Middlepowerism & Continuity in South Korean Foreign Policy (Page 2 of 2)

Middlepowerism can be interpreted as a balancing role. Middle-powers are states that balance between geographic, cultural, or ideological poles or between rising and declining states. Practitioners thus tacitly seek to play roles as pivots or facilitators between opposing poles through diplomatic initiatives, such as dialogue facilitation and avoiding commitments to hegemonic alliances. An example of this kind of thinking could include South African diplomacy, balancing between Africa and Europe and between developed and developing states.

Middlepowerism can be interpreted as supporting the status-quo. Middle-powers are states are satisfied with their hierarchical position in the international and regional system. Practitioners thus tacitly seek to entrench and maintain existing conditions through diplomatic initiatives, such as institution building and strengthening, norm entrepreneurship and strengthening, and supporting hegemonic alliances. Classic examples of this kind of thinking could include Australian and Canadian diplomacy during the 1990s.

Finally, middlepowerism can be understood as a stepping stone – just a convenient tool to pursue diplomatic objectives until the state has other options. Practitioners thus tacitly utilize classic middle-power diplomacy, coalition building and “good international citizenship” to achieve self-interested aims like national development. Policymakers are typically creative in their use of diplomacy to pursue objectives. An example of this kind of thinking could include Indian or Brazilian diplomacy during the 1980s.

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This begs the question – what will middlepowerism mean to South Korean policymakers and diplomatic practitioners in the long-term? What image of middlepowerism will South Korean policymakers hold?

The Roh Moo-hyun administration’s foreign policy reflected an understanding of middlepowerism as playing a balancing role. There was a strong belief amongst policymakers that South Korea could be the “hub” of East Asia by playing a balancing role between China and the United States. These efforts were sometimes perceived as challenges to the ROK-U.S. alliance relationship.

The Lee Myung-bak administration interpreted middlepowerism as supporting the status-quo. It pursued institution building, such as the creation of the Global Green Growth Initiative (GGGI) and the use of the G20 to address the Global Financial Crisis. It also maintained strong support for and sought to strengthen the ROK-U.S. alliance.

How will the Park administration interpret middlepowerism? Contemporary South Korean research on middlepowerism is characteristically innovative, and can be distinguished from increasingly stale Australian and Canadian research in the same field. Some of the most innovative research utilizes network and cluster theory to explore ideas behind the practice of middlepowerism.

When that late night call from the foreign minister’s office comes, will future South Korean policymakers think of supporting the status-quo; balancing between China and the United States; or pursuing diplomatic objectives via a stepping stone?

Deciphering this element of continuity could tell us much more about South Korea’s long-term trajectory than all the changes made in the first hundred days.


Jeffrey Robertson is a Visiting Professor at the Korea Development Institute (KDI) School of Public Policy and Management. He can be reached at [email protected]

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