Interview with James Wurst, Program Director of the Middle Powers Initiative



While the exact definition of a middle power state remains ambiguous, these countries are often thought to be “good international citizens” giving them a position of moral esteem. Through specialization and niche diplomacy, they lead movements of great international relevance and find new ways of interacting in the global power structure.   


Among the behavioral assumptions made about prototypical middle powers are that they support and engage in multi-lateral diplomacy, cooperate with states that share similar interests, and promote and engage in peaceful conflict resolution or mediation. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines is a well-known example of middle power states working with non-governmental organizations to create an international network with a common goal. The recognized success of this group has brought further attention to organizations working to build similar connections and create platforms for discussion around pressing issues of international concern. 


Nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation is another globally significant issue that requires international cooperation. Through the Middle Powers Initiative—a program of the Global Security Institute—eight international NGOs are able to work primarily with middle power governments to educate and to encourage nuclear weapons states to take immediate practical steps that reduce nuclear dangers and can lead to negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons.


To further discuss leveraging the moral authority of middle powers in the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament effort, PD’s Tala Mohebi and Desa Philadelphia spoke with James Wurst, the Middle Powers Initiative’s Program Director.

PD: What is the Middle Powers Initiative? Please tell us about the organization and why it was founded.

WURST: The Middle Powers Initiative was founded in 1999. After the end of the Cold War, without the superpower balance (regardless of whether you thought it was good or bad, it existed) we ended up with a uni-polar world. Our belief was that if you could forge an informal coalition of middle power governments that would work in diplomatic circles—not only for the nonproliferation treaty but in international relations in general to forge a common strategy for the realization of nuclear disarmament through international law—that it would serve as a counterbalance to the United States. That was the idea.

Then what happened was, independent of us, other countries had the same idea and created what’s called the New Agenda Coalition; these seven U.S.-friendly, mid-sized, non-nuclear countries[1] created a coalition of middle power governments to advance the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation agenda. So we ended up working very closely with them and we still do, but of course we have our own particular agenda and the New Agenda Coalition has theirs, and over the years other ad-hoc groupings of midsized governments working on these issues formed. As more countries became involved, and as our capacity allowed, we were able to work with a broader range of governments.  

In 2005 after the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference ended in failure, the Middle Powers Initiative started a new program, which we call the Article VI Forum. Article VI is the article of the NPT in which the nuclear states commit themselves to disarmament. The insight there was that while 2005 was a failure, a vast majority of countries agreed on most issues and that only a few sticking points in a few countries were really blocking consensus. So the idea was to start a series of consultations that worked on strategies for the NPT and beyond.

Now we’ve just completed the sixth forum in Berlin in January and, without getting into the review conference itself, the forums tended to be extremely successful in forging common policies and giving the middle power countries an informal setting where they can work out some issues by themselves and come up their own strategies that they take back to their capitals and introduce into the UN system.

Why work with middle power countries specifically? And, how do you define what the middle power countries are?

Well as a term of ours, there’s no definition. We talk about like-minded middle power countries—these are countries that already pretty much agree with/among each other on disarmament and nonproliferation questions. They’re politically, economically, and militarily significant countries that do not have nuclear weapons and that are actively engaged in these issues. 

By that definition it’s not at all difficult to figure out what countries we’re talking about: Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Egypt, South Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan and Australia. Those are the countries that most regularly attended these conferences. It’s a self-selected group, if they want to attend they attend, if they don’t they don’t. There’s no coercion, it’s all by invitation—we just try to bring them together. It’s not like NATO where you are a member by treaty, or like the nonaligned movement that has a very distinct list of countries. Middle powers is an amorphous term and we prefer it that way; everyone prefers it that way—they don’t want to be seen walking into some coalition or some sort of position. Sometimes, that actually depends on the government at bat too—it’s up to countries if they want to engage with us; if they don’t want to, then they don’t.

What standard has the Middle Powers Initiative used to measure its effectiveness as a forum?

Well, that’s always the interesting thing about diplomacy because what you see is the final product, you don’t always know how it was created, and if you do know how it was created you’re not supposed to talk about it. So sometimes it can be difficult. 

I can tell you this because this is now pretty much a matter of public record, that before we started the Article VI forum of the Middle Powers Initiative at the invitation of President Jimmy Carter, we had a consultation at the Carter Center in Atlanta on the future of the NPT in 2000, did it again in 2005, and we’ll do it again ahead of the 2010 review conference. In other words, these are consultations/meetings that happened just ahead of the review conferences that occur every five years. So, we do know that what we were able to do in 2000 was to help create a political focus and momentum to come up with an agenda which did turn into thirteen steps that were agreed to at the 2000 review conference, solidifying the general statements on making progress towards nuclear disarmament. We do know we had a role in that because it’s a matter of record that the people involved have talked about it. 

