP per capita, trade as a percentage of GDP, and life expectancy at birth” (2015, p. 189). Using data from 2014, they explain that

Countries that rank in the top two of each indicator are considered great powers for that indicator; the next eight are considered middle and the rest small. A country that appears in four or more indicators of the same category would be considered to belong to that category of states.

(Emmers & Teo, 2015, p. 189)

The Asia-Pacific middle powers derived from this exercise are Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Then, Emmers and Teo (2015, p. 189) make an adjustment to their findings: “Australia’s rankings are rather evenly split across the great, middle, and small-power categories, but we would also consider it a middle power” since, basically, “middle power” has always guided Australian diplomacy. We know Australia is a middle power, it conforms its diplomacy to the idea of a middle power, and so Australia must be put back in the middle power group.

It is fair to say that empirical definitions of middle powers based on national indicators have never really captured what most practitioners and scholars have meant when they talk about middle powers. As Stairs (1998, p. 275) has noted, “having middling capabilities determines, not what middle power states will do, but what, in principle they can do.”

What do the middle powers do? The behavioral definition most cited comes from Cooper et al. (1993, p. 19): “Middle powers are defined primarily by their behavior: their tendency to pursue multilateral solutions to international problems, their tendency to embrace compromise positions in international disputes, and their tendency to embrace notions of ‘good international citizenship’ to guide their diplomacy.” Middle powers are states who commit their relative affluence, managerial skills, and international prestige to the preservation of the international order and peace. They are committed to multilateral solutions and multilateralism in general. Middle powers help to maintain the international order through coalition building, by serving as mediators and “go-betweens,” and through conflict management activities such as UN peacekeeping (Neack, 2014, pp. 183–184). Middle powers are “good international citizens.”

Cooper et al. (1993, p. 24) say there is an “itemized pattern of middle power behavior” that includes acting as catalyst, facilitator, and manager in multilateral settings, but they also note that this pattern of behavior changes over time. Whether in the security realm (Cooper et al., 1993) or in the economic realm (Higgott & Cooper, 1990, p. 600), middle power diplomacy is aimed at mitigating political tensions and reducing conflict. Stairs notes that behavioral scholars claim middle power diplomacy “strengthens international institutions and processes in a way that promotes the settlement of problems and disputes by orderly means within rule-governed environments” (1998, p. 279). It is worth asking here what would distinguish middle powers from “civilian powers” as these, too, are said to promote settlements and disputes through rule-governed environments (see, e.g., Maull, 2000; Orbie, 2006). Stairs is not convinced by the behavioral approach to middle powers, given that “the reality is that middle powers behave in all sorts of different ways, and the roles that have often been associated with them are in fact performed by all sorts of different countries” (1998, p. 282). But this is getting ahead of our discussion.

The behavior of middle powers will be discussed in more detail in the following sections, but we can sum up the efforts to systematize “middle power” by saying that scholars have used a variety of approaches that Chapnick (1999) encapsulates as the functional approach, the hierarchical (ranked material capabilities) approach, and the behavioral approach. For a while, the behavioral definition held sway in the literature, but it never eliminated the other approaches. And, in the more recent literature on “emerging middle powers,” scholars make greater use of the functional and hierarchical/material capabilities approaches.

Middle Powers in the International Order

The “middle” is defined by the international system. This has been made clear by the early efforts to distinguish middle powers from the great powers above them and the small powers below them. Moreover, middle power diplomacy is aimed at having a systemic impact. The structure of international politics matters to middle powers.

Holbraad (1984) presents a historical analysis of middle powers in different international systems dating back to the Concert of Europe. He notes that the lists of middle powers over time have been remarkably heterogeneous, concluding that

[t]his suggests that any similarity that may be observed in their international conduct and any generalization that may be formulated about their systemic role are likely to flow not so much from a set of inherent characteristics and inclinations shared by such powers as from various external pressures and incentives to which they are exposed.

