An American Grand Strategy for Middle Powers

An American Grand Strategy for Middle Powers

American grand strategy should emphasize the dangers of global multipolarity to pivotal middle powers and act as a balancing force to uphold the rules-based international order.

 

A rising coalition of adversarial states opposing the United States’ international leadership has rendered it indispensable for Washington to secure the allegiance of non-aligned middle powers. These countries will not be irresistibly drawn to alliances with the United States, and, indeed, may be tempted by the allure of revisionist adversaries who insist that Washington’s reputation is degrading and that it has systematically deceived its partners for its own benefit.

American adversaries seek to replace unipolarity with a multipolar world that ostensibly equalizes sovereignty and power among states. The revisionist appeal of the “democratization of international relations,” as phrased by the joint statement between China and Russia during their February 2022 summit, is especially compelling for middle powers aiming to maximize their influence in global institutions.

 

However, while hedging middle powers aspire to expand their influence by elevating themselves to the same level as today’s predominant great powers, America's primary adversaries envision the gradual implementation of global multipolarity—a world defined by several spheres of regional unipolarity that undermine the sovereignty of today’s middle powers. American grand strategy should, therefore, emphasize the dangers of global multipolarity to pivotal middle powers, and act as a balancing force to uphold the rules-based international order while denying adversaries the potential to form regional unipolarities.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, former Russian minister of foreign affairs Yevgeny Primakov inspired the formulation of the Primakov Doctrine, a doctrine that advocates for a multipolar world order in which Russia and other non-Western powers play a major role in world affairs. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has embraced the term and its execution, which supports the Kremlin’s decision to undertake a series of aggressive actions in its regional proximities, such as the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Subsequent Russian strategic documents have highlighted the importance of Moscow’s role in upholding a multipolar order. Russia’s 2020 National Security Strategy highlights “changes in the structure of the world order” that the Kremlin can exploit, and the 2023 Russian Foreign Policy Concept emphasizes Moscow’s “historically unique mission aimed at maintaining a global balance of power and building a multipolar international system.”

These efforts ultimately boil down to a re-consolidation of Russia’s former Soviet hegemony whereby Moscow’s neighbors are inextricably tied politically and economically to the Kremlin. The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)—composed of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia with Uzbekistan, Cuba, and Armenia as observers—explicitly describes itself as an “international organization for regional economic integration.” This seemingly paradoxical definition underscores the tension between obtaining global recognition and advocating for alliances to be limited to the regional level. Russian president Vladimir Putin is simultaneously pursuing both goals as he aims to include Asian regional hubs in the alliance, therefore expanding its international reach while keeping Russia at the head of the regional institution.

Beijing’s grand strategy similarly focuses on facilitating a multipolar distribution of power. In an address to the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), former CCP general secretary Hu Jintao urged for what he referred to as the “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind,” arguing that the international system is undergoing “profound and complex changes” and that the “global trend toward multipolarity and economic globalization is deepening.” This community has since been used as a political slogan by the CCP to characterize the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) declared foreign policy, one that proclaims China’s unique role in reshaping the international order to align with its own worldview. Building on this notion, Chinese president Xi Jinping further reaffirmed the PRC’s role in accommodating the so-called “multi-polarization in the world,” in a speech delivered to the Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference, urging its members to “pay attention to the trend of in-depth adjustment of relations between major powers.”

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) mirrors the EEU but lifts the concept of international regionalism to a more ambitious level. One of the BRI’s key promises is to “creat[e] opportunities for regional economic and trade integration” while pushing “developing countries [to] international division of labor and cooperation.” Beijing reaps the most benefit from exploitative development projects if the countries it aids become accustomed to pecking from China’s hand and are disincentivized from creating their own autonomous regional spheres of influence.

The recent Saudi-Iranian “truce” brokered by the Chinese government is an example of Beijing’s attempt to orchestrate international diplomacy by leveraging Iran and Saudi Arabia’s regional ambitions. As a part of a broader campaign to bolster its influence in Riyadh and Tehran’s foreign policies, Beijing has stepped in to assume the role of a regional power broker, recreating a hub-and-spoke dynamic in the Middle East that would foster a reliance on China to resolve regional disputes.

Saudi Arabia, a traditional U.S. ally, has chosen to pursue rapprochement with Iran as a safer alternative to outsourcing its security guarantees to the United States, which Riyadh began to perceive as increasingly unreliable in the context of a shifting global balance of power. Recognizing the insecurities brought by American disengagement from the region, Riyadh’s fear of abandonment, coupled with evidence of decline in American primacy, has led it to embrace the idea of inevitable global multipolarity.

India has the most to lose from China’s strategy of advancing unipolarity at the regional level. Its defense spending is the second highest in the region (behind China), it has an enormous stake in maintaining existing trade flows in the Indo-Pacific, and it has already outpaced China demographically. Accordingly, in its 2019 National Security Strategy, the Indian government dedicated an entire section to “achieving a secure neighborhood” after extensively discussing nationalism and sectarianism in its opening—an indication of India’s understanding that regional conflicts like those which embroiled the Middle East at the turn of the twenty-first century are best solved by afflicted peoples rather than outside powers.

In the document, India expresses hope that its “economic growth can be a driver for greater prosperity in South Asia and lead to enhanced regional cooperation” in response to China’s “growing assertiveness” and “debt trap” in the Indo-Pacific (emphasis added). If China truly wanted a multipolar world, India would be equally represented on the global stage, yet this clearly does not align with the CCP’s goals.

In greater Eurasia, Turkey was also faced with a decision regarding whether it should follow the traditional path of Western alignment or autonomously pursue its own national objectives. Ankara chose the latter, proactively asserting its own regional ambitions in its geographical peripheries. Such efforts are demonstrated by Ankara’s foreign policy in the Syrian Civil War, during which it has maintained an unrelenting military presence in the Idlib Province, provided military assistance to Azerbaijan in its war in Nagorno-Karabakh, and deployed foreign mercenaries to provide air and weapons support on behalf of the Government of National Accord in the Second Libyan Civil War. In addition to these efforts, Ankara, acknowledging the lack of Western support in its geopolitical priorities, has executed a delicate balancing act with Moscow to secure tacit approval in its political dealings. In return, it has accommodated Moscow's vision and rhetoric of global multipolarity.

To middle powers like India, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, the concept of a “multipolar world” presents an enticing prospect in their bid for enhanced political and economic influence, especially in the context of rising competition between great powers. As declared by the members of BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—today’s revisionist great powers have “reaffirmed their intent to move towards a multipolar system, based on the principles of sovereign equality, trust, and indivisible security.” For pivotal middle powers that do not consider their national interest adequately fulfilled within the confines of the U.S.-led, rules-based international order, such principles are likely to elicit, at the very least, passive acquiescence and, at the most, active alignment and support.

Therefore, Washington now bears the task of articulating the perils of global multipolarity to pivotal middle powers without displaying signs of hubris. In undertaking this endeavor, American delegations traveling abroad should counter the revisionist narrative that the so-called “multipolar world” would yield more prosperity and sovereignty for middle and minor powers on a regional scale. Moreover, State Department and White House officials need to assert that the prevailing Western-led distribution of power not only fosters greater stability and prosperity than its global multipolar alternative, but more effectively upholds the principles of sovereignty and self-determination for middle and minor powers by providing incentives and alternatives for security and development tailored to each country’s national interest. 

During talks with representatives from neutral states, American officials should highlight how initiatives like China’s BRI and the Russian-led EEU are attempts to partition the world into spheres of regional unipolarity with Beijing and Moscow at the top of each. An international system in which the United States is relegated to reduced oversight of North America while China and Russia extract disproportionate benefit from unbalanced regional alliances in the name of “sovereign equality” is dangerous for middle powers.

Such efforts would open new opportunities for Washington to deepen cooperation with existing hedging powers, and would likely dissuade middle powers from developing irreversible dependencies on Beijing and Moscow. Ultimately, whether the West prevails in its new great game against its geopolitical adversaries depends on the alignment of pivotal, often neutral powers. The existential challenge posed to American leadership by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the economic rise of China—both of which threaten the post-WWII international order—has made it urgent to counter the narrative of multipolar diplomacy and secure the support of middle powers.