Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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English (Australian) – Middle Power

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · English (Australian), Middle Power

Middle Power

Relates to middle power

In the Australian debate, the term ‘middle power’ is most often associated with Gareth Evans, who was Australian Foreign Minister from 1988-1996. It is a term which suggests that middle powers can exert a degree of influence upon outcomes in international politics. It stresses that such outcomes can be achieved through multilateral approaches, through forming coalitions with other like-minded countries and provided that appropriate ‘niches’ for influence are identified. More often than not, the term ‘middle power’ suggests a regional as opposed to a global focus. Famous examples of ‘middle power diplomacy’ during the Evans period include the Australian Group (addressing chemical and biological export controls) and the Cambodian Peace Plan.[1]

The application of the term ‘middle power’ in the Australian context actually dates back much further than the Evans period. As Carl Ungerer has observed, ‘it has been one of the most enduring themes in Australian foreign policy discourse for over sixty years.’[2] Minister for External Affairs Dr. H.V. Evatt was the first to officially invoke the term at the conference at which the United Nations was established in April 1945.[3] Senior figures from both sides of Australian politics have used the term during the period since, although it is a term more frequently associated with the Australian Labor Party.

While Australian politicians have generally seen the political utility of the middle power concept and have invoked it accordingly, it is also a term that has defied ready definition and that has attracted its fair share of detractors. A key challenge has been to reconcile Australia’s diplomatic activism across the international community with its military capabilities and interests as a close US ally. While on the campaign trail in the lead-up to the 1996 Federal election, for instance, shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer asserted that the term did not do justice to Australia’s significant role in world affairs, preferring to employ an alternative ‘pivotal power’ concept.[4] Yet increasingly questions have been raised as to whether Australia can continue to claim middle power status as Asia’s giants stand up and as power relativities shift dramatically during the Asian century.

Prime Minister Rudd resurrected the term during his first major foreign policy speech in early 2008, where he referred to his government’s commitment to ‘creative, middle power diplomacy as the best means of advancing Australia’s national interests.’[5] It was a theme that was to continue throughout his relatively short tenure in office. By way of example, Rudd noted during his inaugural national security statement to the Australian parliament that ‘national security must be also advanced through the agency of creative middle power diplomacy – an active foreign policy capable of identifying opportunities to promote our security and to otherwise prevent, reduce or delay the emergence of national security challenges.’[6]

Rudd’s frequent employment of the term ‘middle power’ was interpreted by some analysts as a deliberate attempt to differentiate his government’s foreign policy from that of his more ‘realistic’ and practically-focused predecessor.[7] In line with Labor tradition, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has continued to use the term.[8]




[1] For further reading see Ken Berry, Cambodia  from Red to Blue: Australia’s initiative for peace, (Canberra, ACT: Allen & Unwin, 1997).

[2] Carl Ungerer, ‘The “Middle Power” Concept in Australian Foreign Policy’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol.53, no.4, 2007, pp.538-551.

[3] Ibid., p.540.

[4] Ibid, p.548.

[5] See Michelle Grattan, ‘Australia to speak up in the world: PM’, The Age, 27 March 2008.

[6] ‘The First National Security Statement to the Australian Parliament’, Address by the Prime Minister of Australia, The Hon. Kevin Rudd MP, 4 December 2008, p.8.

[7] See, for example, David Santoro, ‘No Australian Uranium to India: “Creative Middle Power Diplomacy” in Action?’, PacNet, no.16, Pacific Forum CSIS, Hawaii, Honolulu, 6 March 2008.

[8] See Michelle Grattan, ‘Gillard to push Australia’s “activist” role in the G20’, Brisbane Times, 12 November 2010.


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