Coauthored with Ashley Feng, research associate in the international institutions and global governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
When the annual opening of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) officially gets under way next week, five of its members will be celebrating an anniversary. Five years ago, the nations of Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia formally launched “MIKTA.” The latest in an alphabet soup of informal groupings that have sprung up since the end of the Cold War (see BRICS, IBSA, and the G20), MIKTA is a diverse collection of middle powers that seek to punch above their individual weight in global affairs by combining their efforts. The group meets three times a year: at UNGA, at the Group of 20 (G20) summit, and in whatever country holds the rotating chair.
Given that each member has invested in this little-known body, it seems appropriate to ask: Why does MIKTA exist? And is it worth the effort?
MIKTA symbolizes a broad trend in contemporary world politics, one that Richard Haass was among the first to identify: namely, the proliferation of á la carte coalitions that coalesce for discrete purposes. Call it the era of multi-multilateralism, minilateralism, the rise of the informals or the GX world. In recent years many countries—including the United States—have increased their reliance on flexible, purpose-built groups of the interested, capable, or like-minded. Unlike standing international organizations, these are based on voluntary commitments rather than binding conventions, and they typically have a limited agenda, facilitating cooperation on specific challenges.
Within this sprawling landscape of institutions, venues, and forums, where does MIKTA fit in? It is above all a vehicle for middle power aspirations at a time of global turbulence, including uncertainty about the intentions of the world’s most powerful nations. Faced with an unsettled world, and deepening geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States, middle powers understandably want to increase their diplomatic room for maneuver, as well as escape the confines of a purely regional role. It was this ambition that led the Mexican government of Enrique Peña Nieto in 2013 to propose an entirely new forum uniting these five democratic states.
Unlike the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), which originated in the mind of a Goldman Sachs banker, Jim O’Neill, MIKTA emerged organically. And unlike IBSA, which is a collection of developing nations (India, Brazil, and South Africa), MIKTA encompasses nations in a range of circumstances, from developing (Indonesia) to highly advanced (Australia). Combined, the five MIKTA nations have a population of some 500 million people, and their economies represent about 8 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP).
MIKTA’s strength, but also its shortcoming, is its heterogeneity. Each member finds the grouping attractive, though for different reasons, suggesting that it is likely to persist. But its members also occupy very different regional contexts and have varied attitudes toward the existing order—ranging from revisionist in the case of Turkey to status quo in the case of Australia. This very diversity is likely to limit MIKTA’s long-term solidarity, the coherence of its positions, and its impact on the global scene. While MIKTA offers a possible platform to bring innovative ideas to and advocate joint positions within informal groupings like the G20 or formal bodies like the United Nations or the World Trade Organization, its members may find it difficult to forge consensus beyond banalities.
This is especially true on substantive matters that are classified as high politics, or where regional imperatives or ideological differences trump solidarity. While the MIKTA members have adopted a vision statement and identified seven priority themes (among them energy access and governance, global security and counterterrorism, peacekeeping, trade, gender equality, democracy and human rights, and sustainable development), they vary in how they interpret—and how committed they are to—these objectives. To cite just one example, Turkey’s authoritarian turn under president Recip Tayyip Erdogan makes its membership in an ostensibly “democratic” coalition deeply problematic.
What attracts each member to MIKTA?
Mexico, the forum’s original proponent, views it as a way to escape from its traditional but limiting role as a bridge between the United States and the rest of Latin America. For Peña Nieto, MIKTA was a vehicle to launch Mexico globally and help it to exert influence beyond the Western Hemisphere. The bloc would help Mexico emerge from America’s shadow and become an “actor with global responsibility,” allowing it to “develop innovative partnerships with other emerging powers and gain access world regions where Mexico has traditionally underperformed.” However, it remains to be seen whether incoming President Andrés Manuel López Obrador will pursue MIKTA with the same enthusiasm as his predecessor.
Indonesia, this year’s MIKTA chair, values the grouping as a bridge builder not only between developed and developed nations, but indeed between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. In line with these aspirations, Jakarta has launched MIKTA dialogues and forums on interfaith and intercultural relations, counterterrorism and de-radicalization, gender equality, and peacekeeping. Beyond these aspirations, the government considers MIKTA (like the G20) as a way to expand Indonesia’s diplomatic options globally, beyond the constraints of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its consensus-based “ASEAN way.”
South Korea has become MIKTA’s most enthusiastic member. Like Mexico, it frequently finds itself eclipsed by larger regional powers—in this case China and Japan. As former president Park Geun-hye recognized, MIKTA would help Seoul to escape these diplomatic confines and position itself as a global leader spanning the global North and South. This is especially true in the area of global development, as many other nations marvel at and hope to learn from South Korea’s enviable historical record in reducing poverty and creating a modern, innovative economy. Notwithstanding Seoul’s enthusiasm, MIKTA’s importance has recently been overshadowed by the North Korean nuclear crisis, which the informal grouping has little competence to try to resolve.
Turkey, MIKTA’s sole Middle Eastern country, is also its most problematic member. The grouping has helped Turkey, which lacks a regional multilateral platform of its own, to rebrand itself as an emerging economic power and a country with global diplomatic heft. At the same time, the nation’s mounting crisis of domestic governance—symbolized by Erdogan’s increasingly illiberal rule—threaten its solidarity with other MIKTA members. Nor are its four partners likely to help Ankara address the continuing conflict in Syria, its own deepening currency crisis, or its deteriorating relations with the United States. Such realities may lead Turks to question the body’s utility.
The last country in MIKTA, Australia, also happens to be the most reluctant member of the grouping. It has an inherently status quo orientation, in marked contrast to the revisionist aspirations (hard and soft, respectively) of Turkey and Indonesia. Under former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Australia primarily used MIKTA as a way to avoid being caught in an intensifying competition between the United States and China. But it remains uncomfortable with the moniker of a “middle power,” and struggles to square the MIKTA grouping with its close security arrangement with the United States (including the “Five Eyes” arrangement that provides it with the most confidential U.S. intelligence). Finally, Bishop has been replaced by Foreign Minister Marisa Payne, who will need to decide whether to the nation’s relatively scarce diplomatic capabilities to MIKTA, or instead focus on other arrows in Australia’s global quiver.
While the foreign ministers of MIKTA have touted the grouping’s usefulness, they have not answered three important questions that lurks behind its activities. First, can a modest group like MIKTA have any impact on the current crisis of the liberal international order—or does a rejuvenated multilateral order need to be forged on a more encompassing basis? Second, can the pragmatic incrementalism that underlies MIKTA’s policies be applied effectively in a world that is increasingly polarized? Third, what if any heft can MIKTA bring to the world of more formal bodies and settings, when it comes to ameliorating the world’s most pressing problems, from climate change to nuclear proliferation to global inequality to humanitarian emergencies? Perhaps it will take another five years to find out.