Great powers have the luxury of following normative foreign policies because their material power capability allows them to do so. Unlike middle or small powers, great powers define their national interests globally and whatever happens beyond their borders affects them. Aspiring to transform the globe in their image is the prerogative of great powers. It is only great powers that could both assert hegemony in their neighborhood and deny their peers the capability to do so in their respective regions.
From the perspective of such powers, the road to global hegemony goes through asserting their primacy in their regions. This is how the U.S. first became the regional hegemon in the Northern Hemisphere and then turned into a global hegemon in the postwar era.
Irrespective of their domestic political values, economic principles and socio-cultural characteristics, great powers think they are truly exceptional among others and expect middle and small powers to toe their line in international politics, if not totally transform them in their image. It is really difficult for great powers to tolerate middle and small powers adopting a neutral foreign policy stance, let alone bandwagon with their rivals. That said, they would do all it takes to put pressure on middle and small powers to choose a side and indirectly increase the cost for them to join the other side.
This is actually how the U.S. and China have been behaving for some time now and will likely continue to do so in the post-COVID-19 era. As American and Chinese leaders increasingly resort to sharp power instruments to sway global public opinion in their favor, many middle and small powers are simultaneously being exposed to misinformation campaigns originating from Washington or Beijing.
These global behemoths now go to great lengths to increase the number of their followers in the post-COVID-19 world. This will prove to be vital to the success of their efforts to prevail in this emerging geopolitical competition.
Looking from the perspective of many middle powers though, being exposed to contradictory signals coming from Washington and Beijing is the most unwanted experience. Whether it is because of their material power capability or behavioral underpinnings of their middle power identity, such powers would not want to feel sandwiched between global giants. This is the nightmare scenario they would like to avoid.
However difficult to digest, middle powers would do well to accept that they are simply seen as tools, pawns or playgrounds by great powers. The fact that they might have their own strategic identity and distinctive national interests is often overlooked by great powers.
That's why it is in the interest of middle powers to help ensure that the international political environment fast transforms into a zoo from being a jungle. Playing by the rules of power politics/realpolitik is in the DNA of great powers. Middle powers would do well if they could tie up the hands of great powers using all kinds of ropes and chains available to them. Domestication of international politics through multilateralism, international organizations, international law, diplomacy and other mechanisms of global governance should be the common interests around which all middle powers unite. Unless the European Union model of regional integration expands to other geographical locations or becomes truly global, great powers would take each and every opportunity to divide the world into their rivaling fiefdoms. The U.S., Russia and China are carnivorous powers that tend to rely on more coercive power instruments than enticing ones.
Middle powers would not gain anything if they wanted to emulate real carnivorous powers, because the latter would not allow this to happen. The distribution of material power capabilities does not change overnight. Therefore, it is now high time for Japan, Germany, South Korea, Turkey, Australia, Canada, ASEAN members, EU members and other potential middle powers to join forces to strangle the emerging Cold War among the U.S., China and Russia in its cradle. Middle powers and the world, unite!
*Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Antalya Bilim University
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