(Holbraad, 1984, p. 91)

And, “the nature and force of such outside influences are determined essentially by the number of great powers in the system and by the relationships that exist between or among them” (p. 91).

For Holbraad, middle powers are divided into groups of the aligned and unaligned, and in times of cold war between blocs of states, those middle powers that are aligned have both more potential clout as well as more fear that they may provoke their relevant great power into shutting their international efforts down. The success of middle powers depends, Holbraad claims, “less on their international standing and diplomatic efforts than on the attitudes and responses of the great powers themselves” (1984, p. 125). Thus, Holbraad concludes: “Not always willing and only in certain conditions able to help reduce tension and promote agreement between camps, middle powers in a cold-war alliance are no more than occasionally to be found in the role of mediators. Their real part in relation to the central conflict is as supporters or lieutenants of the alliance leader” (1984, p. 125).

During the Cold War, some of the so-called middle powers were said to be premier peacekeepers, assisting in conflict stabilization and de-escalation and protecting international peace and order. But the most frequent peacekeepers during the Cold War were members of NATO, thus the stabilizing role of the “middle powers” in this period was tied to the U.S.-led, Western political vision of stability (Neack, 1995). That the Western middle powers derived status from their relationship to the United States was part of the Canadian scholars’ debate over whether Canada was a middle power, principal power, or satellite (see, e.g., Dewitt & Kirton, 1983; Hawes, 1984).

At the end of the Cold War—but before the collapse of the Soviet Union—Cooper, Higgott, and Nossal (1991) acknowledge the centrality of the relationship between the Western middle powers and the United States in shaping middle power behavior and propose that this relationship is what distinguishes middle powers from others. In an essay that starts with an acknowledgment that the 1991 Gulf War demonstrated the renewal of U.S. power and world leadership, Cooper et al. (1991) make it clear that the resurgent United States was not standing alone. They write that “in order to give leadership a concrete meaning, a leader must have followers, those willing to buy into a broad vision of collective goals articulated by a leader in whom both legitimacy and trust are placed. Moreover, these followers should be equally willing to commit themselves in concrete terms to that common cause” (Cooper et al., 1991, p. 408). The Gulf War demonstrated both the power of U.S. leadership and the importance and power of “followership.” And, they conclude, “the United States had far fewer genuine followers in the Gulf conflict than conventional wisdom would have it.” Despite the size of the multinational coalition assembled by the United States to compel Iraq to leave Kuwait, Cooper et al. claim that the only true follower the United States had in the Gulf War was the United Kingdom (1991, p. 406).

Cooper et al. expand their view on this in their landmark Relocating Middle Powers: Australia and Canada in a Changing World Order (1993). Followership, it turns out, was always part of the middle power repertoire and was the path to greater influence for the middle powers in the new international landscape dominated by a single superpower. The end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union did not free the middle powers—they did not need freeing—but instead demonstrated that the middle powers were always “in support of that order established and underwritten by American hegemony. In particular, these states were especially active participants in, and supporters of, international organizations spawned by that order” (Cooper et al., 1993, p. 19). Presumably, the middle power followers of the United States—here, Australia and Canada—stood to gain in the new unipolar international order. This order was founded on the values and norms always shared by the United States and the middle powers. Because of this shared victory, then, the middle powers were not inclined to use their coalition-building skills to create a new power center that might balance against the unipole. Instead, the middle powers followed or bandwagoned with the United States (see also Neack, 2013).

However, it was not a given that the new international order was unipolar or that it would stay that way, and so some middle powers searched for alternative bandwagons. Australia in the 1990s offers an example of a self-declared middle power attempting to assert its international status as a loyal follower and helpful fixer to several possible great powers. As Neack writes:

Near the conclusion of the Cold War, Australian officials began to refocus Australia’s middle power orientation toward the rising Asian powers of Indonesia and China. This Asian focus was in response to the belief that American power had waned considerably in the 1980s and Asian powers were on the rise and would set the tone for the coming 21st century. But American power (particularly the American economy) was resurgent in the 1990s, so Australia began to cast itself as a deputy to the United States for managing Asian affairs.

