International Relations

Removing the veil on middle powers: Venezuela as a case study

Nicolas Mejía Riaño, (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations. 

Neack has defined a middle power as ‘a self-declared role that contains both status- seeking, self-interested behaviour (securing a coveted international position) and moralistic/idealistic elements (being a good international citizen)’ (Neack, 2008, p.163) An understanding of middlepowermanship as a role and not as a category of states allows for a better understanding of the behaviour and interests of states that take on such role and provides a more accurate answer to the question of to what extent are middle powers only trying to maximize their own interests. This is a welcome contribution to a topic that despite a seemingly obvious meaning has proven difficult to apply empirically (D. Cooper, 2013, p. 25; Neack, 1995).

This essay argues that the interests of middle powers can be analysed as a mixture of the basic blocs identified by Neack. Therefore, the extent to which middle powers try to maximize their interests is a function of the salience of these ingredients and their interaction, and of how they relate to the behavioural expectation the literature has associated with the role of middlepowermanship: that of engaging in a functional and internationalist foreign policy which is qualitatively different from that of the great (Holbraad, 1984) and small powers (Braveboy-Wagner, 2008, pp. 8-12; A. Cooper & Shaw, 2009).

This paper is structured as follows. The first section reviews the literature concerning middlepowermanship and adopts a framework that stresses middlepowermanship as a role. A case study of foreign policy decision- making of a self-declared middle power is then analysed: that of Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela. Finally, some concluding thoughts will be provided regarding the usefulness of the concept.

I/ Reassessing the literature on middlepowermanship

 The literature about middle powers has two noticeable biases: a normative/moralistic and an emphasis on behaviour as the only determinant of ‘middlepowermanship’ (A. Cooper, Higgott, & Nossal, 1993; Shin, 2015, p. 5) Because middlepowermanship is defined as a category, this approach runs the risk of becoming tautological – i.e. a middle power seems to be a state that act as a middle power, and to act as a middle power is basically to be a ‘good international citizen’ that defines its national interest with reference to the promotion of a more just and orderly international system (A. Cooper, 2015, p. 34; Pratt, 1990) – Scholars sceptical towards the concept of middle power have noted this weakness and the difficulty of finding ‘that patterns exist where in fact they do not’ (Stairs, 1998, p. 270), adding that ‘middle powers behave in all sorts of different ways, and the roles that have often been associated with them are in fact performed by all sorts of different countries’ (1998, p. 282).

And yet, for all the criticism and the old debate about whether middlepowermanship is a ‘scientific concept’ or an ‘ideology of foreign policy’ (Painchaud, 1966, pp. 29- 30), the concept is analytically interesting – provided it can dispense with the tautological focus it has been associated with. As stressed by Patience, in an increasingly multipolar world, it becomes important to examine ‘how states imagine themselves—as great, small or middle powers—and how ‘significant others’ (neighbours, allies and contenders) perceive that imagining influences the making of foreign policy’ (Patience, 2014, p. 211) And one fruitful way of employing the concept of middlepowermanship is by following Andrew Hurrell’s suggestion: according to Hurrell, ‘one potentially promising way of rescuing the concept (of middle power) is to go down a constructivist route – to see middle powers not as a category defined by some set of objective attributes or by objective geopolitical or geo-economic circumstances; but rather as a self-created identity or ideology’ (Hurrell, 2000, p. 1) When middlepowermanship is understood as a constructed idea, a different venue for enquiry is opened. For McCourt, ‘roles link identity to action’ (2011, p. 1607) and, consequently, an examination of middlepowermanship as a self-created identity implies an analysis of the behavioural expectations associated with ‘taking the role of a middle power’ The argument is expressed by Holsti, when he states that ‘role… refers to behavior (decisions and actions)’ (Holsti, 1970, p. 239)

