The UN Security Council has been a key arbiter of international action regarding the upheavals in the Arab world in 2011. In late February, the Council issued Resolution 1970 calling for an “immediate end to the violence” in Libya, imposing sanctions and an arms embargo, and asking the International Criminal Court to investigate the regime of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. Less than a month later, on March 17, the Council passed Resolution 1973 authorizing NATO “to take all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, leading to Qaddafi’s eventual fall from power. In late September, the Security Council will also take up the request of Palestinian leader Mahmoud ‘Abbas for full UN membership for a state of Palestine.

But the Security Council has thus far abstained from involvement in several other domestic crises in Arab states, notably the uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, despite the brutal repression employed by all three governments. In the cases of Bahrain and Yemen, the inaction is fairly easy to understand: A central US goal in the Gulf is maintaining regime stability. The Bahraini royal family is shielded from international censure by the United States, which anchors its Fifth Fleet on the Gulf island. The US also protects the Yemeni regime, its ally in the fight against far-flung franchises of al-Qaeda.

For months, the Security Council was likewise quiet about Syria, confining itself to a presidential statement on August 4 calling weakly “on all sides to act with utmost restraint.” On September 28, European members of the Security Council put forward a draft resolution that “demands an immediate end to all violence” in Syria. Reportedly, the draft was watered down considerably from an original floated a month earlier, omitting any reference to sanctions in an effort to secure passage.

In explaining the impasse over Syria, the media has focused on divisions among the “permanent five” Security Council members with long-standing interests in the Middle East, particularly the US and Russia. [1] Russian leaders, valuing their ties with Syria and smarting from what they regard as NATO’s unwarranted exploitation of UNSC 1973 to carry out regime change in Libya, have gone so far as to echo the Syrian regime’s labeling of oppositionists as “terrorists.” Backed by China, Russia has repeatedly vowed to “prevent a repeat of the Libyan scenario in Syria.” [2] It is not clear that the US would push for a Libyan-style resolution for Syria if it could. Washington seems to be betting that the Syrian regime will collapse without a nudge from outside. But the Security Council’s paralysis vis-à-vis Syria and its disunity regarding Libya have another cause, namely, the attitudes of the rising middle powers India, Brazil and South Africa, which make up the trilateral group known as IBSA.

IBSA and the Arab Revolts

IBSA’s full official name is the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum. Its founding Brasilia Declaration, released in June 2003, says the group brings together “three countries with vibrant democracies, from three regions of the developing world, active on a global scale, with the aim of examining themes on the international agenda and those of mutual interest.” The Declaration identifies the three states’ common interests in “reforming” the Security Council to include more permanent members, ideally each of themselves, and in ensuring a more equitable distribution of the economic benefits of globalization. In statements over the years, the IBSA states have also framed themselves as “like-minded” with regard to universal freedoms and human rights. Most recently, on the margins of the sixty-sixth session of the UN General Assembly, the IBSA foreign ministers issued a statement reiterating that “IBSA, as like-minded countries, will continue to strive to contribute to a new world order whose political, economic and financial architecture is more inclusive, representative and legitimate.”

The formation of IBSA is seen by many international relations scholars as part of a trend toward multi-polarity as US dominance erodes. [3] IBSA states are also examples of “middle powers,” states that international relations theory expects to exhibit similar interests in compensating for their relative lack of “hard power” with active diplomacy. “Hard power,” the field’s term for material capabilities like military strength, is a central determinant of what states can and cannot do, especially in trying to influence the behavior of others. Other currencies of influence are also significant; these include “soft power” (gained through financial means or active public diplomacy) and “norm entrepreneurship” (promotion of values such as human rights). [4] Yet it remains an empirical reality that, in general, state actions are defined more by hard power. Hence, middle powers are those states that have sufficient hard power to allow them a global reach, yet are limited in what they can do. Middle powers are constrained in their ability to influence outcomes in world politics, but they seek relevance in global affairs by supporting institutional architectures and norms that hold the potential to diminish the dominance of hard power. In 2011, all three of the middle powers Brazil, India and South Africa are sitting on the UN Security Council, giving IBSA a chance at proving its relevance by flexing its diplomatic muscles.