(2013, p. 59)

Higgott and Nossal agree, noting that “[f]ew countries have self-consciously sought to ‘relocate’ themselves in international politics—economically, diplomatically, and militarily—as Australia did in the 1980s and 1990s” (1997, p. 169). An international system in flux creates identity problems for countries whose international status is so tied to their significant others.

For Holbraad (1984, p. 206), periods of great power imbalance—that is, periods in which the global distribution of power is in transition—are marked by more intense middle power bandwagoning. In a study of Indian foreign policy, Efstathopoulos (2011, p. 77) essentially agrees, noting that

[a]lthough middle power reconfiguration can be facilitated by structural change as evident by the emergence of multiple power centres in the post-Cold War era, middle powers do not actively seek to trigger such a process of transformation and destabilisation from which they may benefit as middlepowermanship is generally incompatible with systemic revisionism.

That is, global power transitions are met with some anxiety by middle powers because their identity is so closely tied to who they are and what they do to maintain international order.

Yet, even with the great power balance changing, the freeing of the world from the dangers of the Cold War did allow middle powers to shift their international efforts from the “high politics” of security to the promotion of “low politics” issues such as the environment and human rights (Cooper et al., 1993, p. 21). This “niche diplomacy” would be a way to distinguish the middle powers from the United States, but the move was not oppositional. Behringer (2013, p. 21) suggests that some niche issues supported by the middle powers—the landmine ban treaty, the International Criminal Court, and the responsibility to protect—have been overlooked by the great power, but they are not incompatible with the values of the hegemonic order. D. Cooper (2013) also sees niche diplomacy as the post–Cold War work of middle powers, and this middle power niche work is particularly apparent in the G-20, a site that reinforces the American-built neoliberal international order.

It is worth noting here that although Cooper et al. (1993), Behringer (2013), D. Cooper (2013), and others portray middle powers as moving into the niche diplomacy of low politics issues after the Cold War, some middle power coalitions are still focused on the high politics of nuclear weapons. The Middle Powers Initiative is a coalition of seven nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that engage middle power governments on the issue of nuclear disarmament. Its website does not list a permanent group of middle powers that work with the NGO. A coalition of middle powers governments calling itself the New Agenda Coalition similarly is engaged in efforts to get nuclear weapons states to build-down their nuclear arsenals toward the goal of disarmament.The members of this loose coalition included Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa in 2015.

In the next section, we will discuss how “emerging middle powers” differ from traditional middle powers, but sticking to the present issue, Jordaan (2003) argues that regardless of whether a country is a traditional or emerging middle power, the baseline for being a middle power is compliance and agreement with the United States:

Despite some disagreements with the hegemon and other major states (especially over human rights issues), middle powers do not challenge or threaten the global status quo—that is, the economic and military-political “balance” of power—nor the desirability of liberal democracy, in any fundamental way. States that deviate from hegemonic orthodoxy cannot be conceived of as middle powers. . . . Consequently, states excluded from the middle-power category are non-Western nuclear powers (e.g. China, India and Pakistan), alleged “sponsors of terrorism” (e.g. Libya and Syria), economic deviants such as China and Cuba, and states for which the democratization of the rest of the world is not a priority, such as PRI-governed Mexico and most of the states in the Middle East.

(p. 167, emphasis added)

There is much to digest in this statement, but it makes the relationship between the middle powers and the U.S. hegemon quite clear.

This relationship between the middle powers and support for the U.S. hegemonic order was the basis for Neack’s (2013) recent argument that middle powers Canada and Australia could achieve greater international status and prestige while middle powers Brazil and Turkey were not on a “pathway to power.” The argument turned on the U.S. Obama administration’s preference for “forward partnering” or supporting other countries as they take the lead in system-maintenance duties (2013, pp. 53, 56). Canada and Australia share the same values as the United States and have been good supporters of that system, while Brazil and Turkey seek to challenge the United States and some of the values embedded in the international system. This analysis, like so many others discussed here, might be rendered moot if the new U.S. administration unravels the tenets of U.S. grand strategy since 1945.

