(more) Reader responses: Australia as a pivotal power
18 Oct 2013|

Anthony Bergin’s recent post Is Australia a pivotal power?  has sparked a lot of responses. Below are the latest submissions. We’re also happy to hear from readers who aren’t named Andrew.

It’s only words

Andrew Davies

In the proud tradition of ASPI not having a house view on issues, I feel compelled to buy into the ‘pivotal power’ discussion kicked off here by Anthony Bergin. Thanks to Damien Kingsbury, I now know that ‘pivotal’ is an adjective that already has its own associated meaning in these matters. But ultimately I subscribe to the Humpty Dumpty school of thought; words mean what we want them to mean. So really I don’t think it matters how we characterise ourselves. What matters, as Carl Ungerer pointed out yesterday, is how successful we are in shaping our foreign policy to achieve outcomes that support our national interests.

But I’m rather taken by Damien’s suggested ‘thought experiment’ of imagining what would happen if Australia was to disappear—that’s a very neat way of structuring the exercise of evaluating Australia’s influence. And it serves the purpose of quickly illuminating where our real influence lies.

For a start, there’d be an impact on world commodity prices, and the resource-hungry industries of China in particular would have to source their inputs elsewhere. Other suppliers would fill in some of the market gaps, and there’d be increased market incentives to develop other latent resources to increase supply. Over time the impact mightn’t be as large as we might think—but our absence would at least be noticed.

The United States would miss us too—Australia provides considerable geographical utility as a site for intelligence, communications and military training and garrisoning. We’re ‘a suitable piece of real estate’ as Des Ball once pointed out. We also do a pretty fair job of burden sharing in the world of intelligence gathering, having a good handle on our part of the world.

The kiwis might miss us most of all—although of course they’d never admit it. We’re the nearest culturally similar country, and our much larger population and location makes Australia a natural destination for New Zealander’s looking for economically richer pastures, and also we provide a handy security barrier. With ‘0% Air Force‘ (not true, but funny), Australia serves a useful purpose in providing high-end air and maritime capability to this part of the world. Of course, if Australia wasn’t there, it would require considerable power projection capability for anyone to threaten New Zealand, so it’s questionable how much value that security blanket adds.

More seriously, Australia’s ability to lead local stabilisation missions does count. The ADF would be missed when our near neighbours get into strife.

But elsewhere the impact mightn’t be so significant. For example, I think that ASEAN would continue to tick along in its own inimitable fashion—so much for our power in Southeast Asia. And the impressive array of statistics provided doesn’t sway me. Australia might be the 12th largest economy in the world, but it constitutes just a tad over 2% of the world total. The top five countries add up to 50%, with the next five contributing just 15% between them. Incidentally, the ‘middle powers’ in terms of mid-placed ranking on the world GDP ladder are Tanzania (92) and Bolivia (93). Being above the middle in that table isn’t setting the bar very high.

Germany, however, has a serious claim to being a ‘pivotal country’. But that’s as much because of how it’s situated as the powerhouse of an otherwise fairly shaky European economy as it is with their 4th place ranking and 4.7% of world GDP. The world would most certainly notice if Germany disappeared overnight—and the results wouldn’t be pretty. As far as the broader world economy goes, Australia’s absence would be noticed, but not very much, and possibly not for long.

So I’m sorry Anthony, but I’m not buying it. We live in a very handy place (‘location, location, location’ as Ben Reilly put it) and we’re an important—but not pivotal—producer of energy and other resources. But overall I think we’re really pretty middling.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We are what we are, and we’re pretty good at playing the hand we were dealt (and have continued to shape by ourselves)—and that’s actually what matters.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist.


Australia’s conceit

Andrew O’Neill

The term ‘middle power’ has traditionally received a bad wrap among Australian international affairs experts. The term has been lampooned as boosterism on the part of those who are insecure about Australia’s world role, and is often linked to the much derided, almost certainly overused, phrase ‘punching above our weight’. More thoughtful commentators have pinpointed what they see as the amorphous attributes of middle power status and dismissed it as little more than a Goldilocks formula for conducting foreign policy.

Despite this, Australian policy makers and senior public servants are consistently attracted to the middle power moniker. It’s one of those rare occasions where those in government are more comfortable than academic types in employing woolly rhetoric to describe Australia’s foreign policy capabilities and behavior.

Anthony Bergin’s thoughtful post raises the long standing question of whether it’s appropriate for Australian governments to embrace a national role conception—to use Kal Holsti’s typology (PDF)—that incorporates a middle power identity. Anthony is concerned that Australia is selling itself short by signing up for the MIKTA initiative with fellow travelers Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, and Turkey, and argues that it’s more appropriate to think of Australia as a ‘considerable’ power and a ‘significant’ country. The strong implication is that we shouldn’t use the term middle power to describe who we are or how we operate as a country in the international system.