So far, however, the Arab revolts have exposed IBSA as a Security Council player without consistent or coherent positions. South Africa surprised some observers by voting for UNSC 1973 authorizing the no-fly zone and other measures “to protect civilians” in Libya. Along with Russia, China and Germany, India and Brazil abstained from the March vote. Each registered statements condemning the Qaddafi regime’s use of force to quash protests, but conveying reservations about the proposed NATO intervention and what might follow. Maria Luisa Viotti, Brazil’s representative at the UN, explained: “We are not convinced that the use of force as contemplated in the present resolution will lead to the realization of our most important objective — the immediate end of violence and the protection of civilians. We are also concerned that such measures may have the unintended effect of exacerbating tensions on the ground and causing more harm than good to the very same civilians we are committed to protecting.”

IBSA has paid little to no attention to Bahrain and Yemen as the crises in those two countries boiled beneath the surface of global politics.

Syria has been a different story. Early in August, amidst a severe police and army crackdown on protesters across the country, an IBSA delegation met with Syrian officials to express grave concern and condemn the use of force by all parties. This position lent credibility to the regime’s arguments that most of the protesters were using force, in contradiction of most reports from unofficial sources at the time. The IBSA delegation further confirmed its commitment to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity vis-à-vis external intervention, while acknowledging the “reforms” promised by President Bashar al-Asad. Later in August, with the regime’s use of force uninterrupted, India abstained from the vote on a UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for an investigation into human rights violations in Syria. The statement of the Indian delegate emphasized the need “for every society to have the means of addressing human rights violations through robust mechanisms within themselves. International scrutiny should be resorted to only when such mechanisms are non-existent or have consistently failed.”

In September, the IBSA states confirmed their overall stance, agreeing with Russian spokesmen that there would be no UN sanctions and no reprise of UNSC 1973 in the Syrian case. This act of bandwagoning and the de facto endorsement of the Syrian regime in August seem to call a core element of IBSA’s raison d’être into question. If support for democratization and respect for human rights are absent from Chinese and Russian diplomacy, they are supposed to be IBSA’s selling points as a grouping of “like-minded” states. IBSA claims only to be a forum for sharing of information and ideas, not a unified bloc. Yet its members’ policies toward the Arab revolts reflect a reality that they have perhaps not fully confronted: Domestic and regional pressures are serious hindrances to the collective initiatives to which they aspire.

IBSA’s Broader Canvas

In their foreign policy rhetoric, leaders of IBSA states are defenders of human rights, equality and the rule of law, particularly international law. That all three of the Brazilian, Indian and South African peoples have waged historic struggles against colonialism and authoritarian rule places a moral responsibility on IBSA governments to support societies resisting oppressive regimes. But however genuine the IBSA states may be in their sympathy for popular movements, their policies toward the crises in the Arab world are heavily influenced by domestic considerations and geostrategic imperatives, not least of which is that all three wish to be the dominant power in their respective neighborhoods — and to be treated as such by the world’s great powers.

Among the three states forming IBSA, South Africa has the most articulate aspirations to regional leadership, a goal that became realistic following the end of apartheid in 1994. To consolidate its bid for this role, the post-apartheid state under President Thabo Mbeki positioned itself rhetorically within the “global South,” for instance expanding its involvement in the Organization for African Unity, now the African Union. Its economic policy, though neoliberal in orientation and Western in inspiration, was framed as liberating for the world’s poorer countries, aiming to create a “G-7 of the South.” The Mbeki government embarked upon a “butterfly strategy,” seeking to meld the Brazilian and Indian wings economically to the African body. [5] The tensions in this aspired-to role became apparent with regard to the Libya question, when the new president, Jacob Zuma, appeared to criticize the initial NATO bombardments despite South Africa’s vote for UNSC 1973. The Youth League of the ruling African National Congress denounced the yes vote, as did the retired Mbeki, and South Africa’s ambassador to the UN rushed to deny reports that he had cast it after receiving a phone call from the White House or being chased down the hallway by UN Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice. [6] African countries, in general, were suspicious of the second Security Council resolution on Libya. In many circles inside and outside Pretoria, the NATO operation was regarded as an unsavory neo-colonial initiative. For example, South Africa shares its fellow African states’ apprehensions about AFRICOM, the Pentagon’s newest regional command, which has yet to find a home base in Africa and which some fear could land in post-Qaddafi Libya.

