The Korean Pivot: South Korea as a middle power

Adapted from The Korean Pivot: The Study of South Korea as a Global Power by Victor Cha and Marie DuMond.

What is a middle power?

The concept of the “middle power” dates back to the late sixteenth
century, when Italian Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Botero divided the world into three types of states — grandissime (empires), mezano (middle powers), and piccioli (small powers). The term “middle power,” like great power or minor power, defines what kind of actor a state is by reference to its status. Specifically, the term tells us what the consensus is about a state’s relative ranking within the international hierarchy of national power.

Middle powers hold a special and compelling place within the study of international relations as both rule makers and rule takers.

Four general categories have gained wide acceptance for ranking states: great power (or polar power), major power, middle power, and minor power.

A middle power is, by definition, a state that ranks between a major power and minor power. Other than that distinction, the label tells us little about the actual characteristics of the actors. Instead, the category of middle power comprises a hodge-podge of states distinguished far less by what they
are than by what they are not: they are not great powers, major powers, or minor powers.

Middle powers run the gamut from small, highly developed countries (Israel, Denmark, Singapore, Finland) to medium-sized, developed countries (South Korea, Australia, Canada, Spain, Ukraine, South Africa, Argentina) to large, developing countries (Egypt, Mexico, Indonesia, Iran, Philippines, Nigeria).

Suspended between great powers and small states within a large global system, middle powers tend to play their most conspicuous roles within their own regions, where their immediate interests lie. Depending on a host of factors — including the regional and global balance of power, its geographic location, the ideological nature of its regime, and the political fears and ambitions of its leaders — a middle power can position itself within its region as either a: (1) balancer, stabilizing the regional system when it is in disequilibrium; (2) kingmaker, tipping the scales in favor of one of the regional major powers or coalitions; or (3) tertius gaudens, playing one side off of the other to its own advantage.

Middle powers tend to play their most conspicuous roles within their own regions, where their immediate interests lie.

Exemplifying this strategy, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun called for an equidistant relationship with the United States and China, even mentioning that South Korea should play the role of “balancer” in the region. It is a precarious role for a middle power to play.

Is South Korea a middle power?

CSIS’s three-year project “The Korean Pivot: The Study of South Korea as a Global Power” concludes that South Korea is a successful middle power that is well positioned to punch above its weight in the international system.

South Korea’s leadership and proactive participation in global affairs under the government banner of “Global Korea” demonstrates South Korea’s ability to play an important role on the global stage. The country’s hosting of major international forums such as the G-20 Seoul Summit, the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, and the 4th High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness not only raised the country’s international profile but also showed its national capacity to serve as a global agenda setter and a bridge between developed and developing countries. These successful diplomatic experiences have raised the critical question of whether South Korea’s global participation can and will be sustained. The contours of future policy and whether Global Korea will remain “global” will in large part be determined by political preferences and the politics of future South Korean governments.

But there is a lack of a conceptual framework in which to think about South Korea’s global commitments. Without such a conceptual framework, there is no grand strategy context in which to think about how much more or how much less South Korea should engage on the global stage. CSIS chose specifically to use the term “global” in juxtaposition to the more traditional term of “middle power” used to look at Korea’s international participation. While this project commissioned research that looks at Korea’s role as a “MIKTA” (Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey, Australia) country, their supposition is that Korea can do more on the global stage in certain niche areas.

South Korea can “pivot” off of its middle power status to exert global influence in niche areas. Korea’s middle power status can be augmented in certain issue-areas to have impactful global presence.

On almost any international issue, bilateral or multilateral coalitions that come together inside or outside of international institutions consider South Korea an important partner. Like many developments in South Korea, this trend has occurred at a breakneck pace, turning South Korea from a parochial player into a major contributor and leader in the provision of public goods to the international system.

There are three main reasons for our conclusion that South Korea is a well-positioned middle power. They are as follows:

  1. Nonthreatening powers operate effectively as bridge-builders. To successfully pivot to global influence from middle power status, a country has to operate in the international system in ways that are not threatening. Given its successful democratic transition and its experience with rapid economic development, South Korea retains a good reputation among developing countries as a model country worthy of emulation. Moreover, initiatives by South Korea are not viewed in a threatening way to other powers (e.g., Japan, China) in the region. As a result, South Korea’s activism in international affairs and multilateral institutions does not arouse anxiety or create insecurity dilemmas that one might see with bigger or more powerful countries, which allows South Korea to be in a good position in the international system to play a bridging role between countries.
  2. Harnessing bureaucratic capacity lends to effectiveness. South Korea also has bureaucratic capacity and resources that it can devote to be an effective player in functional issue-areas like global health, overseas development issues when great powers are occupied with other issues. For instance, when the great powers are focused on issues such as war or conflicts in other regions, this opens a space for middle powers like South Korea to pivot to a larger role in providing public goods.
  3. Offering services as a facilitator lends to nodal power. One of the ways that middle powers can assume a larger role than their capacity is when they occupy a central hub. For South Korea, the country can do so by using its hosting function as it has already demonstrated this capability from its successful hosting of the G-20 summit in 2010, the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in 2011, and the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. An effective middle power needs to be seen as transparent and trustworthy. South Korea’s hosting function is an attribute that makes South Korea a leader among middle powers.

To learn more about South Korea’s potential to be a vital player on the global stage, download the report here.

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