The efforts of Brazil, India, and South Africa to counter the American hegemonic order and the dominance of the North has been described by Alden and Vieira (2005) as the “new diplomacy of the South.” Alden and Vieira attempt to distinguish India, Brazil, and South Africa from the traditional middle powers. The traditional middle powers “owe their very position within the international hierarchy to a tacit acceptance of structural inequalities in the international system” (Alden & Vieira, 2005, p. 1079). Conversely, India, Brazil, and South Africa seek to elevate South-South cooperation particularly in opposition to the North. These efforts were formalized the formation of the IBSA (India, Brazil, and South Africa) Dialogue Forum in 2003. IBSA was to assist South-South cooperation in the face of failing global institutions (Alden & Vieira, 2005, p. 1090). Yet, even these countries have been coopted by the hegemonic order and designated regional representatives and not pan-South leaders, according to Alden and Vieira:

By conferring the status of regional leader upon emerging states in the developing world, actively encouraged in multilateral settings such as the WTO or the G-7/8 where Brazil, India and South Africa have all been selectively invited to participate with leading industrial states as representatives of their respective regions, the industrial states effectively shepherd weaker states into a subordinate hierarchical framework.

(2005, p. 1081)

Alden and Vieira conclude that once the United States conferred legitimacy upon IBSA, India, Brazil, and South Africa have done nothing to counter the hegemonic, North-privileging order for fear of compromising their own seats “at the table of recognised power in international institutions” (2005, p. 1092).

Emerging Middle Powers

How to think about certain countries from the Global South has become a preoccupation of middle power scholarship. The tautological argument for Canada or Australia is that they are middle powers and so they act like middle powers, and it is because of their behavior that we know they are middle powers. The corresponding argument for countries like Brazil, India, South Africa, or Indonesia is that they are observed acting in certain ways and those behaviors are in line with what has been called middle power behavior, and so these countries are middle powers.

The most confounding problem in this literature is how to handle the issue of region. Jordaan’s (2003) useful distinctions between traditional and emerging middle powers bring the issue of region into focus. Traditional middle powers are ambivalent toward their regions, and their regions hold relative unimportance as forums for middle power action (2003, p. 168). Traditional middle powers have kept their focus on global affairs; their initial claim was that they were in between the great powers and all others. For instance, Canada only joined the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1990. The OAS has had many different forms dating back to the 19th century, and its modern incarnation dates to 1947. But it took Canada more than 40 years to see itself as part of the Americas. Canada was similarly less than enthusiastic about joining the North American Trade Agreement (Jordaan, 2003, p. 173), doing so only because the United States indicated that this was the wave of the future for the existing bilateral U.S.-Canadian free trade agreement. Australia maintained a view of itself as a European state not in Europe and only began to work on its regional ties in the 1990s. This effort to recast Australia as an Asian country was met with understandable suspicion by Asian countries who had been lectured by Australia for years on human rights issues. Still, despite their regional turns, neither Canada nor Australia can claim regional a leadership role, although Australia under the Howard government tried to assume the role of deputy in Asia to the U.S. sheriff.

While Jordaan says that traditional middle powers are ambivalent toward their regions, emerging middle powers have high regional self-association and a moderately high regional orientation (2003, p. 168). Emerging middle powers are tied to their regions in ways that can facilitate or limit their global ambitions. Efstathopoulos (2011), writing about India as a middle power, puts the issue this way: “Southern middle powers are more entangled in dynamics of regional hegemony and antagonism, and are inclined to provide leadership in projects of regional integration to manage these tensions” (p. 78). He adds that “Southern middle powers use regionalist projects as platforms for reconstituting their status and role, and attempt to shape regionalist projects along lines of multilateral organization which facilitate the diffusion of middle power activism” (2011, p. 78). Laksmana (2011) portrays Indonesia as a Southern middle power whose global profile is rising because of the historical leadership Indonesia has played in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its longstanding commitment to multilateral problem solving. The United States has recognized this regional leadership and has been grooming and financing Indonesia’s rise as a premier UN peacekeeping country (Laksmana, 2011, p. 170), a move that will increase Indonesia’s global profile.