After Tripoli fell to the rebels, South African diplomats rushed to deny another report, that their government had offered Qaddafi safe haven. Meanwhile, Pretoria dragged its feet releasing Libyan assets to the rebels’ transitional government. Because of its wavering position on Libya, Western-oriented liberals in South Africa derided the government as having a “schizophrenic” foreign policy or even being a “rogue democracy.” [7] With regard to Syria, it appears that Pretoria has opted for the politically safer position in the African sphere: concern for the norm of sovereignty.

A central goal for successive Brazilian regimes since the mid-1980s has been a bridge-building foreign policy aimed at improving relations in South America without compromising Brazil’s established trade with the developed economies. Today, Brazil is seen as the driving force of IBSA, and it has been particularly active in challenging global trade regulations that disfavor the south. [8] This stance signals the keen Brazilian interest in leadership not just in South America, but also of global South initiatives. At the same time, Brazil has important economic ties with Europe that it wants to safeguard, and its own European dimension is central to its national identity and worldview. Since it was European powers that pushed most vigorously for UNSC 1973, the Brazilian position in this debate therefore seems curious. Its delegate’s statement regarding the resolution was forthright: Brazil is uneasy about legitimating the use of force by major powers in regional theaters and uneasy about any use of force without a clear blueprint. Praising the “spontaneous, homegrown nature” of the Arab revolts up to mid-March, the Brazilian delegate worried that NATO intervention would “change that narrative in ways that can have serious repercussions for the situation in Libya and in the broader Middle East.”

Brazil’s position toward the Arab revolts — abstention from the Libya resolution and de facto backing of the Syrian regime — seems to have emerged from a combination of true concern for human rights and discomfort with the uncertainty inherent in supporting major power interventions. It may be as well that the Brazilian foreign policy elite has no fully developed worldview regarding the country’s global relations.

At first glance, India’s position is also perplexing. In the post-September 11 era, India has generally gravitated closer to the US, in an attempt to gain leverage in its long-running conflict with Pakistan. India shares the US concerns about the future of the Afghan-Pakistani relationship and the role of Iran in the adjacent security complex. By this reading, India would have been well served by a strong commitment to NATO in the vote on UNSC 1973 and the pursuant military operation. After abstaining from that vote, however, India appealed for an end to the NATO strikes in Libya, while indicating support for the Libyan people’s aspirations, and not the regime. With regard to Syria, India has opposed sanctions on the regime and (alongside Brazil and South Africa) sent a fact-finding mission to the country. Again, New Delhi appears to be bucking Washington without benefit.

But if one revisits the Indian elites’ calculus of the national interest, their position on Libya and Syria is not such a mystery. The relationship with Pakistan is unfriendly, but stable (with no apparent incentives to alter the equilibrium) and the US is unlikely to abandon adjacent theaters in Asia. Domestic factors thus gain in salience. The Indian position emanates from a concern for setting interventionist precedents for international actors in areas where human rights and political inclusion cause friction and/or violence between social actors and governing regimes. [9] In India’s case, the disputed status of Kashmir could someday prove to be a lightning rod for external criticism, especially with the region’s record of unrest and contested political authority.

In sum, the IBSA group’s confused positions on the Arab revolts become somewhat understandable once it is clear how these states are pulled in contrasting directions by various demands. As in all other states, their foreign and domestic policies constitute inseparable domains. As is typical of middle powers, the IBSA states are proceeding with caution, as they know they lack much of the main currency in world politics: hard power. They are important military producers and exporters in their own neighborhoods, and they are developing considerable economic capacities. But they still do not have the capabilities, such as large navies or air forces, to be global players — or to defend against encroachments by powerful states. [10] Unlike other states in the contemporary world, however, the IBSA states are rising middle powers with global aspirations. Their rather reserved diplomacy might not be curious if their concerns were limited to their own regions. But this grouping of middle powers has professed the shared aim of creating a new international architecture — one characterized by democratization, human rights and peace. Expanded global roles will not only leave them burdened with new responsibilities in distant theaters, but will also leave them open to greater scrutiny and all sorts of pressure.

