Contours of Contestation: Middle Powers and the International Order

March 2024

Emerging middle powers play a crucial role in shaping the international order of the future and contest the dominant Western powers.

Von Senem Aydın-Düzgit

Middle Powers Modi Putin Senem Aydin-Düzgit
IMAGO / Kyodo News

In his famous book, Prison Notebooks, penned almost a century ago, Antonio Gramsci perceptively suggests that, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum, a great variety of crisis-ridden morbid symptoms appear.”[1] The old is dying because the postwar order with its multilateral institutions and norms has ceased to function effectively; the U.S., as the hegemonic actor of that order, can no longer single-handedly shape and frame the rules of the game.

Also, the Western bloc, while still powerful and dominant in the global political economy, is no longer the main point of reference for the Global South on the major debates about the international order. Hence, the idea that the world is moving toward multipolarity is gaining traction among scholars and policy makers alike.

The rise of multipolarity has brought forth the debate about the role of middle powers in the international order. Middle powers are commonly defined as countries that are “neither great nor small in terms of their power, capacity, and influence and exhibit the capability to create cohesion and obstruction toward global order and governance.”[2] Yet material capability alone is not a sufficient trait of middle powerhood.

The belief in the dominance of the West is shrinking

There is also a behavioral component that stipulates that these countries contribute to the stability of the international order by assuming a system-supporting role through multilateral cooperation, strengthening global institutions, exercising soft power, and engaging in niche diplomacy. This is precisely the crux of the current discussions on the role of middle powers in the emerging multipolar global order. In other words, do middle powers, particularly those that are referred to as “emerging” or “non-traditional” middle powers mostly from the Global South, contribute to the so-called liberal international order, or are they contesting it? If so, why?

From a Western perspective, the mood is pessimistic and focuses largely on contestation. As a recent European Council on Foreign Relations’ poll has shown, the soft power of the West is still very strong, as large majorities in the Global South and beyond still choose Western countries as their preferred destination of travel and residence. Yet, this is no longer coupled with a belief in the dominance of the West. Many argue that, enabled by the rise of multipolarity, emerging middle powers have increased their contestation of the international order. The mixed reactions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine across the Global South have alerted many in the West to the fact that the world is divided on what constitutes European security – and more importantly, whether it matters to them.

The support for international organizations weakens

In addition to the middle powers' varying degrees of support for the Ukrainian war effort, more recently their reactions to the Israel-Hamas war, which are critical of the dominant Western positions, also call for a deeper examination of how these powers perceive the international order, the sources of their discontent, the modalities of their contestation, and its overall implications for Europe and the West.  Attention has been drawn to how middle powers that experience democratic backsliding at home also adopt confrontational foreign policies, prefer transactionalism over rules-based arrangements, and weaken their support to international organizations.[3] Yet for many of these powers, multipolarity presents them with novel opportunities to hedge between global powers, pursue more autonomous foreign policies, and exert influence in their wider regions.

As discussed in depth at a recent Robert Bosch Academy debate on middle powers and the international order, these powers prefer to keep their options open, instead of engaging in long-term alliances. For instance, in the case of Africa, the narrative of going from the edges of the world to moving into the center is very strong and coupled with a strong demand for the reform of the Bretton Woods institutions where there is fairer representation of the continent. Enforcement of international law as a key global norm is not perceived as a prerogative of the West, but one where Africa can also lead on, as the most recent case brought by South Africa against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has shown. Countries like Turkey have long been advocating for a reform of the United Nations Security Council that would more accurately reflect power distributions in today’s world.

A quest for justice

As with the ICJ case and demands for UN reform, what we often observe in these powers’ foreign policies vis-à-vis the West is a quest for justice. This can take various shapes and forms, ranging from recognitional, representational, redistributive, historical, and epistemic justice claims, where contestation can be realized through discourse as well as foreign policy practices.[4] These justice claims very often entail a charge of hypocrisy against Western powers, based on how the West operates in the West versus how it engages with the Rest. As such, they target and attack the legitimacy of the existing order and its constituents where they fail to practice what they preach.

Nowhere is this hypocrisy charge more pronounced than in the gap between Western countries’ discourse on political values and the violation of these values in their external relations. Most recently, debates on migration echo this charge where externalization of migration policy by the EU member states and the UK does not go unnoticed around the globe. Dominant Western response to the most recent Israel-Gaza war is frequently contrasted with its stance in the Russia-Ukraine War in many parts of the world. The gaps between the EU’s self-proclaimed rhetoric as the vanguard of the liberal international order and its actual practices arguably makes it vulnerable to discursive contestation by third parties that seek to weaken its legitimacy as an international actor in pursuit of their own interests.

Yet in most cases, these countries’ contestation of the international order is closely related to their domestic politics. For instance, in the case of Turkey, contestation, where it occurs, is often underpinned by the dynamics of regime security, hence the government’s survival prospects in relation to the constitutive pillars of the current governing regime.[5] This suggests that understanding the root causes of contestation requires a deeper understanding of the individual regime dynamics of these states, particularly those that experience democratic backsliding such as Mexico, South Africa, Indonesia, and India.  

The counter-movement to Western-led institutions

While the West is in the stage of processing the why and how of contestation by these countries, anti-Western global powers rush to appeal to the grievances and demands of these players. For Russia, this is Othe perfect playground for engaging in short-term alliances, not only to counter Western-led institutions but also to circumvent Western sanctions and finance its war industry. Its framing of the Shangai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS as the instruments to counter Western-led institutions finds resonance across these powers. As such, Russia also aims to shift the focus from its own expansionism to its role as the gatekeeper of Western dominance and uses norm-based arguments to subvert Western branding of Russia as a norm violator. 

Russia also instrumentalizes the anti-colonial narrative to tap into the historical colonial past of the countries of the Global South. China is another great power that fills the void, particularly in Asia when it comes to doing business with no political strings attached and providing emerging powers with resources such as coal that the West is reluctant to deliver. A factor that facilitates these actors’ space of maneuver is the existence of divisions within the West, particularly between the EU and the U.S.

In that sense, November 2024 presidential elections in the U.S. will be a crucial moment in determining whether these divisions will be exacerbated further – to the extent that Europe would finally have to develop a concrete long-term strategy of engaging with middle powers while dealing with great-power contesters and competitors.    


[1]Gramsci, Antonio, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Quintin Hoare & Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), p. 276.
[2] Eduard Jordaan, ‘The concept of a middle power in international relations: distinguishing between emerging

and traditional middle powers’, Politikon: South African Journal of Political Studies 30: 1, 2003, p. 165

[3]Umut Aydın, ‘Emerging middle powers and the liberal international order’, International Affairs 97: 5, 2021, pp. 1377–94.
[4]Christian Reus-Smit and Ayşe Zarakol, ‘Polymorphic justice and the crisis of international order’, International
Affairs 99: 1, 2023, pp. 1–22.
[5] Senem Aydın-Düzgit, “Authoritarian Middle Powers and the Liberal Order: Turkey’s Contestation of the EU,” International Affairs 99:6 (2023) 2319–2337.

Senem Aydin-Düzgit rund grau

Senem Aydın-Düzgit is a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy and Professor of International Relations at Sabanci University in Turkey. Her areas of expertise include European and Turkish foreign policy.

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