Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine this year brought to an end the post-cold war reconciliation between Russia and the west. Rivalries between the US and China have increased, too, as Beijing ramped up its military pressure on Taiwan and Washington tightened controls on technology exports to China. Great power confrontation is back.
Even countries that are not sending military aid to Ukraine, or limiting trade with Russia or China, ought to be concerned. If Russia followed through on its hints that it might use nuclear weapons, the entire world would be thrust into a perilous new era. Great power rivalry has also led to a proliferation of economic sanctions, which threaten trade and investment flows and have made countries in the global south ever more wary of the dollar’s dominance of the international financial system.
Yet increased competition between a US-led western alliance and a Russia-China axis offers opportunities as well as threats for “middle powers”. As Washington, Brussels, Beijing and Moscow attempt to bend world affairs in their direction, they have to pay more attention to the views of those in between — such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and South Africa.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the authoritarian Turkish president, is under pressure at home. But on the international stage he has played his hand skilfully, and at times ruthlessly. Despite its Nato membership, Turkey has not joined western sanctions on Russia. Erdogan’s government has even blocked applications by Finland and Sweden to join Nato, as it seeks to extract concessions from its allies.
Turkey can play geopolitical hardball as the Ukraine war has given Ankara real leverage. The Turks brokered the deal to allow grain to be transported across the Black Sea, easing food price inflation across the world. Turkey may yet play a significant role in future peace negotiations.
The rising energy prices associated with the Ukraine war have also increased Saudi leverage. Joe Biden once talked of turning the country into a “pariah”. But he paid a respectful visit to Riyadh over the summer. In recent weeks, the Saudis have hosted Xi Jinping, China’s leader.
India, which has realistic aspirations to become one of the world’s superpowers during this century, is also charting a middle path. It has outraged some in the west by importing cheap Russian oil. But India knows it can get away with this as it is also crucial to western efforts to balance Chinese power.
Nonetheless, disillusionment with the global south has led to talk in western capitals of the need to put a revitalised western alliance at the centre of global policymaking. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, has spoken of the G7 — which is dominated by the US and Europe — as the “organising committee of the free world”.
In elevating the G7, however, the west cannot afford to ignore the middle powers that are represented at the G20. Their growing economic heft means they are crucial to shaping the rules on trade, technology, sanctions and international norms. The G20 statement after November’s summit in Indonesia was also encouragingly tough in its condemnation of Russia — showing it would be a mistake to give up on influencing the middle powers of the global south.
Those countries themselves also need to think carefully about their own position. Defending their economic interests and calling out western double standards is fair enough. But unchecked aggression by Russia and China would eventually also threaten the interests of middle powers such as Turkey, Indonesia, India and the Gulf states. That, too, is a lesson that needs to be absorbed.