"Ideas shape the course of history," John Maynard Keynes boldly remarked a century ago. True to his word, the British economist almost single-handedly defined the post-Second World War international economic order through his compelling analysis of modern macroeconomics.
The so-called Bretton Woods Institutions, namely the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, were the brainchild of Keynesian economics, which continues to dominate policymaking in the capitalist world. Similarly, ideas also play a key role in shaping geopolitics.
With the end of the Cold War, leading thinkers scrambled to define the new global order. Most famously, Francis Fukuyama triumphantly predicted “The End of History”, namely the definitive ascendancy of democratic capitalism against all rival systems of social organisation. Shortly after, his former professor at Harvard, Samuel Huntington, predicted a global “clash of civilisations”, one supposedly pitting the West against a resurgent China and the Islamic realm.
Most recently, however, it’s former US national security adviser and longtime academic Zbigniew Brzezinski’s idea of a Sino-American “Group of 2” co-domination of the world that has gained much traction. Upon closer examination, however, it’s clear that 21st-century geopolitics is becoming so complex, contested and unpredictable that no single or two superpowers can reign over the world.
Instead, the future of the world will be largely defined by the so-called “middle powers”, which have sufficient capacity to not only defend their own interests but also constructively shape a brave new global order. In the coming decades, sustained co-operation among middle powers is essential to addressing existential challenges posed by accelerated climate change, technological disruption and heightened superpower rivalry.
Traditionally, the world has often been divided into great powers (rulers) and the rest (subjects). The Greek historian Thucydides once lamented: "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
But this binary description of the world is both simplistic and misguiding. The ancient Chinese sage Mencius rightly advanced a more nuanced picture, whereby middle-sized kingdoms in the East can play a key role in restraining the imperial excesses of larger rivals and, at times, even prevent widespread atrocities against smaller kingdoms.
More refined Greek thinkers also divided the Mediterranean realm into superpower “magnates” such as Athens, Sparta and Persia; middle-sized city-states such as Corinth and Syracuse; as well as weaker and more vulnerable counterparts such as Sicily and Ionia.
The concept of “middle powers” was further enhanced by Renaissance era Italian philosopher Giovanni Botero, who analysed a three-dimensional international order composed of not only grandissime (empires) and piccioli (small powers) but mezano (middle powers) polities.
As in the dynamic city-states of Venice and Florence, the mezano polities, Botero observed, had "sufficient strength and authority" to not only hold their own, but even contribute to the global efflorescence of modern arts and sciences.
Modern French thinker L'Abbe de Mably built on Botero's work by forwarding the concept of "second order" powers (puissances), which can effectively mediate interactions between "first-order" superpowers and "third-order" smaller powers. The 1815 Paris Conference, which effectively ended the Napoleonic Wars, saw middle-sized Germanic kingdoms playing an active role in bringing about almost a century of relative peace and prosperity in the continent.
Since the end of the Second World War, countries such as Canada and Australia have fully embraced their status as “middle powers”, given their demonstrated ability to shape the global agenda on key issues such as economic integration and disarmament; help contain destructive rivalries among superpowers; and, at times, even influence geopolitics in their respective regions.
For instance, Canada played a central role in the development of, among others, the universal doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, which obliges nation-states to protect their populations against mass atrocities. Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking Asia hand, has played a pivotal role in mediating US-China relations in the past two decades.
More recently, nations as varied as Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea and the UAE have also been described as middle powers, given their increasing role in shaping geopolitics in their respective regions as well as contributing to global initiatives in the realm of conflict-resolution, cultural development, and science and technology.
Often, larger or more well-endowed countries such as Japan, India, Brazil and Germany have also been described as middle powers or “emerging superpowers”, since they still lack the global military footprint of the likes of the US, China or even Russia.
What “middle powers”, in varying sizes, have in common are their capacity for self-defence and projection of power; coalition-building and constructive contribution to international peace and development; and their credibility and creativity in diplomacy and soft power.
In the 21st century, co-operation among middle powers is indispensable to preserving global peace and prosperity. To begin with, the very physics of power is changing, thus preventing a single or two superpowers from calling the shots as in the past eras.
We live in a world that is more populated, more mobile, and more ambitious than ever in human history. As veteran diplomat and leading geopolitical thinker Naim Moises observed in his oft-cited 2013 book The End of Power, ours is a "world where [too many] players have enough power to block everyone else's initiatives, but no one has the power to impose its preferred course of action".
There are three existential challenges, where middle powers can make a huge difference with strategic proactiveness and institutionalised co-operation. The first area is the brewing “New Cold War” between the US and China, featuring not only belligerent rhetoric and trade and tech wars but also potentially explosive naval showdowns across the Indo-Pacific.
Given their relatively robust ties with both antagonists, and their commitment to international law and globalisation, middle powers, from Germany to Indonesia, can and should play a key role in preventing an all-out conflict and nudging the two superpowers towards dialogue and engagement.
Global co-operation, including between the US and China, is urgently needed in the context of a raging pandemic, which has wrought havoc across the world.
The second area of major concern is technological disruption, especially with the advent of so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, where machine learning and AI are threatening even white-collar jobs such as accounting, lawyering and journalism. The world’s leading AI experts such as Kai Fu Lee expect the full economic impact of new technologies within the next decade or so.
New technologies tend to create new jobs, but developing countries and less-educated demographics are particularly vulnerable. According to the International Labour Organisation, in South-East Asia alone, up to 137 million jobs, predominantly in the manufacturing sector, are vulnerable to full automation.
Middle powers can contribute to creation of alternative digital economy platforms, intelligence-augmenting technologies and global regulations, which mitigate massive labour market disruption, protect individual privacy, and prevent fully monopolistic practices by Big Tech companies.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the middle powers should proactively contribute to the effective implementation of necessary global regimes, including the Paris Agreement, which will mitigate climate change through renewable energy innovations as well as help vulnerable countries to cope with extreme weather conditions.
Otherwise, mega-cities such as Kolkata and Jakarta or populous nations such as Bangladesh may not even make it to the end of this century, as rapidly rising sea-levels and evermore unpredictable climactic conditions ravage the poorest nations.
Instead of holding onto outdated modes of thinking, or seeing the world through the prism of US-China competition alone, it’s important to recognise the need for new forms of co-operation by a new set of increasingly important global players, namely the often overlooked yet nimble middle powers.
As Keynes once famously said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
Richard Javad Heydarian is a professorial chairholder in geopolitics at Polytechnic University of the Philippines and author of, among others, 'The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery'