Following the end of the Cold War, with the decline of superpowers and the rise of “soft power,” the middle power concept has become more popular than ever. Although the concept is hardly new and could be traced back to classic works on international relations by thinkers such as Kautilia and Machiavelli, there is very little agreement among scholars and practitioners on what it means and how useful is it. Many observers have raised questions and reservations about the validity of the concept for both international relations theory and public diplomacy.

This work argues that despite the reservations, the concept may be useful for analyzing the foreign policy and behavior of many states. It further argues that public diplomacy has become a major characteristic of contemporary middle powers and that their ability to influence international relations depends on effective use of this instrument.

The work first explores the theoretical dimensions of the concept. It then analyzes the public diplomacy challenges middle powers face and alternative ways to cope with them. The next section explores several examples of diplomacy and public diplomacy employed by various middle powers from different parts of the world to achieve their foreign policy goals and build a better and safer world.

Middle Powers

The middle power concept suggests a comparative place on an international hierarchy of states. By definition, in order to determine the “middle” it is necessary to define the other two high and low extremes. A typical and trivial statement would read: “A middle power is a state that is neither a great power nor a small power.” But which criteria determine power and the power hierarchy or range? Attempts to calculate power have been based on material variables such as territory, population, economic output, military capability and technological infrastructure. States ranked in the middle of these areas were called “middle powers,” “secondary powers,” “middle-sized states,” “non-great powers” or “would-be great powers.” It became clear, however, that these measures have failed to provide a valid description of power relationships and that other variables affected the ability of states to influence major processes in international relations. Influenced by the United States’ failures in Vietnam, one approach added two softer elements to the material components: “strategic purpose” and “national will.”[i] But even this addition didn’t resolve the fundamental difficulty in measuring the power of states.

Power is always comparative, relative and perceived. Since there is no objective and accurate formula to measure power, actors can only perceive their relative strength against other actors. Moreover, a perceived power relationship between the same actors may vary over time and from one situation to another. By definition, most states are weaker than great powers such as the United States. At the same time, however, a state could be stronger than one state but weaker than another. Kenya, for example, may be stronger than Ethiopia but weaker than South Africa; Greece may be stronger than Cyprus but weaker than Germany; and Japan may be stronger than Thailand but weaker than China.

Scholars and officials have invented and employed the middle power concept to cope with the theoretical challenge of explaining the considerable influence some states have on international relations even though their resources are much smaller than those of great powers. To be a middle power, a state must exercise international leadership but usually does so only on certain issues and in cooperation with other states or through international organizations. Cooper, Higgott and Nossal offered one of the first behavioral definitions of the concept, suggesting that middle powers should be recognized by the types of issues they choose to resolve and the nature of their actions.[ii] By this definition, middle powers provide technical and entrepreneurial leadership on global issues other than security (first agenda). These include economic development and foreign aid (second agenda), and human rights, human security, environmental protection and health (third agenda). Middle powers provide leadership on these issues through multilateral solutions, compromise and “good international citizenship.”

This definition helped to distinguish between great and middle powers based on some unwritten division of work. Middle powers tend to focus on second and third agenda issues because they feel they can deal with them more effectively, and because they cannot or do not wish to challenge the great powers. While great powers can act unilaterally or through coalitions they form and dominate, middle powers need to create partnerships and work through international organizations and forums.

Ravenhill combined five hard and soft characteristics of middle powers: capacity, concentration, creativity, coalition-building and credibility. [iii] The first two are hard power elements. Middle powers have limited resources and must concentrate on a few issues at any given time. Creativity refers to innovative entrepreneurial approaches to conflict resolution, while the last two components focus on foreign policy behavior defined in terms of international interest, multilateral institutions and alliance-forming with like-minded states.

Theoretically, any big or small state could become a middle power, and a state could function as a middle power in one specific area at one particular period. A small power, however, may function as a middle power in one particular area, but this doesn’t make it a middle power. The confusion doesn’t end here. It is quite amazing to note how many adjectives, qualifications and interpretations scholars have attached to the term. Just consider the following: “traditional middle power,” “middlepowermanship,” “emerging middle power,” “pivotal middle power,” “activist middle power,” “reluctant middle power,” “revisionist middle power,” and “specialized power.”

