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Going further than "middle power diplomacy": a new axis of cooperation, alignment and alliances?

by Katja Theodorakis, Senior Programme Coordinator for Research and Analysis (Foreign/Security Policy)

This is the latest edition of KAS Australia's Digital Snapshot - a potpourri of current affairs from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot provides an analysis of selected media and think tank articles, intended to offer an overview of the debate in these countries. The original version includes hyperlinks and links for further reading.

"As we look to 2030, we need to work even more closely with like-minded countries like Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, to defend the global rules and institutions that have kept us safe for decades, to set norms and standards, in space and in cyberspace, or new technologies, and global arms control, and ultimately, to stand up for the world built on freedom and democracy, not on bullying and coercion." 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking at the launch of the NATO 2030 Initiative, June 8, 2020

"If the G-7 is an institution designed to promote democracy; freedoms of speech, assembly and religion; and free-market capitalism, then that idea makes good sense. China has emerged over the past 30 years as the world’s most powerful police state, and its international influence now extends into every region of the world. An alliance of democracies designed to promote and defend democratic values and individual freedoms might be a worthy goal.

Unfortunately, Trump’s plan won’t work."

Ian Bremmer, author and political scientist at Columbia, writing in Time, June 4, 2020


by Katja Theodorakis, Senior Programme Coordinator for Research and Analysis (Foreign/Security Policy)


The term 'Middle Power Diplomacy' is often invoked in Australia to describe the efforts of coalition-building with 'like-minded' countries as a way for a 'less than major power' to influence global affairs by joining forces to advance specific interests (sometimes based on shared values). So it was for instance characterized by a former Australian Foreign Minister as motivated by the "belief in the utility, and necessity, of acting cooperatively with others in addressing international challenges, particularly those global public goods problems which by their nature cannot be solved by any country acting alone, however big and powerful." In this context, the utility of the term is also equally scrutinized - criticized for either glossing over clashes of interest in the name of temporary like-mindedness or its definitional accuracy.

These questions are as always considered against the backdrop of great power relations - in this current phase a power vacuum left by Trumpian foreign police. And this has become especially noticeable in the crisis of the transatlantic Alliance, where the pandemic is said to have exposed pre-existing rifts and accelerated geopolitical shifts in already underway. In the evolving (post-)pandemic geopolitical climate, initiatives such as the NATO's '2030' vision seek to anticipate the future operating environment and build a reformed alliance that will be more political in nature, in response to a more competitive and multi-polar order. Harnessing NATO's "economic and diplomatic clout alongside its military power" is seen as crucial to an effective alliance for the future. And for this end, as the above-quoted remarks by Secretary General Stoltenberg illustrate, new coalitions and more aligned interests amongst members are key to moving forward.

More specifically, these issues were highlighted as the term 'middle power diplomacy' came to the fore in recent weeks in the context of the EU-Australian cooperation on the inquiry into the origins and spread of the Corona-virus. In the end it was lauded as a commendable example of creating momentum for multilateral action in the face of great power rivalries; yet the process nevertheless showed that such cooperation based on 'like-mindedness' is not as straightforward as often assumed: Evident in Australia's original call for 'independent weapons inspector powers for the WHO to investigate Bejing's handling of the crisis, its vision for defending its interests may involve a politically sharper position vis-a-vis China ( and closer to the US) than the European Union is prepared to take at the moment.

Beyond such big power issues with incendiary potential, it's interesting to look at cooperation potential in other areas. The US-China trade dispute for example extends to important areas such as value chains for critical materials – rare earths, cobalt and lithium. And here, as a recent report detailed, Australia, Japan, the US and the EU have emerged as a potential reform coalition for improving critical materials markets. As in other areas, the ability of these countries to realise this joint interest will be made feasible through coordinated multilateral cooperation - by means of commercial joint ventures as well as diplomatically, such as through the concerted promotion of reform initiatives in international fora such as the WTO, OECD and/or G20.

Nevertheless, in the current climate, looking for a way forward inadvertently means going beyond the rhetoric of 'value partners' and like-mindedness - and includes addressing thorny questions such as how convergent interests really are, especially the extent to which economic interests are. This is especially the case when those interests ultimately lead back to the one defining factor, namely how clearly defined a power's (country or political union) stance on relations with China is. As was illustrated by the debate created around the expansion of the G7 membership, which included Russia and Australia, "It’s likely that the European G7 members, France, Germany and Italy, would oppose Trump’s proposed expansion of its permanent membership, notwithstanding their stance in 2008–09, as they don’t share the US desire to isolate China and would see the expansion as diluting European influence. "

This goes to show that like-mindedness' is not a fixed state of play for liberal democracies based on their commitment to their founding values but requires careful attention to such diverging positions and political sticking points.


Weekly Snapshot

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