Middle Powers in International Relations. A Realist Evolution

Essay, 2012

11 Pages, Grade: VG


Department of Political Science, Uppsala Universitet, Sweden

This article argues the categorical structure of middle powers through the lens of Realism. Simultaneously, it points out that Realism has a unique place for the compartmental aspect of power groups. It highlights the problems on the measurement of the size of power and shows Realist solutions. It also notes the inner upheavals of Realism particularly the regulatory requirements without which medium forces cannot operate. The debate takes an evolutionary path therefore in some places it follows a narrative approach. It emphasizes the mile stones of Westphalian adjustments and the congress system of Vienna thus highlights the importance of legal formulations. Finally it criticizes the potential candidates and argues the trends in current debates.

Key words : middle powers, categories of power, realism, systemic recognition, hierarchy, regulated chaos


The concept of middle power categorically accepts the hierarchical nature of International Relations. It argues that there is a compartmental aspect in IR where the actors constitute different groups under different catalogues (Lake, 2009). This approach inevitably has realist tendencies compared with the cooperative and horizontal aspect of liberal school (Huntley 1996, Doyle 1983). There are problems about the definition of middle powers which fall short to explain the blurry categories of power such as hyper, super, middle and small. This categorization does not really provide any benchmarks or indicators for the differentiation of levels in power groups. Certainly there are some countries that have greater capabilities than other state actors but this does not really help us to understand the definitive borders for example, between the ‘’strongest small ‘’and ‘’weakest middle power’’.

The question of ‘’How do we categorize the countries’’ is a Gordian knot. Is it the size of the land as square miles and GDP or is it the military spending and high tech frame of defence industry? For example Israel is a very small country and its size is *Arda Can Celik is a graduate M.A in political science and international relations at Uppsala University Sweden, currently resides in Turkey working as an analyst and researcher, arda6734@hotmail.com insignificant enough compared with bordering countries but its nuclear capabilities or defence industry (especially avionics) creates an enormous military deterrence which alters the calculations of categories of power( Cohen,2008).

In that situation, we can face inevitable and continuous questions about the comparative strength calculations. But one should also underline that those frames such as ‘’ability, strength, size’’ can be highly abstract and do not have the ultimate tools for power categorization. One should consider the notion that there are also new approaches for power types which create new versions in IR thus necessitate new variables such as ‘’soft, smart and flexible ’’ (Nye, 2004)

In order to prevent the philosophical confusion, Realist school pragmatically argues that the ‘’depth and level of power’’ is about capacity. This capacity includes the necessary tools for creating policy formulations, securing national interests, pursuing opportunities or finding new platforms for deterrence and coercion.

Robert Dahl points out that (1957) ‘ ’ Power is the ability to get someone to do something that he wouldn ’ t otherwise do ’’. Barnett and Duvall (2005) on the other hand underline it as a control mechanism ‘’ for own interests ’’. Realism, wholeheartedly accepts that power is about projection therefore the world is the platform for exercising it. The levels of power therefore show the levels of projection capacities.

On the contrary, Liberalism does not require a strong system of power balance. Equilibrium can be maintained by increasing levels of interdependence therefore any deviation from the system can create enough costs to prevent that possibility. In Liberalism, the horizontal nature of relations provides opportunities and intensifies the interactions therefore power turns into economic facts, figures, persuasion and diplomacy (Danilovic and Clare, 2007). Certainly one should not underestimate that there is a strong academic literature on the causes of conflicts among liberal actors and this study does not argue that levels of power is totally meaningless in liberal field. However, an emphasis on categories of power is significantly more explicit in Realism compared to liberal literature.

Considering the mentioned principles above, realist view describe the middle power as a unit which has enough power base to influence the regional areas and keeps an eye on its national interests but it does not have the capacity to alter or affect the international system unilaterally. International system can witness the balance of power under multilateral forces or it can be two power blocs (duality) as happened in Cold war era. In each cease ‘’middle power’’ plays a significant role in global or regional platform and it is powerful enough to defend its own interests but this strength does not have the capacity to create a global impact in IR. In other words, middle power does not have the sources to alter the major calculations in global arena. There are also other actors operating in the global scale which possess much more accumulated force than the middle powers.

