13.10.23 Review

The Philosophy of 'Middle Powers': Why the new world order will not resemble the Cold War and Russia will not benefit from multipolarity

Despite the growing geopolitical competition between the United States and China, the formation of a new bipolar order is highly unlikely. While in the past cycle of bipolarity the countries that did not join the major blocs accounted for a very small share of global GDP and global military expenditures, today the situation is quite different. The so-called middle powers are now an important part of the global geopolitical landscape, and the competition between the United States and China only strengthens their position. Middle powers are characterised by extreme pragmatism in their foreign policy and a drive to maximise their sovereignty and economic benefits. This is precisely why such countries will play a pivotal role in shaping actual multipolarity. In this context, Putin's confrontational strategy appears particularly weak. By escalating the conflict with the 'collective West' without a clear economic or geopolitical vision, Russia not only fails to build its own 'bloc' but also voluntarily deprives itself of the advantages of being a third party in the conflicts among major geopolitical players, weakening its relations with the middle powers.

Vladimir Putin envisions himself as the demiurge of a new international order, with Russia as an instrument of its restructuring. However, this vision is not only insufficiently grounded in terms of available resources, it remains trapped in old frameworks that reproduce Cold War-era thinking. It is not just Putin but also the majority of analysts and policymakers who are primarily focused on the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China, imagining the contours of a new bipolarity. In reality, however, a scenario in which the design of two opposing camps becomes the basic principle of the new world order looks unlikely. This is due to the new role played in the world by the so-called middle powers, as outlined in a report by a group of experts from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). They argue that the future world order will be determined less by the competition between China and the United States and more by the behaviour of middle powers in the midst of this rivalry.

Today's superpowers do not possess the level of dominance that the United States and the Soviet Union had during the early days of the Cold War. In 1950, the United States and its main allies (NATO countries, Australia, and Japan) on one side, and the communist world on the other, accounted for 88% of global GDP. Today, these groups of countries together account for only 57%. Defence spending by countries that did not align with either of the two main camps in the 1960s was about 1% of the world total, whereas this figure now stands at 15% and is continuing to grow rapidly.

Although the United States and China are actively investing in developing strategic partnerships with countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, neither side has been able to secure solid alliances with them and become a full-fledged 'patron' for these nations. The absence of a clear ideology also distinguishes the current poles from the Cold War superpowers. China's communist ideology now appears to be heavily diluted by market principles, and the United States is unlikely to win the loyalty of middle powers (who are primarily either semi-democracies or semi-authoritarian regimes) with the idea of a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Without a unifying ideological foundation, creating a reliable 'camp' becomes much more challenging.

Therefore, the competition between the China-led bloc and the US-led bloc will not determine the emerging world order, the report’s authors conclude. The new class of middle powers possesses much greater freedom of action than the primarily poorer 'non-aligned' countries during the Cold War. Instead, they intend to use the competition between the United States and China to their own advantage. This group includes a large number of economically relatively affluent or growing countries that share a common and significant trait: an approach to foreign policy based on preserving and maximising their own sovereignty and economic benefit. Thus, in the context of Russia's conflict with Ukraine, they may choose to align with or remain unaligned with the West, depending on whether one tactic or another is consistent with their current national goals. Ideological or moral arguments hold little sway in this choice.

Ultimately, it is the position of these middle powers that will largely determine where the new world order falls on the spectrum from bipolarity to fragmentation. If the majority of these countries decide to align with one superpower or another, the world may indeed face a new bipolar confrontation. More likely, however, they will opt for more tactical, transactional strategies, leading to a more fragmented global landscape.

Among the middle powers, the authors of the report identify four groups. The first group is the 'peacekeepers'. In the Indo-Pacific region, the dominant factor reshaping the international order is the rise of China and the global economic, military, and political consequences of this ascent. This is the region where systemic competition between the United States and China is most pronounced. Many countries in this region, including Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia, are advocates for preserving peace and are focused on managing the implications of China's emergence as a hegemonic power and preventing conflict. At the same time, these East Asian players are highly dependent on the Chinese market and the Chinese portion of their logistical supply chains in terms of economics and technology. Therefore, it is vital for them to avoid getting entangled in the conflict between the United States and China, even though they have a vested interest in containing Beijing. Any political or normative choices they make will limit their room for manoeuvre. They prioritise peace, preventing chaos in their sphere of interest, and maintaining a balance of power. The war in Ukraine serves as a test for the seriousness of US commitments to its allies, in other words, the ability to maintain such a balance in the face of China's growing might and in the context of a potential conflict over Taiwan.