Otherwise, we provide a space. We not only get governments together but international experts in a much more informal session where they can work out their own strategies. We’re very upfront about what we want and there’s nothing that says they’ve got to listen to us, but it’s very heartening that they do keep coming. We always try to hold these annual meetings in different middle power states’ capitals and we have more offers for hosting than we have forums planned; that’s been quite encouraging. As I’ve pointed out, you don’t join MPI. It’s not a membership, it’s not a coalition, so any country that doesn’t want to be involved in this can walk away at the drop of a hat—and they don’t. This encourages us that we are doing something, that we are providing a service not only to these countries but also to the United Nations and the international community as a whole.

When you said you’re upfront about what you want, how do you talk to the participating governments about what it is that you hope they would commit to?

Well, upfront is when you call yourself the Article VI Forum, there’s no room for ambiguity there. What we want them to do is to fulfill the treaty obligations, all of them, of the NPT—not just nuclear disarmament. We consider that the lynchpin. Without disarmament the other elements, the other commitments of the NPT will not be fulfilled. So we believe in the fulfillment of all of the articles of the NPT but we do put special emphasis on Article VI.

How do you hope that the conversations that you’re having, and the willingness of the middle power governments to participate, might influence the countries that do have nuclear weapons and those that are trying to obtain them?

Well, the thing here is that in most cases we talk about like-minded middle powers and the New Agenda Coalition—an important point of those seven countries is that they were allies of the United States or are allies of the United States. You’re not talking about countries that are coming in with hostile intent either toward the treaty, toward their neighbors, or towards the nuclear powers or specifically the United States. How they might have some influence is that they come in with the basic position that they’re here to help, that they’re here to fulfill treaty obligations. 

They intend to fulfill all of their treaty obligations and they will actively engage in any new negotiations—for instance, over a fissile material cut-off or any sort of negotiations on further steps for disarmament. So again, they go to the nuclear countries, particularly the United States, as allies, and say we don’t have a hidden agenda, we’re friends and we want you to fulfill your obligations. We hope that this open-hand approach will resonate with the target governments. And in the past it has. It doesn’t always resonate of course—the last administration was not particularly receptive to any outside critique—but we’re turning the page.

With regards to the countries that do participate, do they see this as really helping their image with the other allied countries or with publics around the world?  Is it a way for them to kind of say ‘here is our government, our country, making an effort on this issue that’s important to every person on the planet’?

That’s a difficult question for me to answer; I mean that’s the sort of question you should ask representatives of a country that you’re referring to. I wouldn’t presume to answer that question on behalf of 25 different countries. I would say that it does improve their standing in the international community in the UN body. People do listen, and people do respect their opinions.  That would probably happen without us, but the collective work that we’re doing to make it a collective force, a single unified voice, could reflect well. 

Do you see any role for MPI in addressing issues other than nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, or branching out into other areas of interest and creating new forums for middle powers on those issues?

The short answer is no. Our expertise is on nuclear weapons. Our chairman Ambassador Henrik Salander is an internationally renowned expert in the field. It is an organization which exists to promote nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. The expertise that would be necessary for other issues isn’t there and we don’t really have that kind of mandate from either our board or from our international steering committee, or from any of the countries that are involved in this.

This is not to say that the model cannot work. Other organizations, or groups of organizations, could very easily do something similar. Off the top of my head I can think of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court. Here is an example of a coalition of organizations working with an ad-hoc coalition of governments. And there was the same thing with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines—here again you had coalitions of NGOs working for a common cause. 

Do you think there’s something special about the position of middle power countries? Something special about where they stand in the world order, and their ability to operate from a place that gives them some moral standing because they are not considered imperialists, but have enough resources and influence to make a difference.

Yes. You see, many of these countries (northern or southern) are highly industrialized, have a very strong infrastructure and an education system that, if they had chosen to do so, they could have developed a weapon. It seems absurd now to think about it, but Sweden could have developed a bomb if they had wanted to. Some countries like South Korea or Japan had the capability; other countries gave them up. South Africa, for example, had it and they said, ‘no, our security is not served by this.’

You can’t underestimate the moral authority of a country, or a group of countries that have made that decision. One of the stories the president of the Global Security Institute often talks about is that you can’t preach temperance from a bar stool and you can’t tell somebody to quit smoking when they’ve got a cigar in their mouth. These people have sworn off the bottle, to continue that metaphor, so, yes, in the international community that does carry some weight.


[1] The New Agenda Coalition members are Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden.