Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

The "Middle Power" Concept in Australian Foreign Policy

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

The "Middle Power" Concept in Australian Foreign Policy

Article excerpt


As the Cold War structures began to collapse in the early 1990s, the Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, set about positioning Australia as an activist "middle power" on the international stage. (1) Through a series of high profile foreign policy initiatives ranging from the protection of the Antarctic environment, peace building in Cambodia to arms control and disarmament, Australia's self-proclaimed middle power credentials gained widespread international recognition and support. (2) Moreover, the application of Evans's middle power approach, usually in the form of coalition-building with other "like-minded" countries, became a key feature that distinguished Australian diplomacy from the growing ranks of secondary powers in the post-Cold War world.

Although grounded in the foreign policy traditions of the Australian Labor Party, Evans claimed that Labor's middle power approach to post-Cold War diplomacy represented a new and significant departure. In a book co-authored with Bruce Grant, Evans sought to resuscitate an idea which he believed had fallen into disrepair since the 1970s. "Middle power diplomacy" had "regained some currency as the most useful way of describing the kind of role that some nations like Australia have been playing in recent times, or to which they might reasonably aspire". Evans would later embroider this claim further, suggesting that the middle power model was one that he had needed to "construct" for the brave new world of the 1990s. (3) These were large and important claims. If true, they suggested that Australia's adoption of middle power diplomacy was largely a function of Evans's own imagination and creativity. However, a closer reading of the official foreign policy record over the past sixty years offers some pause for thought before such claims can be accepted.

In this essay I trace the conceptual and operational foundations of Australia's middle power diplomacy by examining a number of parliamentary debates and speeches made since 1945. These show how the central themes of middle power diplomacy--a broad commitment to liberal internationalism and a belief in the leadership role that small and middle powers could play in international relations--were established and re-established in Australian foreign policy and practice. While notions of Australia as a middle power have been more commonly articulated during the tenure of post-war Labor governments, conservative governments too have made similar assumptions about Australia's place and position on the international stage. Evans was wrong to claim that Australia's middle power diplomacy was somehow a unique or novel reaction to the diplomatic opportunities and challenges presented by the end of the Cold War. Since the Second World War Australian foreign policy practitioners and policy-makers from both sides of the political divide have framed most diplomatic activity within the broad rubric of Australia's middle power status and role in international affairs.

The Evolution of the Middle Power Concept

It should be noted at the outset that there is no agreed definition of a middle power and middle power diplomacy. The term has been used variously to describe geographic, material, normative and behavioural attributes among a diverse group of middle-ranking states from Iran to Japan. (4) Such ranking exercises based on selective criteria, however, are fraught with difficulty because, as other scholars have shown, there is little or no correlation between a country's size or position in the international system and the conduct of its diplomacy. (5) In short, being a middle-sized country does not determine foreign policy behaviour. But having middle-ranking economic, military and diplomatic capabilities and actively pursuing a middle power approach to international affairs does offer some insight into what certain states can do.

Clearly, when foreign policy practitioners make declaratory statements about exercising a country's "middle power" role in the international system, they are employing a type of shorthand for a pre-defined and generally agreed set of foreign policy behaviours. …

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