It is in this point that Neack’s conceptualization of middlepowermanship becomes relevant. A definition of a middle power as a self-declared role that contains competing and varying interests means that the extent to which middle powers try to maximize these interests is a function of their salience and interaction. Missing in Neack’s constructivist definition is the behavioural side of the middlepowermanship coin. The classic literature and the descriptive studies about the ‘traditional’ middle powers (Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Australia, and Sweden) offer a valuable insight. According to Gecelovsky, ‘ within the behavioural approach to middle power, there is some agreement on what type of behaviour middle powers pursue… middle powers combine both functionalism and internationalism into a “style” of foreign policy(Gecelovsky, 2009, p. 80) The next section examines a case of a self-declared middle power and an example of its foreign policy decision-making: Venezuela during the Government of Hugo Chávez (1999- 2013). Before doing so, however, two points merit further consideration:

  • By considering the role-based concept of middle power, it can be argued that the number of states whose foreign policy can be analysed with the framework proposed in this paper As stressed by Jordaan, there are ‘traditional’ and ‘emerging’ middle powers (Jordaan, 2003). Therefore, they have different mixtures of the basic interests of middlepowermanship identified by Neack and deploy a functionalist and internationalist foreign policy that varies according to the tools employed. It is also important to note Cox’s argument concerning the changeability of the middle power role and how the interests being maximized by the states that take on such role are in constant change. For Cox, ‘the middle- power role is not a fixed universal but something that has to be rethought continually in the context of the changing state of the international system’ (Cox, 1989, p. 825)
  • The term ‘functionalist’ is linked to what Cooper has called ‘niche diplomacy’: ‘the privileging of niches builds on an established theory and practice concerned with functionalism as the core organizing principle in the patterned behaviour of middle powers… it refers to the application of issue-specific strengths and skills possessed by individual countries in selected areas’ (A. Cooper, 1997, 4-5) Hence, a middlepowermanship role involves the use deployment of technical/ managerial knowledge in issue-specific areas (i.e. Scandinavian countries leading discussions concerning development assistance, Canada in issues of human security like the banning of landmines, Australia in agricultural trade during the 90s, etc.) Because middle powers lack the capabilities and resources of the great powers, they choose detailed issue areas in which they can expect to have an impact.

II/ Case Study – The Foreign Policy of a ‘Bolivarian Middle Power’

 Venezuela under the Chavez’ government declared itself as having a middle power role. On October 2010, while visiting Gadhafi’s Libya, Chavez mentioned that ‘some sectors are concerned by the role that is being played by Venezuela in the new world order that has been born. The perspectives of Venezuela and her allies continue towards the creation of a pluripolar world, anti-imperialist and truly free… Venezuela has an important role to play (and is playing) in the world, in the international arena’ (Zitouny, 2010) After the trip, Chavez stated that ‘there is a new world, the pluripolar world. The world has changed and in that pluripolar world, the Venezuelan Fatherland, the Venezuelan Revolution, has begun to play a fundamental role, acknowledged by the four cardinal points of the planet’ (“Presidente Chávez arribó a Venezuela este domingo,” 2010).

He had already mentioned how there are ‘strong indications of world geopolitics, where Venezuela is playing a modest, but important role’ (Janicke, 2009) and explicitly presented his proposal for a multipolar world during a visit to Ukraine in 2010 when he said that ‘the way to go… is to build a world that is not bipolar, much less unipolar. We don’t want unipolarity, we want a multipolar world. Venezuela plays a role, modest but worthy, we need to consolidate the pluripolar world, which Simon Bolivar, our liberator called “the balance of the world“’ (Chavez, 2010). These statements illustrate that the Venezuelan chavista government declared itself as having a middle-power role, guided by the idea of reforming the international system and breaking the perceived U.S dominance, while allying itself with states that are also highly critical of American and European foreign policy such as Syria, Iran, Belarus and Libya. In Neack’s terminology, this moralistic interest of ‘bringing change to the world’ and make it a more just and equitable place for states that have suffered under Western imperialism is also mixed with self-interested behaviour – namely, attaining for Venezuela the status of an important player in the pluripolar (multipolar) world and become a ‘leader’ of the global revolution.