Rudd (2007) argues that middle powers ‘ ’ have sufficient strength and authority to stand on their own without the need of help from others ‘’. However ‘’ without the need of help ’’ can create problematic conclusions. In this situation ‘ ’ the need of help ’’ definitely depends on the size of ‘’ others ’’ . Self sufficiency is a relative term and it can easily be outmanoeuvred by a superior force. On the other hand Carsten Holbraad’s (1971) definition is more precise and vertical which underlines that ‘ ’ it occupies an intermediate position in a hierarchy based on power, a country much stronger than small nations though considerably weaker than the principle members of the state system ’’

Mentioned approaches show us that the concept of middle power finds a detailed opportunity to promote itself in realist literature rather than other theoretical fields. At this phase one might ask that what kind of role do middle powers play in the global platform and how do they affect and contribute the system while they are being affected. To understand this approach one should look at the roots of the system.

Pre-19th Century

The historical position of middle powers resulted from the power gap between the hierarchical levels of state actors that the stronger party potentially possessed a danger to other members. This was the era that international norms and regulations were primitive therefore the political predictability was at minimum level let alone the constituents of international law.

In antiquity, one couldn’t easily observe the existence of middle powers and it was hard to imagine that a much more superior force would remain silent and would live in peace side by side with the weaker partner (Cary and Scullard, 1976). Historical records showed that it was only possible under tributary relationships and under the formulations of de facto or de jure dependency (Spence 1991, Kissinger 2011).One option for the weaker actor was building an alliance to strengthen its position however that situation depended on the numbers of independent states which could create a combined force against the superior one. This case was very rare in the era of early and late antiquity and only limited to couple of examples such as the Athenians-Spartans against Persia. But even in that situation one hardly called the Hellenic society as medium power therefore these cases were marginal and weak. If

one nation was lucky enough to survive in antiquity, it was the standard definition as ‘’ buffer zone ’’ rather than the concept of middle power (Luttwak, 1979). One example can be given that Armenia stayed as a buffer zone between the Roman Empire and Parthia in the northern parts of East Anatolia. Yet its independence was nominal in her best days and frequently changed hands under the tutelage of Romans or Parthia (Garnsey et al, 2008).

There was also a relationship between the clans, tribes and nomadic forces which were situated in the border areas but this could not constitute any sovereign power base for creating a middle power. Independent powers were mostly located in great distances that there was no system to provide guarantees for the weaker states. One example was that Ming China was thousands of miles away from the other empires in Iranian plateau and Mediterranean basin.

System whether it was international or regional had never guaranteed an impartial justice. It was mostly the order of the strongest party which at its best, provided an opportunity from hegemonic peace and created fragmental benefits from trade under the observance of its superiority (Cary and Scullard,1976).Order could be maintained by not challenging the superior force and it was the acceptance of that power by weaker parties which created benefits of peace and unbalanced prosperity despite the structural reality that the scholars called hegemony and tributary relationships. Predictably, this type of order did not bring general prosperity and it was clearly argued by the charts of wealth accumulations per capita under the colonial rules of empires (Merriman 2004, Burbank and Cooper 2011)

In order to guarantee a living space for all members in the political system, there should be regulations, alliances or check and balances to limit the arbitrary actions. Without any regulations and treaties there cannot be big, middle or small but only rivalry of the strongest. This formulation shows that there is great dilemma about the middle powers in Realism because Realist approach firmly emphasizes the chaotic nature of International relations. It is clear that middle power concept is much closer to Realism rather than Liberalism but how does one explain the existence of the weak among the strongest. If there is a chaos there should be no room for the weak actors. Existence can only be achieved either by mercy and dependency or under the suzerainty of a much more superior force.


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Middle Powers in International Relations. A Realist Evolution
Uppsala University
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middle, powers, international, relations, realist, evolution
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Arda Can Çelik (Author), 2012, Middle Powers in International Relations. A Realist Evolution, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/274195


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