National role conceptions matter not just for the policy makers doing the conceiving, but also for how they want their country to be seen internationally. Alexander Downer may well have occasionally employed ‘considerable’ and ‘significant’ as prefixes to ‘power’, but this was largely a product differentiation device aimed at distinguishing the Howard government’s foreign policy from that of its Labor predecessors. Downer used ‘middle power’ more frequently in his speeches on the world stage between 1996-2007. This was very much in the tradition of Tony Street, Andrew Peacock, and Garfield Barwick, who themselves strongly embedded the middle power descriptor in Coalition foreign policy.

Conceiving and framing Australia as a middle power has a high degree of bipartisanship, and general appeal domestically. Australians tend to be a bit conceited at times, but even our politicians don’t pretend we’re a major or great power. And we’re certainly not a small power (think New Zealand), so where else is there to go?

Middle powers are those states—roughly around 20-25 of them—that possess the material capabilities to make a difference in global governance when acting in concert with like-minded states. An important point to emphasise is that middle powers exhibit distinctive traits, most notably a preference for multipolarity, rules and institutions, and peace-building, as well as ideational traits underpinning their claim to be good international citizens. As Bruce Gilley and I argue in a forthcoming book on middle powers and China, this fundamentally means adhering to liberal-internationalist ideals. It’s pretty tough to argue that Australia somehow lies outside this definition of middle powers.

In light of Tony Abbott’s recent emphasis on mending election-damaged fences with the neighbours, it’s hard to see what could be gained by eschewing the middle power national role conception—with all of its favourable connotations for diplomacy—in favour of a term (think ‘considerable power’) that risks reinforcing the view in some quarters that Australia really does have an inflated view of its own importance in the world.

Andrew O’Neil is director of the Griffith Asia Institute and Professor of International Relations at Griffith University. With Bruce Gilley, he is the co-editor of China’s Rise and Middle Powers to be published in 2014 by Georgetown University Press. 


Middle power magic

Andrew Carr

As an Australian scholar who writes on ‘middle powers’, I was worried the end of the Rudd government was going to usher in a barren few years. Yet with Tony Abbott embracing the term and now Anthony Bergin’s excellent post I’m starting to think it’s situation normal.

Only, as Anthony points out, it probably shouldn’t be. The term middle power is somewhat discredited and no one should unthinkingly keep repeating it. Under the Rudd government it seemed like a spell whose magic had long gone. Middle power ‘niche’ or ‘creative’ diplomacy had bewitched scholars and policy makers in the 1980s and 1990s, but today seemed without spark or purpose. What exactly the term meant was never explained by Rudd; it was simply an invocation of the Evans/Keating model, but with all the appeal of a re-heated microwave meal. No wonder Bergin suggests replacing it. But I’d urge the Abbott government to stick with the term ‘middle power’ to describe Australia, for three reasons.

First, as Anthony has noted, other similar sized countries (especially non-Anglo-Saxon ones) are embracing the term. That means it has much more currency than it used to when the middle power club was basically just us and Canada. As we try to think afresh about Australia’s influence, status and achieving our national interests, it would be foolish to rashly abandon a potential common thread with other significant countries around the world.

Second, there are no strong alternatives. While Alexander Downer occasionally used the term ‘pivotal power’, this was driven more by partisanship than an effort to re-think what Australia’s place in the world was. Pivotal power risks sounding arrogant to some audiences, and it implies a desire to be shifting and pushing regional and global affairs, which may not suit a conservative approach to foreign policy. It’s a term that suggests a focus on being the hero, being ‘the decider’, when what we really need is less dashing off to insert ourselves into the latest international crisis (as Rudd did) and more focus on deliberate steady progression towards long term goals.

Finally, I think the term middle power has a significance we shouldn’t lightly abandon. Scholars have found early versions of the middle power concept in use over 500 years ago. And the extensive literature on the topic, while often not shedding much light, at least suggests there’s an enduring interest in those states which are neither strong enough to dictate terms, nor too weak to matter. What’s needed is a better way to begin understanding the capacity of these states. In the forthcoming edition of the Australian Journal of International Affairs, I lay out an argument for a ‘systemic’ definition. I’ll avoid repeating the argument, lest I put readers of this blog to sleep at their desks, but in short, I think being a middle power means two things. First you can credibly defend yourself, at the very least imposing significant costs on any great power that might consider attacking you. Second, middle powers can shape parts of the international system. They might not be able to overhaul the system, but they can refine it.

Currently Australia meets both of these tests, though sustaining this will require not only spending more on diplomacy and defence, but also re-thinking how we go about achieving influence. Instead of the band-aid of multilateralism a focus on minilateralism (such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and tri/quadrilateral exercises) might be a better way to go, and more suited to the new government’s temperament. All governments want to find a new language from their predecessors, and certainly Rudd’s tired and banal phrase ‘creative middle power diplomacy’ is in need of a refresh. But the Coalition should follow their conservative instinct for tradition and history and re-embrace the term middle power. It has served us well, and with an effort to think clearly about Australia’s place in the world, can be re-fashioned into useful rhetorical service for many years to come.

Andrew Carr is an Associate Lecturer at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU and editor of the Centre of Gravity policy series