A synthesis of existing approaches and definitions suggests that states are viewed as middle powers if they have less material resources than great powers, and if they exercise good global citizenship, work through international organizations and agencies, promote mediation and peaceful conflict resolution, and participate in peacekeeping operations. Based on these criteria, states such as Canada, Australia, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Japan are middle powers, while states such as Brazil, South Africa and India could be described as “emerging middle powers.”[iv]

Middle Powers and Public Diplomacy

Since the beginning of this century, scholars and practitioners have employed the term the New Public Diplomacy (NPD) to distinguish between the public diplomacy (PD) of the Cold War and the PD of the post-Cold War, and to adjust PD to the conditions of the information age. Potter cited the following changes in international relations and communication that have affected PD: the increased importance of public opinion, the rise of more intrusive and global media, increased global transparency, and the rise of a global culture leading to a reflexive desire to protect cultural diversity.[v] Melissen focused on the rise of non-state actors, the difficulty of reconciling domestic and foreign information needs, and the two-way communication pattern of exchanging information between sates.[vi] Gilboa offered an expanded list of characteristics, including the interactivity between states and non-state actors, two-way communication, strategic PD, media framing, information management, PR, nation branding, self presentation and e-image, domestication of foreign policy, and addressing both short and long term issues.[vii] This work keeps the term PD but uses the attributes associated with the NPD.

PD provides middle powers with ample opportunities to gain influence in world affairs far beyond their limited material capabilities. The constant search for a unique niche and extensive PD programs to promote it distinguishes today’s middle powers from other states. States face different challenges and have different needs, and therefore the PD of middle powers is different from the PD of great or small powers. The great powers like the U.S., China and Russia receive substantial attention because of their standing and influence in the world. Middle powers like Australia, Canada and Norway have been searching for a mission or a niche that would best serve their political and economic interests in the world. Small states, especially developing countries, seek attention and acknowledgement that they exist and have something to contribute.

Middle powers face several fundamental challenges. Peoples around the world don’t know much about them, or worse, are holding attitudes shaped by negative stereotyping, hence the need to capture attention and educate publics around the world. Since the resources of middle powers are limited, they have to distinguish themselves in certain attractive areas and acquire sufficient credibility and legitimacy to deal with them on behalf of large global constituencies.

Middle powers have developed various approaches to evaluation, development and conduct of PD programs. They have established investigative committees, commissioned research, held hearings, consulted experts, and even solicited views and ideas from the general public. Middle powers employ two basic approaches to mission searching: a closed one that primarily is held in house and involves extensive consultations among officials responsible for PD with the help of outside experts, and an open one which involves the public in the evaluation process. Norway employed the closed process, while Canada and Australia preferred the open approach.

Following the end of the Cold War, Norway was concerned with its diminishing visibility in world affairs, and in 2002 it contracted the Foreign Policy Centre in London to produce a new PD strategy.[viii] In 2002 and 2003, the plan was discussed in a series of seminars with selected representatives of several government and non-governmental agencies, journalists, scholars and businessmen. The results were released to the public in 2003.[ix] Norway decided to focus on four major themes: humanitarian superpower — defined in terms of foreign aid contributions, role in peacemaking and peacekeeping, and commitment to developing new kinds of global governance; living with nature — exploiting nature while protecting the environment; equality — while being one of the richest states in Europe, still having the lowest level of inequality; and spirit of adventure. The plan also called for several actions to build on the themes including the creation of a PD strategy, ending fragmentation, training of qualified staff, and creating flagship events and evaluation.

Canada and Australia adopted a different approach to reforming their PD systems. They opened up the process for direct wide public participation. In January 2003, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade published a ‘Dialogue Paper’ and invited the public to discuss major questions of diplomacy and PD. Many organizations and thousands of individuals responded online, and many participated in town meetings and conferences. The results were presented to the public in a special report and had some impact on the formulation of Canadian PD.[x] A parliamentary committee in Australia initiated a major study of PD in 2007 and made many interesting and useful recommendations.[xi] The committee opened up the process, inviting heads and leaders of relevant organizations to submit papers and hold hearings. The report offered criticism of existing programs and new directions.

These few cases may suggest that states select approaches to reform based on their respective PD systems. The Norwegian system was centralized and selective, while those of Canada and Australia were more fragmented and inclusive. Both the processes of reforms and the conduct of PD may reflect the different societal composition of the states: more homogenized in Norway and more multicultural in Canada and Australia.   

Middlepowermanship in Practice

The campaign to ban landmines is one of the best examples of middle powers collaborating with NGOs and employing public diplomacy to resolve a significant global human security problem. An average of 18,000 people were killed or injured every year around the world by anti-personnel landmines. The natural forum to deal with this issue was the U.N. Conference on Disarmament. The great powers however, including all the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, opposed any attempt to ban landmines. A middle power, Canada, led an effort to promote the ban both through collaboration with like-minded states and a coalition established earlier by several NGOs, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). The collaboration produced the Ottawa Process and an extensive effort to cultivate public support for the ban around the world, ensuing public pressure on recalcitrant governments to end their opposition to the ban.[xii]

In October 1996, Canada hosted in Ottawa an international conference titled “Towards a Global Ban on Anti-Personnel Landmines: An International Strategy Conference.” The participants included about 50 states, hundreds of NGOs and many UN agencies. Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy set a deadline of one year to prepare and sign a comprehensive treaty ban. In December 1997, 123 nations signed the Ottawa Treaty. As of May 2009, 156 states have joined the Ottawa Treaty, but the U.S., Russia and China haven’t yet added their signatures.

Canada, ICBL and the ban-supporting states effectively and successfully employed public diplomacy tools to push for the ban.[xiii] They initiated many activities to create awareness about the problem and put public pressure on governments to join the treaty. The tools included detailed reports on states where the problem was the most serious such as Angola, Iraq, Somalia, Mozambique, Cambodia, El Salvador and Nicaragua; media campaigns via op-ed articles and letters to the editor; television documentaries; petitions; demonstrations; lobbying parliaments; and recruiting celebrities such as Princess Diana to speak in favor of the treaty. NGOs initiated the ban, but without the leadership of a middle power it wouldn’t have been possible to approve the treaty or get it adopted and signed so quickly by so many states. The close collaboration between a middle power and NGOs and the effective use of public diplomacy helped to overcome the resistance of the great powers. This example also challenges the claim that middle powers only follow the great powers or are refraining from confronting them, especially in the security field.[xiv]

Several approaches define regional powers as middle powers. The argument is that these states pursue at the regional level the same tasks middle powers pursue at the global level. In addition, regional middle powers may also bridge the gap between a region and the international system or between North and South. Two examples could illustrate this argument: Japan and South Africa. Yoshihide defined middle powers as states that are influential economically or strategically in certain areas and don’t aspire to rival the major powers such as the U.S. and China.[xv] Japan has traditionally followed U.S. leadership in the security area and supported the American presence in Southeast Asia through defense treaties and bases. Since the end of the Cold War however, Japan has adopted middle power roles primarily in the human security areas of Southeast Asia. Many of these roles had public diplomacy dimensions.

Japan engaged in conflict resolution and reconciliation in Cambodia, Indonesia, East Timor and Mindano; provided financial assistance to the region during the 1997-98 Asian economic and financial crisis; helped states to cope economically and medically with the SARS epidemic; and even deployed the largest contingent of Japanese troops since World War II to assist tsunami-stricken Aceh in Indonesia.[xvi] Because of sensitivities stemming from the Japanese aggression of World War II, in order to avoid both domestic and regional opposition and resentment, these roles had to be carefully designed and executed. This way Japan was able to improve its image and reputation in states badly damaged by the Japanese aggression of World War II, while accomplishing this goal without antagonizing the U.S. or China.

In 2003, South Africa was defined as an “emerging middle power” because it accumulated a mixed record in performing roles expected of middle power.[xvii] On the one hand, South Africa has become an exemplary state in two critical contemporary areas: nuclear proliferation and democratization. On the other hand, it didn’t sufficiently participate in peacekeeping operations and failed to prevent or end genocides, conflict and violence in Africa. South Africa also cultivated friendly relations with rogue or terrorism-sponsoring states such as Iran, Libya, Syria and Cuba.

South Africa destroyed its own nuclear arsenal and became a role model for NGOs, movements and states advocating non-proliferation. It also played significant roles in the international effort to ban anti-personnel landmines. South Africa peacefully moved from the apartheid regime to a democratic system and created reconciliation models such as the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. This model has been used in other conflict-ridden states such as Argentina, Chile and Peru. South Africa has mediated between the rival political forces in states such as Sudan and Zimbabwe and sent 1,500 troops each in the peace missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, but it has failed to lead serious and effective campaigns against genocides and waves of violence and instability in Rwanda, Sudan and Congo.

South Africa employed various public diplomacy tools including cooperation with NGOs, multilateral diplomacy, cooperation with like-minded states and international broadcasting. It transformed, for example, the South African Broadcasting Corporation into a leading regional television network. It has also successfully employed cultural diplomacy and “celebrity diplomacy” capitalizing on the enormous global popularity of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

South Africa represented an emerging middle power located in the Southern developing hemisphere. It participated in an effort to create an alliance with similar southern powers whose goal was to lead the South in negotiations on global issues with the North. In June 2003, three emerging middle powers — India, Brazil and South Africa —created the IBSA Dialogue Forum. The stated purposes of the forum included “respecting the rule of international law, strengthening the U.N. and the Security Council, and prioritizing the exercise of diplomacy as means to maintain international peace and security.”[xviii] This statement expressed typical general positions of middle powers, but the immediate motivation was to challenge the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The three powers were also interested in forming a joint stand on pressing global issues such as climate change, energy, disarmament and trade.

The forum planned to employ a strategy of “soft balancing,” which meant use of soft power and public diplomacy to counter the hard power of the great powers such as the U.S. Despite follow-up summits and activities, the IBSA Dialogue Forum has failed to have any significant impact on general or specific issues. “Soft balancing” of big powers has been difficult to implement because of contradictions and differences in opinions among the three states and the tendency to transfer responsibility to the major powers and international institutions. For example, while South Africa and Brazil renounced their nuclear programs, India went in the other direction. Moreover, utilization of soft power to delay, frustrate and undermine the great powers wasn’t a constructive strategy.


By definition, middle powers have limited resources, yet they aspire to influence central events and processes in contemporary international relations. They have adopted different global agenda and foreign policy priorities than the great powers, and therefore face different challenges. PD provides them with the most effective tools to accomplish their goals. The PD of middle powers is different from the PD of both the major powers and the small states. Moreover, middle powers have been aware of the need to develop and adjust their PD programs to the challenges and opportunities of the post-Cold War era and the information age. They have invested considerable resources in evaluation and creation of new initiatives.

Following the Cold War, several established middle powers such as Canada, Norway and Australia were searching for new missions and new tools to accomplish them. The search went primarily through investigation and evaluation of PD and produced several alternative approaches. The last section in this work briefly presented a few successful as well as failed cases of specific middle powers employing PD individually or in cooperation with other like-minded states to achieve foreign policy goals. Scholars and practitioners, however, have not yet been able to translate the findings of these cases into a more general theoretical approach to the PD of middle powers. It is vital from both theoretical and practical perspectives to investigate how different middle powers have approached PD and utilized PD programs for different goals and in different circumstances. A comparative analysis may yield a list of strategies which middle powers may adopt and modify according to their specific needs. A comparative analysis of reform strategies may also contribute observations and findings to the slowly emerging field of comparative PD.[xix]

Research for this work was supported by the Center for International Communication at Bar- Ilan University.