The second group is the 'American hedgers’. These are the countries in Latin America and the Persian Gulf that have traditionally been within the American sphere of influence but are now attempting to hedge their bets and insure themselves against overdependence by establishing new partners. The energy potential of these countries gives them increasing leverage in their relationships with larger states. Most countries in Latin America are inclined towards the values of liberal democracy and free-market economics, but they have not forged permanent security alliances with Western powers, as Japan and South Korea have done. Despite voting overwhelmingly to condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine at the United Nations, they have refrained from joining Western sanctions, avoiding having to bear the associated costs. These countries practise 'active non-alignment'. Therefore, actors that are perceived as supporters rather than limiters of national sovereignty, such as China, wield greater political influence among the 'American hedgers,' even if their value systems, policies, and economic models do not align with those that are predominant in the region. This ideology fuels widespread anti-American sentiment in this region.

A similar strategy is emerging among the "American hedgers" in the Persian Gulf, where they view the current situation not in terms of a choice between the West and China, but in terms of maximising their autonomy to benefit both sides. Balancing between different poles increases the political importance of these countries, while their substantial energy resources and economic networks give them significant material weight, shielding them from potential pressure from any side.

The third group is the 'post-colonial dreamers’. This includes former colonies in Africa and Central Asia that, like the American hedgers, aim to permanently break free from their 'elder brother's' influence. However, unlike the American hedgers, they lack the means to pursue entirely independent policies. To increase their self-sufficiency, African countries need to maintain existing patrons and simultaneously attract new ones. Their primary strategy for enhancing their sovereignty involves demanding greater representation in leading multilateral organisations, not just global or Western ones but also those competing with the West, such as BRICS.

The countries of Central Asia display a similar attitude toward the global order. Fearing Russia's dominance in these states, they balance it with a reluctance to accept any form of Western 'interference' in their internal affairs, especially in terms of human rights, which could undermine the ruling elites' control over local institutions. Therefore, when these countries face a crisis and find themselves in need of support in the form of foreign intervention, they tend to favour their authoritarian allies. However, at the strategic level, they are interested in diversifying their ties and balancing Russian influence by engaging new partners in a balanced manner (see the recent Re:Russia review on their strategies in the international arena). The tactics to achieve this goal vary from Turkmenistan's isolationist neutrality to Kazakhstan's bold efforts to play an active role on the global diplomatic stage.

The fourth group is the 'polyamorous states'. Unlike the American hedgers and the post-colonial dreamers, the polyamorous states do not attempt to protect their sovereignty from any specific country. They are so confident in their role in the emerging global order that they are willing to engage with any and all possible partners. Turkey, as a member of NATO, pursues an extremely independent policy. Even in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, it has managed to be a partner to both sides. The country is using the era of systemic rivalry as a tool to satisfy its most revisionist instincts. In contrast, India is not a revisionist country and has historically played by UN rules. However, as the most populous country in the world, it believes it has not yet reached a role and status commensurate with its potential economic and political weight. Therefore, by maintaining relations with all the significant players, India, like Turkey, is seeking to shift the global order towards multipolarity that will better capitalise on its 'special' status.

Given this fundamentally new composition of global players, the European Union needs a strategy that strengthens its ties with new powers and centres of influence, according to the ECFR experts. This approach should not pit the EU against the United States or China, nor should it create an imbalance through straightforward alliances. Instead, it should allow for both cooperation and competition with other players, depending on the circumstances and based on a clear understanding of its own interests and values. This is what the EU should learn from the strategies of multipolarity that are being pursued by the 'middle powers'. This approach clearly differs from the scenario of strategic confrontation that is often presented in Washington.

Against this background, the weakness and irrationality of Putin's confrontational strategy becomes particularly obvious. By escalating the conflict with the 'collective West' without any apparent economic or geopolitical reasons, Russia is not only failing to build its own 'bloc' but is also voluntarily depriving itself of all the advantages of being a third party in the strategic competition between the United States and China. Moreover, Moscow is forfeiting the initiative and freedom of manoeuvre in its relations with the 'middle powers'. Confrontation with the West and sanctions make Russia a dependent and weak party in negotiations between these states and the West, effectively turning Russia into an object of bargaining between these powers and the West.