A Role Theory Approach to Middle Powers: Making Sense of Indonesia's Place in the International System.

AuthorThies, Cameron G.

This article argues that role theory is a useful approach to understanding more clearly the concept of middle powers. As John Gerring notes, in developing the concept, we seek successful alignment across the conceptual triangle: intension, or internal attributes; extension, or external referents; and a label that covers both. (1) Unfortunately, middle power conceptualization has been unusual compared to most other academic concepts in International Relations (IR). According to R.A. MacKay, the label was created by Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King in a 1946 parliamentary speech on the postwar international order, in which he insisted on a role for "middle powers" like Canada. (2) This label was then absorbed into the IR lexicon. Since then, there has been much debate over the intension and extension of the concept.

As with the assertion of the label, many scholars, and even countries themselves, have ascribed middle power status to various states. For example, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Bangladesh, Sweden, Ghana, Turkey, South Korea, Indonesia, Egypt, Brazil, South Africa and India have repeatedly been described as middle powers. Sometimes these countries are included in the extension because they meet the attributes defined by the intension of the concept. As Adam Chapnick points out, there are functional, behavioural, hierarchical and rhetorical approaches to defining the attributes of a middle power. (3) Yet, Laura Neack suggests that none of these approaches has been successful in developing internal attributes that capture the external referents most observers believe should be covered by the concept. (4)

The authors offer a role theory account of the concept of middle powers status as a potential solution to these problems. This article reconceives middle power status as one that is supported by auxiliary roles that serve as attributes of the basic concept. This should enable us to identify the extension of the concept more properly. This reconceptualization helps to reconcile previous approaches rooted in functional, behavioural, hierarchical and rhetorical definitions. Roles imply functions that must be performed according to the expectations of significant others and the audience of states. Roles, therefore, encompass behavioural expectations. Furthermore, roles also provide a relational, social identity approach to defining middle powers, as opposed to one that is purely rhetorical or focused on self-conception of status. (5)

This article uses Indonesia to illustrate our approach. There appears to be a consensus that Indonesia belongs in the middle power category. The concept of middle power--which has informed certain official policy documents in Indonesia--has also made some headway in the academic literature. (6) However, the identification of Indonesia as a middle power has not been intensively studied. According to Jonathan H. Ping, scholarship on middle powers predominantly focuses on Australia, Canada and certain European countries. (7) By examining how Indonesia exhibits the required auxiliary roles that serve as attributes of the middle power concept, we argue that the country should be categorized as such. The successful application of our approach to the case of Indonesia not only contributes to the literature on middle powers, but also helps address some of the debates on how they should be classified.

Classifying Middle Powers

Hierarchical (quantitative), functional, behavioural (qualitative) and rhetorical (identity) approaches to defining the attributes of middle power status are well established in the literature. These approaches have also been applied to Indonesia, with varying degrees of success. (8)

The hierarchical approach uses a combination of economic, military, social and developmental indicators to determine a state's rank in the international system. The use of quantitative indicators has several strengths, including the ability to measure the power of states in an objective manner as well as facilitating comparisons across states. The main problem is that scholars differ in the choice of indicators and break points in the hierarchy of power that separates middle powers from those above and below them. The division of states into small, middle and Great Powers often appears subjective and even arbitrary. (9)

The functionalist approach suggests that middle powers tend to pursue foreign policy in specific areas that offer the best return on their investment of effort, often referred to as "niche diplomacy". (10) Gareth Evans defines this as "concentrating resources in specific areas best able to generate returns worth having, rather than trying to cover the field". (11) Such an understanding is rooted in Andrew Cooper's observation that middle powers simply have less power than Great Powers. Consequently, they must concentrate their resources on addressing issues that are ignored by small powers and which are not dominated by the major powers, and where their technical expertise gives them a comparative advantage to assume leadership roles. (12)

The behavioural approach argues that middle powers are characterized by their behaviours, such as being a good international citizen, supporting multilateralism, supporting international order or serving as intermediaries in disputes. (13) The label "good international citizen" can be considered an umbrella term which covers these related behaviours of middle powers. James Souter argues that the consensus on the attributes of good international citizenship includes a commitment to common rules and values such as human rights, multilateralism, international law, etc. (14) Indeed, good international citizens are often associated with moral superiority and an unblemished foreign policy record. (15) However, Charalampos Efstathopoilos, and other scholars such as Jeremy R. Youde, Trace Hoffmann Slagter, Robert W. Cox, John W. Holmes, Andrew Linklater, Robert W. Murray and Ronald M. Behringer, offer a more nuanced view regarding this issue, arguing that the foreign policies of middle powers are not purely driven by altruism; rather these states are also acting instrumentally. (16) In short, good international citizens' foreign policy merges values and interests or represents middle ground between two extremes which are realism and idealism.

Cox suggests that middle powers' adherence to these values--along with their tendency to maintain a degree of autonomy from the major powers--reflects their commitment to provide security and facilitate orderly changes in the international system. Scholars such as Adam Chapnick, Ronald M. Behringer and Robert W. Murray call these qualities "middlepowermanship". (17) In words more consistent with our own role theory approach, middle powers tend to assume roles such as good international citizens, coalition builders, bridge builders, peacekeepers and third-party conflict mediators. As noted earlier, middle powers also demonstrate a strong preference for multilateralism. By engaging in multilateralism, they can overcome their lack of bargaining power at the bilateral level. It also provides an opportunity for them to gain legitimacy and moral authority for their diplomatic initiatives. Given the inclination to be perceived as good international citizens, they have a greater stake in multilateralism than other states. (18)

The behavioural and functional approaches are not mutually exclusive, as sometimes states adopt both orientations simultaneously or alternate between them. (19) Cooper notes three ways in which middle powers assume leadership on niche issues through multilateralism: first, as catalysts or initiators of diplomatic proposals; second, as facilitators of a programme of action; and third, as creators and managers of international institutions that regulate issue areas. (20) Leadership often manifests in middle powers' inclination to form and lead coalitions of like-minded states, provide intellectual leadership and act as norm entrepreneurs. (21) They use their managerial skills, material resources and international prestige to promote values ranging from equality, fairness, international peace and order, and the redistribution of wealth. (22)

The behavioural model also proposes that states can be categorized as middle powers if they support the international order. (23) Cox, Holbraad and Neack point out that the role of middle powers is tied to the political visions or grand strategies of the Great Powers who set the limit on what middle powers can or cannot do. (24) The world order the United States created after the end of the Second World War is primarily an open, rules-based international order characterized by free markets, security alliances, multilateral cooperation and a growing democratic community. (25) Australia is a good example of a middle power's tendency to support the existing US-led international order. Andrew Carr notes that while Australia has taken a leadership role in the promotion of nuclear non-proliferation, the elimination of chemical weapons and trade liberalization, none of its diplomatic activities has challenged US primacy in the Asia Pacific. (26)

A final way to understand middle powers is through the rhetorical or identity approach. Scholars from this camp assert that the way policymakers or politicians perceive their own state--including the identity and role of their own state--helps us understand how they will act in the international system. Thus, according to Carr, we can label a state as a middle power whenever the state's leaders assert an identity or role that is consistent with being a middle power. However, the converse problem occurs when there is an absence of the term middle power in official speeches or documents--do these states then not aspire to be or cease to be middle powers? (27)

One of the main problems with this identity or rhetorical approach is that it posits that states can adopt roles or identities without the...

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