On the other side of this, the region can pose difficulties for Southern middle powers, limiting or complicating their global rise. For Hammill and Lee (2001), South Africa’s post-apartheid foreign policy provides evidence of both middle power success and failure. Hammill and Lee define “middle power” using two criteria: first, middle powers possess critical physical and material capabilities. In particular, middle powers must have “extensive diplomatic capabilities,” which distinguish middle powers from smaller powers, and a “large network of skilled diplomatic missions,” which focuses on a smaller range of issues than the diplomatic missions of the “superpowers” (2001, p. 35). The second criterion is that middle powers engage in niche diplomacy through the performance of the three middle power behaviors articulated by Cooper et al. (1993): middle powers must act as facilitators, catalysts, and managers. South Africa successfully performs its facilitator and catalyst roles, but it fails at its managerial role. “The managerial role of middle powers places emphasis on institution building, especially in regional settings,” they assert (Hammill & Lee, 2001, p. 48). But “it is in the Southern Africa sub-region that the tensions and contradictions which have beset South African policy in Africa are at their most pronounced and where the perception is that Pretoria acts not as a middle power managing collaboration, but rather as a major power pursuing its own agenda, often at the expense of common interests” (2001, p. 51). Hammill and Lee seem to argue that middle powers demonstrate good regional leadership by acting not as regional leaders but as regional go-betweens. Or that “regional leadership” does not mean what one might intuitively think it means, but instead that the emerging middle power must act like some kind of altruistic good regional citizen that subsumes its own interest to the common interest. Traditional middle powers were never expected to forgo self-interest, since being a “middle power” was always about self-promotion. Southern middle powers seem to be held to a much more selfless standard.

Similarly, Malamud (2011) proposes that Brazil also cannot fulfill the regional leadership expectation required of emerging middle powers, but he takes this in a surprising direction. Middle powers are “states that are neither great nor small in terms of international power, capacity, and influence, and demonstrate a propensity to promote cohesion and stability in the world system” (Malamud, 2011, p. 2). Emerging middle powers promote cohesion and stability in the world system by acting as regional leaders, particularly by developing and promoting regional institutions that manage conflict and maintain stability. As regional leaders, emerging middle powers get “subordinates” in the region to buy into the regionalist project “so that they adopt the goals of the leading state as their own,” Malamud notes. This is in line with the definitions of leadership and followership offered by Cooper et al. (1993). Malamud explains that Brazil has difficulty acting as a regional leader for three reasons: first, Brazil lacks the “hard power”—both military and economic—needed to promote the buy-in required for regional integration (2011, p. 5). Second, Brazil’s efforts at region-building have been spotty and inconsistent (2011, p. 6). And, third and most importantly, the other countries in South America do not support Brazil as regional leader. The other South American countries have not adopted Brazil’s goals—such as acquiring a permanent UN Security Council seat for Brazil—as their own (2011, p. 9), and some even challenge Brazil as regional leader. Because of this, Malamud concludes that Brazil’s ambitions “are increasingly defensive rather than offensive. The main goal is no longer to integrate South America into a regional bloc with a single voice but to limit damages that could spill over its borders or stain its international image as regional pacifier” (2011, p. 19). The surprising conclusion is that Brazil may not be able to make use of the emerging middle power-regional leader route in order to achieve its global ambitions, but might instead “find itself closer to the category of a traditional” middle power by detaching its actions and ambitions from its region (2011, p. 20).

