It’s time for South Korea to drop the nickname ‘middle power’

It’s time to quit. Please stop writing about South Korea as a middle power. For an author who was one of the first defenders of South Korea to fulfill its role as a middle power in international society, and over the years has written several articles and editorials encouraging it to do so, it is is a hard thing to say. But it really went too far. It’s time to drop the term.

Today there are academic papers and think tanks on South Korea’s middle-power counterinsurgency capability, middle-power environmental leadership, middle-power public diplomacy, and its medium-power human security. There are articles on the rise of South Korea as a middle power, its identity as a middle power, and its future as a middle power. There are articles on South Korea’s status as a middle power, its aspirations as a middle power, and ontological realism, epistemological relativism, and the moralistic rationalism of calling South Korea a middle power.

A rough Google search shows that at the dawn of the new millennium there were only 84 books containing the term “medium power” and Korea. He has grown every year since. In 2019, it topped the annual total for Australia and Canada. In 2020, it peaked at 782. If current trends continue, the total number of works over all time containing the term ‘medium power’ and Korea (9,680) will soon overtake Australia (10 100) and Canada (11,200).

It can be a source of pride for some that South Korea will soon surpass Australia and Canada. South Korea will be the average power. However, the evolution of these two states shows that the abandonment of the term is actually a natural progression. After a period of intense mid-power activity in the 1990s, Australia and Canada went through periods where the term fell out of favor and replacements were offered. Entrepreneurial power, pivotal power, regional power, great power, innovative power, top 20 country or significant power – anything but a medium power.

Moon Jae-in, President of South Korea (COP26 / Flickr)

There are also strong arguments to drop the term.

First, there is no clear definition of what constitutes an average power. Over the past twenty years, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Iran, the Vatican, and even Microsoft or its ilk have all been labeled as middle powers. The jumble of definitions essentially makes any statement meaningless.

Second, the vast majority of research focuses on defining or redefining the concept in the context of one state or another. Thinking about what makes a middle power and providing innovative and colorful academic interpretations is fine, but in the end it doesn’t help understanding policies and political choices.

Savvy diplomats and politicians have long known that having a coin slogan or term opens up space for dialogue and sometimes persuasion.

Third, a number of analysts have pointed out that the moment of middle power is over. The heightened tension between China and the United States makes typical middle-power mediation, facilitation, institution-building or standard-building initiatives considerably more difficult. It is not insignificant that recognized periods of activity by Australian and Canadian middle powers occurred at the end of World War II and the Cold War – not when tensions were mounting.

The concept of average power will never be really to die. Savvy diplomats and politicians have long known that having a coin slogan or term opens up space for dialogue and sometimes persuasion. This is how the modern term emerged as representatives of Canada and Australia at the 1945 United Nations Conference on the International Organization in San Francisco sought to secure greater influence in global governance. .

South Korea’s relationship with Australia is marked by long-term disinterest and underinvestment on both sides. Ministerial dialogues and sponsored intermittent dialogues on tracks 1.5 and 2 regularly use the same basic points. Yet the rhetoric of middle power, and its utilitarian facade of similarity, understanding, and shared interests, gives the impression of a much deeper and more meaningful relationship. No politician or diplomat will abandon such a useful ploy. Academics and think tanks fearful of dropping the term can rest assured there will undoubtedly be another mid-power Australia-Korea dialogue around the corner.

It was an average tour de force. Under this diplomatic aegis, South Korea created the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), obtained hosting from the Green Climate Fund and became a member of the DAC-OECD. He has played with a number of initiatives to mitigate regional security risks, played roles in the G20 and G7, and created MIKTA. At the same time, it failed to follow the lead of other middle powers in upholding the rule of law, allowed its early green credentials to fade, and left North Korea to obscure and distract its propensity to the average power. Now it’s time to move on. It’s time to ditch the term average power.

About Mark A. Tomlin

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