A Voice of the South

Middle powers classically fear the erosion of the norm of sovereignty, which is supposed to make states immune to external intervention. Tough resolutions at the Security Council, imposing sanctions or authorizing military action, mean de facto acceptance of great power interference in the affairs of smaller states. Over the long term, further damage to the norm of sovereignty might see IBSA governments themselves facing greater infringements on their domains or the foreign policies they devise in pursuit of their national interests. African critics of the Libya intervention raise pointed questions in this respect: What does the emerging doctrine of “the responsibility to protect” entail? Who will define the doctrine, who will decide when intervention is necessary and who will choose the means? The Libya intervention sets the precedent that the West decides and the rest of the world follows. [11]

Yet if the IBSA states limit themselves to protecting the sovereignty norm in their tenure on the Security Council, they will expose themselves as shortsighted. Their muddled positions on the Arab revolts to date do not serve their vision for a new international architecture because they are perceived as diplomatically immature. IBSA has yet to produce a “niche” product of its own — be it diplomatic, military or economic. [12] If the niche is to be human rights and better living conditions for peoples in the southern hemisphere, then IBSA’s positions on Libya and Syria do not fit. If the brand is to be building institutional constraints on the interventionist tendencies of major powers, IBSA is forgoing that opportunity as well. [13]

IBSA is a forum, not a formal structure like NATO or the African Union. In this respect, IBSA represents a mini-revival of the Non-Aligned Movement, which emerged in 1955 at the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung and then developed into a bloc in the UN General Assembly. The leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement were respected around the world as doers and independent thinkers who rejected the polarizing allegiances of the Cold War in favor of developing their post-colonial societies on their own terms. Yet the Movement was riven internally, its sheer number of members meaning that its declarations and posturing far outweighed its concrete impact on world politics. With only three members, IBSA does not have to meet the same fate.

At the seventh Trilateral Commission meeting on March 8, the Brazilian, Indian and South African foreign ministers “underscored that the concurrent presence of all three IBSA countries in the Security Council during the year 2011 provides a unique opportunity to work closely together in order to bring their perspectives into the work of the council and strengthen the voice of the South.” One way for IBSA to “strengthen the voice of the South” would be to advance its own ideas about when outside intervention on behalf of oppressed peoples might be legitimate and when state sovereignty should be inviolate. IBSA can leave a lasting imprint by redefining why, when and how the Security Council should pursue collective action in the service of international peace and security. In so doing, IBSA can reduce the space for great power infringement on the sovereignty of middle powers.

As autumn arrives, Syria is witnessing protracted social unrest, with neither the regime nor opposition actors able to impose a settlement. And before long, the IBSA states will have another important issue on their plate at the Security Council, one which will demand serious weighing of options and consequences: the question of Palestinian statehood. While their individual positions might be relatively synchronized, the Security Council will be an important venue for the IBSA states to demonstrate the degree of their commitments on both issues. It will be interesting to observe how much their diplomacy has matured over the course of 2011, and what type of resolutions they will be collectively willing to propose or adopt.

Author’s Note: I would like to thank Michael Brecher for his comments.


[1] Christian Science Monitor, September 19, 2011.
[2] Voice of Russia, September 5, 2011.
[3] See Dries Lesage and Pierre Vercauteren, eds., Contemporary Global Governance: Multipolarity vs. New Discourses on Global Governance (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2009).
[4] See Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).
[5] Chris Alden and Marco Antonio Vieira, “The New Diplomacy of the South: South Africa, Brazil, India and Trilateralism,” Third World Quarterly 26/7 (2005), pp. 1082-1083.
[6] Prakash Naidoo, “Consistently Inconsistent,” Financial Mail (Johannesburg), May 5, 2011.
[7] Greg Mills, “South Africa’s Stance on Libya Furthers Rogue Trend,” Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), September 2, 2011.
[8] Gladys Lechini, “Middle Powers: IBSA and the New South-South Cooperation,” NACLA Report on the Americas 40/5 (September-October 2007).
[9] See C. Raja Mohan, “India, Libya and the Principle of Non-Intervention,” Institute of South Asian Studies Insights 122 (April 2011).
[10] Ruchita Beri, “IBSA Dialogue Forum: An Assessment,” Strategic Analysis 32/5 (September 2008).
[11] See Kwame Akonor, “The War in Libya: The African Union’s Mistake of Policy and Principle,” Inter Press Service, June 10, 2011.
[12] Andrew F. Cooper, ed., Niche Diplomacy: Middle Powers After the Cold War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).
[13] Daniel Flemes, Emerging Middle Powers’ Soft Balancing Strategy: State and Perspectives of the IBSA Dialogue Forum, Working Paper 57 (Hamburg: German Institute of Global and Area Studies, 2007).

How to cite this article:

Imad Mansour "The Middle Powers Amid the Arab Revolts," Middle East Report Online, September 29, 2011.

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