In some ways, Brazil is accommodated in this move away from regional leader and emerging middle power to traditional middle power by being recognized as the leader of its region not because it is but because the United States/North conferred upon Brazil this title, as per Alden and Vieira’s (2005, p. 1081) argument discussed in the previous section. Recall that Alden and Vieira conclude that once the IBSA states—India, Brazil, and South Africa—were granted a seat at the power table, they stopped challenging the global order on behalf of the Global South (2005, p. 1092). Dauvergne and Farias (2012) seem to agree when they argue that the creation of IBSA was not an act of defiance against the neoliberal international order on behalf of Southern solidarity, but that IBSA was intended to promote the IBSA countries internationally. That is, IBSA is not a “traditional South-South initiative; rather it is a cooperation strategy of ‘system-affecting’ middle powers” (Dauvergne & Farias, 2012, p. 910). Or, like the traditional middle powers, India, Brazil, and South Africa formed a coalition of like-minded states to increase their international impact as a way to enhance the international standing of each country individually.

Jordaan’s typology of emerging middle powers makes the same basic point: emerging middle powers are not revisionist or rogue states. Traditional middle powers are “appeasing and legitimizing” in regard to effecting “deep global change,” while emerging middle powers are “reformist and legitimizing” (2003, p. 168). Both categories of middle powers are status-seeking in the current international order, but the traditional middle powers already have status by virtue of their position in the neoliberal order, where the emerging middle powers would like to reform their own standing in that same order. And the members of both groups are no more likely to demonstrate solidarity with others of their type—whether middle powers or Southern states—than any other status-seeking country, unless the solidarity is opportunistic. That emerging middle powers are not revisionist makes them welcome when they cross regional boundaries to engage in classic middle powers activities—such as capacity building—in other regions, as Teo, Singh, and Tan (2016) demonstrate regarding South Korea’s foreign policy in Southeast Asia and toward ASEAN. Thus, traditional and emerging middle powers are stabilizers of systems, globally and regionally.

Did We Find the “Middle Power”?

Where has this search taken us? What have we learned about middle powers? For starters, the scholarship cannot be easily divided into the three categories Chapnick (1999) proposes—the functional, behavioral, and hierarchical. The functional and behavioral categories have never been particularly distinct, and Chapnick (2013) himself adds a fourth category of “rhetorical” in a review of Canadian foreign policy. The middle power is more typically defined hierarchically, and not always usefully. An extreme version of this comes from Beeson (2011), who states that “in the case of the middle powers, the term refers to a diverse group of states that are neither ‘great’ nor failing, but which occupy a conceptual territory between these extremes, and which are taken to have broadly similar traits” (2011, p. 564, emphasis added). This “conceptual territory” between great and “failing” contains more states than most scholars would call middle powers, perhaps as many as 180 if we lop off 10 or so for significant powers and 10 or so more for “failing states.” Isn’t this category too large to be useful for analytical purposes?

Another example of the blurring of definitions—or an example of how definitions are announced and then dispensed with—is the 2015 study of middle powers in the Asia Pacific by Emmers and Teo, discussed earlier. Recall that Emmers and Teo define middle power by material capabilities using seven national indicators and then add Australia into their list of middle powers on the basis of behavior because Australia’s diplomacy is typically cast in middle powers terms (2015, p. 189). Their intention is to show how “middle powers could employ different strategies to preserve their security interests” (2015, p. 186, emphasis added). And, despite having defined middle powers by material capabilities, they hypothesize that middle powers will employ different security strategies based on their available material resources and perceived threat level (2015, p. 187). If material resources define middle powers, wouldn’t variance in material resources upend the middle power category? And isn’t it reasonable to expect that variation in available resources and threat perception would have an effect on the security strategies of any type of state? What good does “middle power” do here? Is the concept even necessary?

Furthermore, “threat perception” is something social scientists study on the individual level, and so perhaps middle power scholarship needs to bring the individual back in. Canadian contributions to UN peacekeeping were reduced drastically under Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, but Chrétien’s foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, successfully convinced a majority of states to commit to the “middle power” human security agenda manifested in the landmine ban treaty and the responsibility to protect ethic. Was Chrétien’s government supportive of middlepowership or not? And what about the nationalist Stephen Harper government? The liberal Trudeau government has embraced the values but not the label of the middle power.

