Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

A Role Theory Approach to Middle Powers: Making Sense of Indonesia's Place in the International System

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

A Role Theory Approach to Middle Powers: Making Sense of Indonesia's Place in the International System

Article excerpt

This article argues that role theory is a useful approach to understanding more clearly the concept of middle powers. As John Gerring notes, in developing the concept, we seek successful alignment across the conceptual triangle: intension, or internal attributes; extension, or external referents; and a label that covers both. (1) Unfortunately, middle power conceptualization has been unusual compared to most other academic concepts in International Relations (IR). According to R.A. MacKay, the label was created by Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King in a 1946 parliamentary speech on the postwar international order, in which he insisted on a role for "middle powers" like Canada. (2) This label was then absorbed into the IR lexicon. Since then, there has been much debate over the intension and extension of the concept.

As with the assertion of the label, many scholars, and even countries themselves, have ascribed middle power status to various states. For example, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Bangladesh, Sweden, Ghana, Turkey, South Korea, Indonesia, Egypt, Brazil, South Africa and India have repeatedly been described as middle powers. Sometimes these countries are included in the extension because they meet the attributes defined by the intension of the concept. As Adam Chapnick points out, there are functional, behavioural, hierarchical and rhetorical approaches to defining the attributes of a middle power. (3) Yet, Laura Neack suggests that none of these approaches has been successful in developing internal attributes that capture the external referents most observers believe should be covered by the concept. (4)

The authors offer a role theory account of the concept of middle powers status as a potential solution to these problems. This article reconceives middle power status as one that is supported by auxiliary roles that serve as attributes of the basic concept. This should enable us to identify the extension of the concept more properly. This reconceptualization helps to reconcile previous approaches rooted in functional, behavioural, hierarchical and rhetorical definitions. Roles imply functions that must be performed according to the expectations of significant others and the audience of states. Roles, therefore, encompass behavioural expectations. Furthermore, roles also provide a relational, social identity approach to defining middle powers, as opposed to one that is purely rhetorical or focused on self-conception of status. (5)

This article uses Indonesia to illustrate our approach. There appears to be a consensus that Indonesia belongs in the middle power category. The concept of middle power--which has informed certain official policy documents in Indonesia--has also made some headway in the academic literature. (6) However, the identification of Indonesia as a middle power has not been intensively studied. According to Jonathan H. Ping, scholarship on middle powers predominantly focuses on Australia, Canada and certain European countries. (7) By examining how Indonesia exhibits the required auxiliary roles that serve as attributes of the middle power concept, we argue that the country should be categorized as such. The successful application of our approach to the case of Indonesia not only contributes to the literature on middle powers, but also helps address some of the debates on how they should be classified.

Classifying Middle Powers

Hierarchical (quantitative), functional, behavioural (qualitative) and rhetorical (identity) approaches to defining the attributes of middle power status are well established in the literature. These approaches have also been applied to Indonesia, with varying degrees of success. (8)

The hierarchical approach uses a combination of economic, military, social and developmental indicators to determine a state's rank in the international system. The use of quantitative indicators has several strengths, including the ability to measure the power of states in an objective manner as well as facilitating comparisons across states. …

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