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The rise of the Middle: New powers in geopolitics

When conflicts erupted recently in the Middle East and Europe, middle powers and regional players took the lead in mediation efforts to reduce tensions. Their role assumed greater importance as the United Nations was often unable to deal with such situations.
Last Updated : 16 December 2023, 22:22 IST

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The 21st century is seeing the rise of new middle powers, keen to establish their credentials in a new global order. When conflicts erupted recently in the Middle East and Europe, middle powers and regional players took the lead in mediation efforts to reduce tensions. Their role assumed greater importance as the United Nations was often unable to deal with such situations. 

The consequences of conflicts were felt immediately and directly in the region. Civilian death and destruction of infrastructure disrupted economic activity and displaced residents were forced to migrate, causing spillover effects beyond the conflict zone. Regional powers with close bilateral ties with both sides brought the parties to the negotiating table. They facilitated de-escalation, encouraged a ceasefire and supported the exchange of prisoners. Even when the gains were limited and conflict resumed, mediation helped communication, improved trust and built confidence for eventual peace.

Israel-Palestine

When the Israel-Palestine war was declared, it bucked the trend of positive developments in the region. In recent years, Israel and several Arab states have normalised relations. Arabs had resolved internal differences and embraced Qatar and Syria back in their fold, and there was a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran — developments that augured well for a more prosperous and secure future. However, hostility between Israel and Palestine had continued to fester and the two-state solution seemed elusive. They had a complex history of unfulfilled promises and in recent times, both sides faced public protests against the leadership.  

When Hamas broke through Israeli defences, launched attacks and took hostages, it sought to provoke a response. Israel retaliated with force, causing widespread death and destruction. Despite efforts by various parties, the UN failed to obtain a mandate for decisive steps to restore peace or even a ceasefire for humanitarian relief. It was through efforts by Qatar and Arab states that a deal was finally realised for a temporary ceasefire, humanitarian aid and exchange of hostages and prisoners; the success was short but significant.

When bombings in Gaza increased in intensity, Arab countries urged Qatar to move to centre stage as a mediator, with Egypt as a key facilitator, to bring peace and coordinate reconstruction. 

Qatar had positioned itself well with assertive diplomacy and outreach. It had balanced relations between Saudi and Iran, was host to a US military base and had contacts with Israel.

Most importantly, Qatar had mediated on Hamas-Fatah differences and Israel-Hamas issues for over a decade. Besides, the Hamas leadership was resident in Doha.

When Egypt and Jordan declared they would not welcome refugees from Gaza, the mediation focused on ceasefire, humanitarian aid and exchange of hostages. With firmness and familiarity, Qatar’s mediators and political leaders, who had honed their skills in earlier Israel-Hamas mediation and on the Taliban issue, were proactive and nudged Hamas and Mossad negotiators towards a deal. The terms of the truce were extended once and provided a weeklong respite from war, which however resumed soon after. The next truce may need greater involvement of the global community.

The deal was possible due to overwhelming regional support with the full participation of Egyptian intelligence in the mediation, as well as US and Russian approval, Saudi and UAE support and Iran’s strategic ambiguity. Iran supported Hamas’ actions but denied direct involvement. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen and militias in Syria kept tensions on Israel’s periphery at manageable levels. Turkey, with deep links with the Muslim Brotherhood, had launched initiatives but could not generate sufficient goodwill. China engaged with the Arab foreign ministers and supported public sentiments on the Arab street.

Russia-Ukraine

In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the key mediator was Turkey, a significant middle power bridging Asia and Europe. In the early stages of the conflict, Turkey hosted Russian and Ukrainian negotiators in Istanbul for a ceasefire and peace plan, but that fell through as Europe got more involved. Turkey had greater success in brokering two deals between Russia and Ukraine — first, on a prisoner swap from troubled war zones and second, in collaboration with the UN, the Black Sea Grain Initiative for grain exports from Ukraine to help food security in developing countries. Saudi Arabia helped in the exchange of prisoners and initiated a process for peace and reconstruction. China appointed a special envoy but made little progress, perhaps due to its proximity to Russia.

Turkey’s ambitions to regain power and prestige and participate in regional issues were advanced by a coordinated thrust of its economic clout, defence technologies and diplomatic and intelligence corps. As a key NATO member, but an outlier in the European stakes, Turkey often adopted a transactional approach to extract benefits from the West. Having excellent relations with both Russia and Ukraine, it was able to adopt neutral ground for mediation initiatives that were balanced, inclusive, flexible and timely. 

Turkey supplied military drones, armoured personnel carriers and body armour to Ukraine, and at the same time, stepped up trade ties and gas imports from Russia and did not prevent Russian tourist inflows, which also helped its own domestic economy. Turkey also maintained balance in the Black Sea by controlling access to the Bosporus Strait. Turkey used high-level interventions and the personal chemistry between the leaders for positive outcomes.

New order

These new middle powers have emerged across continents in the 21st century. Riding on economic growth, nationalism and aspiration, they had regional influence and interest in global issues. They sought to expand their diplomatic and strategic space through cooperation for prosperity, stability and better representation in global governance. 

The old powers, particularly the US and Russia, made alliance adjustments, established new partnerships and reviewed strategic deployments, but did not concede on power-sharing in multilateral institutions. Rising powers, including India and China, were in expansion mode as they sought transition to global power status. China was possessive of its unique status in the UN Security Council. However, as power equations moved towards multipolarity, the role of middle powers has grown and set off subtle changes in global affairs.

Traditional middle powers were often tied to alliances, especially with regard to security issues, and preferred a multilateral approach on issues pertaining to developing countries. New middle powers, in contrast, prefer partnerships to alliance structures and are comfortable with regional groupings. They have both capacity and willingness to engage on regional and global issues.  

The new middle powers also involve more inclusive processes - old powers exerted influence based on the interests of an archaic global order, which did not fully represent the concerns and interests of others. New powers are recent beneficiaries of development and globalisation, and have a better sense of community. They prefer an inclusive approach when dealing with security challenges and recognise the importance of multilateral institutions, but seek reforms for adequate representation and unbiased governance.

Middle powers also bring a focus on peacemaking and stability. They emphasise development, improving the living standards of citizens and building institutions towards those ends. When conflicts erupted, the inadequacy of response from the existing multilateral system was palpable and new powers often took the initiative to carve out inclusive and durable solutions with a focus on peacemaking and stability.

India, a civilisational power with a positive growth trajectory, is on track for major power status. Today, we have greater capacity and willingness to engage on global issues and also work collaboratively with both old and new powers. Our partnership could be critical in the definition of economic and strategic interests as the world rebalances to a new order.

(Sanjay Bhattacharyya served as India’s Ambassador to Switzerland, Turkey and Egypt as well as the Secretary at the Ministry of External Affairs.)

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Published 16 December 2023, 22:22 IST

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