Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine this year ended the post-Cold War rapprochement between Russia and the West. Competition between the US and China has also increased as Beijing increased military pressure on Taiwan and Washington tightened controls on technology exports to China. The big showdown is back.
Even countries that don’t send military aid to Ukraine or restrict trade with Russia or China should be concerned. If Russia were to follow through on its hints that it might use a nuclear weapon, the entire world would be thrust into a dangerous new era. Great power competition has also led to a proliferation of economic sanctions, threatening trade and investment flows and making countries in the global South increasingly concerned about the dollar’s dominance of the international financial system.
However, the growing competition between the US-led Western alliance and the Russia-China axis presents opportunities and threats to the “middle powers”. As Washington, Brussels, Beijing and Moscow try to sway world affairs in their direction, they need to pay more attention to the views of those in between, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and South Africa.
Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is under pressure at home. But on the international stage, he played his hand brilliantly, and sometimes ruthlessly. Despite its NATO membership, Turkey has not joined Western sanctions against Russia. RT Erdogan’s government even blocked the applications of Finland and Sweden to join NATO in order to extract concessions from its allies.
Turkey can play a geopolitical game because the war in Ukraine has given Ankara real leverage. The Turks brokered an agreement to ship grain across the Black Sea, reducing global food price inflation. Turkey may yet play an important role in future peace talks.
Rising energy prices linked to the Ukraine war have also increased Saudi Arabia’s leverage. Joe Biden once talked about turning the country into a “pariah”. However, he paid a courtesy visit to Riyadh during the summer. In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia hosted Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
India, which realistically aspires to become one of the world’s superpowers this century, is also charting a middle path. It has outraged some of the West by importing cheap Russian oil. But India knows it can get away with it because it is also crucial to Western efforts to balance China’s power.
Nevertheless, disillusionment with the global South has led Western capitals to speak of the need for a revitalized Western alliance at the center of global policymaking. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, referred to the G7, which is dominated by the US and Europe, as “the organizing committee of the free world.”
However, while growing the G7, the West cannot afford to ignore the middle powers represented in the G20. Their growing economic weight means that they are crucial in shaping the rules of trade, technology, sanctions and international norms. The G20 statement after the November summit in Indonesia was also encouragingly strong in its condemnation of Russia – suggesting that it would be a mistake to refuse to influence the middle powers of the global south.
Those countries also need to think carefully about their position. Defending your economic interests and calling out Western double standards is fair enough. However, unchecked aggression by Russia and China would also eventually threaten the interests of middle powers such as Turkey, Indonesia, India and the Gulf states. This is also a lesson to be learned.