from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

South Korea: Middle Power Ambitions and Geopolitical Constraints

South Korean President Park Geun-hye shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing, China, on November 10, 2014.

June 30, 2015

South Korean President Park Geun-hye shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing, China, on November 10, 2014.
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The following is a guest post by Andrew O’Neil, professor of political science and head of the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University, Australia.

When we think of rising powers, we tend to assume their ascent is inexorable. With great powers, however, history has shown that imperial overstretch is a recurring phenomenon and many (Britain, Spain, and France, for example) have discovered that their ambitions and global reach cannot be sustained over time.

Why should the logic for middle powers be any different? Middle powers comprise roughly twenty to twenty-five states that possess the material capabilities to shape policy outcomes in the global governance sphere when acting in concert with other states. Almost all countries in this category don’t have the capacity or the desire to become great powers.

Still, like great powers, middle powers are susceptible to overstretch in international relations. The exacting demands for achieving diplomatic impact in a crowded international marketplace are difficult to sustain over time. Pursuing wide ranging agendas on issues as diverse as climate change, nuclear safety, global economic development, and terrorism is a tall order for even the most well-resourced states. These demands are accentuated for many middle powers by the need to respond to major systemic change, including the rapid rise of China.

Many of these themes are canvassed in Middle Power Korea edited by Scott Snyder. South Korea is a particularly ambitious middle power and President Park has built substantially on the “Global Korea” diplomatic offensive of earlier administrations. Seoul is more engaged than ever in multilateral diplomacy at the global level, and its highly proactive approach to the G20, the OECD Development Assistance Committee, and the recently formed MIKTA group (comprising Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and Australia) underscores this.

But, like other middle powers, including traditional middle powers like Australia and Canada, questions remain over the ROK’s ability to sustain its middle power ambitions over time.

Probably the most salient question is in relation to North Korea. As Pyongyang’s nuclear inventory expands, and as the country’s leadership becomes confident of being able to deliver these weapons against an increasingly wider range of targets (including potentially the continental United States), Pyongyang will feel emboldened to use coercion to achieve foreign policy objectives. Thriving on international tension to justify its claims of legitimacy at home, there are few incentives for the North Korean regime to promote stability.

For Seoul, a refractory nuclear-armed northern neighbor undermines its ability to pursue a global middle power role because ROK public opinion will be less likely to actively support international initiatives that yield few immediate payoffs for South Korea in a context where its security situation is deteriorating. Over time, countering immediate threats from North Korea will invariably trump more abstract notions of pursuing good international citizenship. South Korea’s national resources are finite, and Seoul will struggle to maintain focus on its global agenda if policy makers are preoccupied with addressing North Korean destabilization for extended periods.

Another looming challenge for the ROK to sustain its middle power ambitions will be negotiating the influence of China and the United States. South Korea has succeeded in carving out more autonomy from Washington and Beijing in foreign policy terms, but this autonomy has limits. Any deterioration of relations between Washington and Beijing would damage South Korea’s global middle power aspirations.

Balancing between the Asia-Pacific’s great powers is a challenge for all regional states that have an alliance with Washington and large-scale trade and investment ties with Beijing, but it’s especially tough for South Korea. ROK elites appreciate that China’s influence on the Korean peninsula will endure well beyond shaping North Korea’s behavior. Beijing will be central in any future reunification settlement. Equally, the U.S. alliance continues to be central to South Korea’s national strategy and Washington has made it clear it expects Seoul to be more vocal on China’s strident activities in the South China Sea.

Unlike most other middle powers, South Korea does not have the luxury of framing its global engagement in a tranquil regional setting. This is unlikely to change in the years ahead as ROK policymakers continue to grapple with the quintessentially Korean strategic challenge of not being squeezed by the region’s great powers.

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