Eytan Gilboa is Professor of International Communication and Director of the Center for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University. He is also a Visiting Professor of Public Diplomacy at USC. He has published numerous works on public diplomacy and international communication.


[i] Ray S. Cline, World Power Assessment: A Calculus of Strategic Drift. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1975).

[ii] Andrew Cooper, Richard A. Higgott and Kim Nossal, Relocating Middle Powers:

Australia and Canada in a Changing World. (Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 1993).

[iii] John Ravenhill, “Cycles of Middle Power Activism: Constraint and Choice in Australian and Canadian Foreign Policies,” Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 52, 3 (1998), 309-327.

[iv] On the middle power functions of Australia see: Carl Ungerer, “The ‘Middle Power’ Concept in Australian Foreign Policy,” Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 53, 4 (2007), 538-551.

[v] Evan Potter, “Canada and the New Public Diplomacy,” International Journal, Vol. 63, 1 (2002-2003), 43-64.

[vi] Jan Melissen, “The New Public Diplomacy: Between Theory and Practice.” In Jan Melissen, (Ed.), The New Public Diplomacy. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 3-27.

[vii] Eytan Gilboa. Public Diplomacy: The Missing Component in Israel’s Foreign Policy. Israel Affairs, 12, 4 (2006), 715-747.

[viii] Mark Leonard and Andrew Small, Norwegian Public Diplomacy. (London: The Foreign Policy Centre, 2003).

[ix] Jozef Bátora, “Public Diplomacy between Home and Abroad: Norway and Canada,” Hague Journal of Diplomacy 1, 1 (2006), 53-80. See also “Norway’s Public Diplomacy: A Strategy,” Brand Management, December 18, 2003., Accessed, December 14, 2008.

[x] Canada, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. A Dialogue on Foreign Policy: Report to Canadians (Ottawa, Ontario: DFAIT, 2003)., Accessed May 2, 2009.

[xi] Australia, Senate. Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Australia’s Public Diplomacy: Building our Image (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia August 2007). See also Lorraine Elliott et al., Australian Foreign Policy Futures: Making Middle-Power Leadership Work? (Canberra: The Australian National University, 2008).

[xii] John English, “The Ottawa Process: Paths Followed, Paths Ahead,” Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 52, 2 (1998), 121–132.

[xiii] Julian Davis, “The Campaign to Ban Landmines: Public Diplomacy, Middle Power Leadership and an Unconventional Negotiating Process,” (Washington, D.C.: Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies., Accessed, May 2, 2009.

[xiv] Ronald M. Behringer, “Middle Power Leadership on the Human Security Agenda,” Cooperation and Conflict, Vol. 40, 3 (2005), 305-342.

[xv] Soeya Yoshihide, Nihon no Middle Power Gaiko [Japan’s Middle Power Diplomacy] (Tokyo: Chikumashinsho, 2005).

[xvi] Lam Peng Er, “Japan’s Human Security Role in Southeast Asia,” Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs, Vol. 28, 1 (2006), 141-159.

[xvii] Maxi Schoeman, “South Africa as an Emerging Middle Power: 1994-2003.” In John Daniel, Adam Habib and Roger Sothall (Eds.), State of the Nation: South Africa, 2003-2004. (Capetown: HSRC Press, 2003), 349-367; Eduard Jordann, “The Concept of a Middle Power in International Relations: Distinguishing between Emerging and Traditional Middle Powers,” Politikon, Vol. 30, 1 (2003), 165-181.

[xviii] Daniel Flemes, Emerging Middle Powers’ Soft Balancing Strategy: State and Perspectives of the IBSA Dialogue Forum. (Hamburg: German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Working Papers, No. 57, August 2007). Chris Alden and Marco Antonio Vieira, “The New Diplomacy of the South: South Africa, Brazil, India and Trilateralism,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, 7 (2005), 1077 – 1095.

[xix] Eytan Gilboa, “Searching for a Theory of Public Diplomacy,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 616 (March 2008), 55-77.