Scholars make a strong collective argument that the middle power role only defines Australian foreign policy when it is useful to particular leaders and governments. Beeson (2011, p. 564) argues that “middle power” has really only been the orientation of liberal Australian governments. Ungerer (2007) concludes that the use of a middle power orientation tends to “wax and wane” depending on the particular Australian government and its interests. Lightfoot (2006) argues that Australia’s actions at the 2002 World Development Summit reflected a growing distrust of multilateralism and a rejection of the “good international citizen” role. Finally, Beeson and Higgott (2014) propose that this period of international change would be a good time for Australia to step up as a middle power, but the middle power role has been more a rhetorical flourish of Australian governments than a full-on embrace of the job description.

The more recent interest in emerging versus traditional middle powers also seems to muddy waters that have never been particularly clear. The additional burden of regional leadership makes emerging middle powers different from traditional middle powers. If Malamud (2011) is right that Brazil can just bypass its unmanageable region and take a traditional middle power route to an enhanced global profile, why couldn’t South Africa do this and shake off the allegation that it has failed at the regional level and so is not fulfilling its emerging middle power potential? Meanwhile, Tow and Rigby (2011, p. 158) bestow middle power status on China for its leadership on niche issues even as they describe Australia and South Korea as middle powers trapped between China and the United States as they compete for regional predominance. China shows considerable flexibility in this portrayal. And if China can sometimes act like a middle power, why can’t the United States?

This might be the biggest problem with the concept of the middle power: Any given state may engage in “middle power” behavior at any given time. And, because of the international system, most states make frequent use of what is called “middle power” behavior. Recall the most used definition of middle powers given by Cooper et al. (1993, p. 19): “Middle powers are defined primarily by their behavior: their tendency to pursue multilateral solutions to international problems, their tendency to embrace compromise positions in international disputes, and their tendency to embrace notions of ‘good international citizenship’ to guide their diplomacy.” The latter two behaviors may be unique to some types of states, or perhaps to some political parties and leaders in some states depending upon their values, but the first behavior is ubiquitous. Since 1945, the international architecture has been constructed on multilateralism, and new multilateral forums continue to proliferate. Today, all states but North Korea act multilaterally in the pursuit of most of their foreign policy goals. Multilateral forums are cost-effective for states of all categories, and multilateral forums act as force multipliers for all states. Coalition building is not the exclusive domain of middle powers but is an oft-used method of politicking in an international order based on multilateralism. Thus we might conclude that a commitment to acting multilaterally is an attribute of all states—again, with the current exception of North Korea.

At the end of this search, it makes sense to go back to the beginning. At the beginning were Canadian diplomats arguing for special representation for Canada based on its contributions to the winning side of World War II and to the future world order. As MacKay (1969, p. 142) notes, “middlepowermanship” was an “ideology” guiding Canadian foreign policy. The effort to extend this ideology to other states was meant to find strength—and influence—in numbers. Sometimes the extensions make sense; sometimes the extensions become overly complicated and don’t work. “Middle power” explains a great deal about Canadian foreign policy, even with the occasional Conservative government that doesn’t fully embrace it. And, as such, it is a useful term. “Middle power” provides a shorthand for Canadian foreign policy orientation, its underlying motivations, and its attendant behaviors. But if we search beyond the “Canadian doctrine of the middle power,” we perhaps go too far.


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(1.) To the bottom of this list Wood added, for whatever reason, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

(2.) Even Canadian scholars—especially Canadian scholars—found the notion that Canada was a middle power to be misleading and wrong. In the 1970s and 1980s, Canadian scholars had heated debates on Canada’s place in the world order, with some regretting the morally loaded middle power label. Canada was instead a principal power or a satellite of the United States (see, e.g., Dewitt & Kirton, 1983; Hawes, 1984; Holmes, 1984).