Neack’s ingredients of middlepowermanship role, in the Venezuelan case, interact and reinforce each other: for Chavez, there was not a conflict between self-interest (the maintenance and radicalization of the Venezuelan revolution) and the promotion of a different idea of what good international citizenship entails (revolution around the world, freedom for those oppressed by imperialism and capitalism) Chavez was able to craft his own way of presenting the role of an assertive middle power like Venezuela – that of following the course of bolivarianismo, appealing to anti-Americanism, nationalism and economic populism.

As Corrales and Penfold noted (2011, pp. 98-99), ‘Chávez is neither the altruistic and selfless champion of peace and development… nor the irrational actor oblivious to international constraints… Chávez’s objectives at the international level seem to be oriented toward expanding his global influence by leveraging the country’s oil windfall and balancing any regional attempt to challenge his control of power domestically, particularly from the United States’. Moreover, these interests did not conflict because they emanated almost solely from the President (in true Latin American presidential fashion) For Chavez, Venezuela could and would be a middle power that, while trying to maximize its interests, also appeared to serve the cause of the oppressed.

As mentioned above, these interests are reflected in behaviour in as much as the concept of role establishes a link between how a state define itself, and the foreign policy it adopts for fulfilling its interests. In this regard, Chavez’ Venezuela did not disappoint. The internationalist foreign policy that the Chavez government adopted was related to the desire to influence the immediate Latin American neighbours (South America and the Caribbean) through the creation and maintenance of regional projects of integration (UNASUR, CELAC), under Venezuelan leadership (and, as the case of PETROCARIBE and ALBA, direct funding) designed to counter U.S influence, while also forging a strong political alliance with Cuba and China.

Raby sums up the internationalist foreign policy derived from the middlepowermanship role of Chavez’ Venezuela: ‘for Chávez and his team it was clear from the beginning that their vision of integration and regional development could not advance without the broadest possible global alliances as a counterweight to the United States. Hence their very active diplomatic campaign to forge relations with other powers as diverse as China, Russia, India, Iran, the European Union, and the OPEC countries’ (Raby, 2011, p. 171)

On the functional/niche side, Venezuela relied and took advantage of its oil reserves and expertise and used it as a bargain chip for political support and a crude form of bartering with Cuba (an exchange of doctors and medical personnel for cheap oil) This largesse is what McCoy calls petrodiplomacy (2011,82) and it was a staple of Venezuela’s middlepowermanship role, given the high prices of the commodity between 2000 and the early 2010s. Chavez readily recognized the tactical advantage oil gave him for winning over the support of other countries and how he could skilfully use it to pursue Venezuela’s interests in a way that did not appear to other countries as threatening as that of the U.S. For example, when commenting on Venezuela’s opposition to the U.S.- sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), Chavez underlined how ‘The Empire’s blackmail doesn’t work with us, and not just because of the oil… even if Venezuela didn’t have oil, we would still hold the same position. This is not about oil, it’s about taking a position in defense of your country’s interests’ (Guevara, 2005, pp. 101-102).


The study of middlepowermanship as a role underscores how interests vary and how they are related to (perhaps, the only) common feature of middlepowermanship – the style of foreign policy – that the literature has recognized as providing the concept the analytical purchase it implicitly seems to possess. Returning to Cox’s point concerning the changeability of the middle power role, it is telling how, after Chavez passed away and oil prices dropped, Venezuela (despite continuing under a chavista government and its promise to follow on Chavez’ guidelines) adopted its foreign policy style to highlight that, while it still sees itself as a champion of anti-imperialism, it is not beyond accommodation with ‘the Empire’.

An understanding of middle power as a role with behavioral expectations attached and with varying interests at stake reinvigorate the concept’s usefulness. As Giacomello and Verbekk remark, ‘ when analyzing middle power behavior it is crucial to focus on how a country’s foreign policy elite handles role expectations flowing from ascribed status’ (Giacomello & Verbeek, 2011, p. 13) When coupled with an analysis of the material basis of that power (such as Venezuela’s oil), such an approach provides interesting insights that might confirm that the concept of middle power is alive and well and that it can be applied to countries that, as intuition points out, are not big, but also not small.


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