There are few countries outside of Russia and a handful of its allies who support its act of aggression against Ukraine. However, the United States must not delude itself into believing that most of the world is coming together under its banner to oppose Moscow’s invasion. While a rallying around the flag effect may be true for NATO countries in Europe, the reality is far more nuanced outside of this geopolitical bloc. In fact, the international response to the Ukraine War indicates not global unity and a reinvigoration of old alliances, but an important shift in the international system that the conventional fixation on “New Cold War” rhetoric simply ignores.
Given this complex and emergent international context, the Institute of Peace and Diplomacy recently released a new report titled “Middle Powers in the Multipolar World.” The study contends that the often-overlooked class of actors called middle powers are essential to a better understanding of the complex geopolitical shifts in a multipolar world. As keystone states in regional balances of power and anchored to a particular regional security complex (RSC), middle powers enjoy a significant degree of freedom to affect and shape world events.
The war in Ukraine has further underscored this reordering, even as many foreign policy commentators—fixated as they are on great power politics—seem to miss the fundamental changes in the working of the international system that it signals. One only needs to consider the nuanced, hedging response of many middle powers to the conflict in Ukraine to appreciate the extent of influence these regional and civilizational powers hold in this increasingly multi-polar world.
Efforts by both Moscow and Washington to reboot at least the perception and rhetoric of a rekindled superpower confrontation and re-partition of the world accordingly have fallen flat in much of the world (especially the global South) hoping to transcend such all-or-nothing stances. With the (re-)emergence of several different civilizational poles—as middle (or, in the case of China, great) powers—the familiar circumstances and old strategic frameworks of ‘unipolarity’ and ‘bipolarity’ that dominated the post-WWII era find little application in the current geopolitical landscape. As the study contends,
“A major reason for this necessary paradigm shift is that middle powers are civilizational states, firmly rooted to a particular land, tradition, and culture and possessing a powerful historical memory. Compared to the ideological impetus of the superpowers of the 20th century, access to a historical consciousness—not ideology—is the engine that most often drives these states, linking the interests of the past and the future of ‘a people’ with the concrete realities faced by the present generations.”
And due to this shift, nations not traditionally considered to be as influential as great powers have become vastly more important and impactful in specifically regional contexts. What’s more, collectively, they represent a challenge to the liberal consensus on international crises. Examining the generally independent tack some of these middle powers have adopted in relation to the Ukraine War is illuminating of future trends.
Both a middle power and a partner of the United States, India’s non-aligned response to the Russo-Ukraine War and its insistence on neutrality has surprised some in Washington. Yet, India has had a long-standing relationship with Russia dating back to the early Postwar era (particularly in the defense sector). While New Delhi has strengthened its relationship with Washington in the past few decades, this has not led to a weakening of its ties with Moscow, from whom it is currently still buying oil. The relationship between Russia and India is mutually beneficial and based on the rationale of balancing China in Eurasia. Moreover, it boosts New Delhi’s strategic autonomy, allowing it to avoid over-dependence on any one foreign country. The North Atlantic foreign policy establishment would therefore be wise not to conflate India with Europe.
The case of Erdogan’s Turkey, both a NATO member and a revisionist middle power, also offers an interesting example. Both an important member in the NATO alliance as well as an exporter of the highly effective Bayraktar TB2 drone to Ukraine, Ankara has nevertheless vied for a flexible diplomatic approach towards Russia. It has also used its leverage with both Russia and Ukraine to elevate itself into the role of a key intermediary, hosting direct ceasefire talks between Moscow and Kyiv. In contrast, status quo middle powers like Japan and Germany have been happy to back Washington and even been quite proactive in sanctioning Moscow, with Berlin, in particular, surpassing the most optimistic expectations by the forcefulness of its response to the Russian Aggression even in the face of growing economic dislocation.
As the United States reviews and recalibrates its role in the world, the Ukraine War has also shown the growing tactical influence of middle powers in fault line conflicts in their adjacent RSCs. As Ukraine’s reliance on Turkish drones and the Houthi armory of Iranian-made ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) demonstrate, arms manufactured and supplied by middle powers can play a decisive role in faultline conflicts to empower peripheral states. This could lessen the traditional dependence of peripheral states on great power weapons manufacturing.
Not only is Russia discovering in Ukraine what many NATO countries had to learn the hard way in Afghanistan (and arguably Syria)—namely that peripheral and fault line states hold more defensive power than is often assumed—but also the world is noticing how easy it is for middle powers to exert influence in the more open and dynamic multipolar international system to stymie their extra-regional rivals (as revealed by the damaging impact of Turkish support for Ukraine on Russia).
Given their generally non-aligned posture, middle powers thus possess far more strategic flexibility and diplomatic autonomy than great powers like the United States which are rigidly wedded to their global alliances. Taken together, the world is witness to an often-neglected aspect of multipolarity—that of the regionally anchored middle powers: nations strong enough to maintain the balance of power in a specific region, even as they lack the ability to replicate this posture on a global level.
Therefore, policymakers in Washington would be prudent to account for the increasing importance of middle powers to the international order as pivotal states and take advantage of this fact by recognizing middle powers’ rooted interests and engaging with them as equal sovereigns. Given the reality of multipolarity and re-emergence of regional security complexes, wise great powers will leverage the keystone middle powers, rather than working against them, to apply more significant geopolitical pressure and advance their interests at lower cost—while neutralizing their rivals’ spheres of influence in the process.
Christopher Mott is a research fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy in Washington DC and author of “The Formless Empire: A Short History of Diplomacy and Warfare in Central Asia”. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews.