In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Middle Powers and Regional Powers

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Regions, Regional Orders, and Rethinking Security
  • Challenging Hegemony
  • Foreign Policy, International Strategy, and Global Governance

International Relations Middle Powers and Regional Powers
Şuhnaz Yilmaz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0222


The terms “middle powers” and “regional powers” are increasingly used by politicians, pundits, and scholars, even though both words remain vague and their meanings are contentious. Middle powers often refer to states that occupy a middle-level position in the international power spectrum, just below superpowers or great powers. The middle powers project significant influence and reveal some capacity to shape international developments. While the origins of the concept can be traced back to the writings of the 16th-century Italian philosopher Giovanni Botero, middle powers were arguably formalized as a category for the first time during the 1815 Paris Conference, when some of the middle powers participated in all the committees, some in one or more, and some in none. There is a lively debate in the current literature regarding the definition, categorization, and assessment of the actions of middle powers. The more conventional approach to defining “middle power” is based on a state’s military capabilities, economic strength, and geostrategic position. A second and more critical approach aims to evaluate a state’s leadership capacity and its impact and legitimacy in the international arena. During the Cold War era, the concept of middle powers was employed more extensively as an analytical tool in examining the role of states that lacked superpower capabilities but still enjoyed considerable influence in global politics (e.g., Australia, Canada, and Sweden). The middle powers traditionally favor multilateralism and rely on “niche diplomacy” to accomplish specific foreign-policy objectives in line with their more restricted power capabilities. Particularly in the post–Cold War era, changes at the systemic level and in global economic dynamics enabled the rise of new states such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). These developments compelled a number of scholars in international relations to differentiate between traditional and emerging middle powers that might pursue different trajectories as significant regional players. A regional power is a state that projects influence in a specific region. If this power capability is unrivaled in its region, the state could rise to the level of a regional hegemon. The regional powers display comparatively high military, economic, political, and ideological capabilities enabling them to shape their regional security agenda. Overall, the terms “middle powers” and “regional powers” convey capacity, hierarchy, influence, and aspiration. There are also cases in which there is a mismatch between the self-image of a regional power and its actual capabilities and influence. The domestic-international nexus plays a critical role in shaping the material and ideational impact of middle and regional powers. The author would like to thank Ariel Gonzalez Levaggi of Koc University and the anonymous reviewers for their invaluable suggestions and comments, and Jean Bennett for her able assistance during the editing process. The author would also like to acknowledge the Department of Public Policy, the Luskin Center for Innovation, and J. R. DeShazo at the University of California at Los Angeles for facilitating this research project.

General Overviews

Middle powers, regional powers, and regional patterns of security are becoming increasingly prominent in shaping international politics. Nevertheless, discussions of middle powers in literature on international relations (IR) still lack a consensus about what the term “middle power” actually means. To bring more clarity to the concept of “middle power” at the theoretical level, Jordaan 2003 focuses on the distinction between emerging and traditional middle powers as reflected in their constitutive and behavioral differences. As a valuable reference work on the role of middle powers in international politics, Holbraad 1984 provides historical insights about the role of middle powers and sheds light on the structural determinants of middle-power behavior. Patience 2014 examines the concepts that shape middle-power imagining in regional and global affairs and their potential foreign-policy implications. There is also a burgeoning literature on regional powers and regionalism. Although the concept of regional power is frequently used in IR literature, the defining characteristics and sources of regional power status, as well as its connections to the global power structure and security, lead to different perspectives and interpretations. Söderbaum and Shaw 2003 and Börzel and Risse 2016 offer outstanding interdisciplinary surveys revealing the pluralism and the richness of theoretical debates and relevant case studies. The regional power status stems from the ability to shape a region within which one may be great. There is also the interaction among self- and other-ascribed identity, structural position in the system, goals, behavior, and the ultimate impact on international processes. In assessing the factors that determine the sources of regional power status, Neumann 1992, while offering on an impressive compilation of case studies, demonstrates that solely building a military or economic power base does not suffice for the attainment of regional power status. By relating the regional dynamics of security to current debates about the global power structure, Buzan and Wæver 2003 presents a compelling interpretation of post–Cold War international security by challenging both the oversimplifications of the unipolar view as well as the more globalist visions of a new world disorder. This approach aims to capture the diversity and complexity of security dynamics in different parts of the world. A landmark study on regions, Katzenstein 2005, also highlights the dramatic shift in the global arena since the end of the Cold War, analyzing which regions have become critical to our understanding of world politics. The book offers a compelling analysis by challenging the arguments regarding the overarching resilience of the nation-state or the inevitable march of globalization. A comprehensive volume of edited chapters, Flemes 2010 presents us with multiple lenses to assess regional powers and leadership within intraregional, interregional, and global contexts. While highlighting differences and similarities with the relatively more traditional concept of middle powers, Nolte 2010 presents an analytical concept of regional powers suitable for early-21st-century IR research.

  • Börzel, Tanja A., and Thomas Risse, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Regionalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    An excellent compilation offering a systematic and multidimensional survey of the extant scholarship on regionalism, regionalization, and regional governance from a comparative perspective, with original contributions from leading scholars in a flourishing field.

  • Buzan, Barry, and Ole Wæver. Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security. Cambridge Studies in International Relations 91. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511491252

    A comprehensive analysis combining an operational theory of regional security with an empirical application across the international system. Individual chapters focus on Africa, the Balkans, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Europe, East Asia, the European Union, the Middle East, North America, South America, and South Asia, highlighting the diversity of security dynamics in different regions. While the history of each regional security complex is traced back to its origins, the main focus is on the post–Cold War period.

  • Flemes, Daniel, ed. Regional Leadership in the Global System: Ideas, Interests and Strategies of Regional Powers. Farnham, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010.

    An insightful edited collection focusing on the ideas, interests, and strategies of regional powers as significant variables with decisive implications for foreign policy. The authors examine the role of regional powers in intraregional, interregional, and global contexts and how they manage to influence regional and global politics, through a comparative perspective.

  • Holbraad, Carsten. Middle Powers in International Politics. London: Macmillan, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-06865-4

    A core analysis of the role of middle powers in various historical systems and of the structural determinants of middle-power behavior. Holbraad argues that middle powers have the greatest opportunity to shape the outcomes when the international system is not governed by strict bipolarity.

  • Jordaan, Eduard. “The Concept of a Middle Power in International Relations: Distinguishing between Emerging and Traditional Middle Powers.” Politikon: South African Journal of Political Studies 30.1 (2003): 165–181.

    DOI: 10.1080/0258934032000147282

    A significant article highlighting the distinction between emerging and traditional middle powers, in order to provide greater analytical clarity to the concept of a middle power. It argues that emerging and traditional middle powers distinguish themselves with their mutually influencing constitutive and behavioral differences.

  • Katzenstein, Peter J. A World of Regions: Asia and Europe in the American Imperium. Cornell Studies in Political Economy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.

    A detailed study examining the transformation of regional dynamics of Europe and Asia, which are closely linked to the United States, particularly through Germany and Japan, by focusing on technology and foreign investment, domestic and international security, and cultural diplomacy and popular culture. Katzenstein argues that regions are interacting extensively with an American imperium that combines territorial and nonterritorial powers in a more porous world due to globalization and internationalization.

  • Neumann, Iver B., ed. Regional Great Powers in International Politics. New York: St. Martin’s, 1992.

    An insightful edited volume building on case studies to shed light on the interaction between regional dynamics and the international context, which ultimately determines the hierarchy of states.

  • Nolte, Detlef. “How to Compare Regional Powers: Analytical Concepts and Research Topics.” Review of International Studies 36.4 (2010): 881–901.

    DOI: 10.1017/S026021051000135X

    An analytical article on different theoretical approaches to power hierarchies in international politics, with reference to the concept of regional power. After presenting a comparative assessment with the concept of “middle powers,” the focus is on differentiating regional powers and comparing them with respect to power status or relative power. Nolte also elaborates on the implications of the ascent of regional powers for global politics.

  • Patience, Allan. “Imagining Middle Powers.” Australian Journal of International Affairs 68.2 (2014): 210–224.

    DOI: 10.1080/10357718.2013.840557

    A compelling study examining middle-power imagining in regional and global affairs. It highlights that a state’s middle-power imagining could also provide a deeper understanding of the extent of the effectiveness of foreign-policy choices.

  • Söderbaum, Fredrik, and Timothy M. Shaw, eds. Theories of New Regionalism: A Palgrave Reader. International Political Economy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

    A pioneering collection systematically bringing together theories of new regionalism with highly engaging contributions from leading scholars in the field, which is interdisciplinary in content and orientation. This comprehensive study covers a wide range of themes, including new regionalism and world order approaches, global governance, region building, and regional security complex theory.

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