U.S. Diplomacy After the Russo-Ukrainian War
Since its inception over 20 years ago, the BRICS — a grouping formed by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — has been discussed more for its future potential than for any tangible geopolitical victories. The August 2023 BRICS summit seeks to change that. After much jostling over candidates, criteria, and balance, the members agreed to the potential inclusion of Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In the short term, this move has been perceived as a challenge to the United States and the West more broadly. Yet the long-term impact remains uncertain. The group’s increased diversity brings a degree of geopolitical confusion that does not quite live up to the pro-China or pro-Russia dreams of Beijing and Moscow.
Still, the new assertiveness from the BRICS, coming on the heels of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demonstrates the changing global landscape in which the United States is now competing. This new strategic environment is defined by a global diffusion of power, where the agency and importance of middle powers have risen in tandem. Crucially, many of these middle powers are hesitant to fall in lockstep behind Washington’s international agenda. In order to remain a global leader, the United States should build new alliances and partnerships that are tailored to this reality. Washington can do so by strengthening multilateral institutions and better preparing its diplomats to work within them.
Understanding Today’s International Landscape
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine called for a reevaluation of what we thought we knew about the current state of international affairs. In our recent report from Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy we broke down the emerging dynamics into three broad categories. First are those that were previously known but have now been cast in sharper focus. These include the rise of a new non-aligned movement, the limits of Western sanctions, economic regionalization, and an increase in cross-border challenges such as food insecurity. Second are the trends that revealed Russia’s aggression and the world’s reaction. These include the collective investment in security organizations such as NATO and Russia’s slipping grasp on its traditional area of influence. And the final set of trends is best described as black swan events, or those that are hard to predict or understand but will present significant strategic challenges.
Common to all these issues is a global diffusion of power. Middle powers are asserting greater agency relative to major powers, such as the United States, China, and Russia. For Washington, this does not make middle powers adversaries to work against, but rather vital partners in addressing geopolitical challenges. These powers speak with louder voices —
though not necessarily in unison — and it is incumbent upon the United States to engage with what they are saying.
The Hedging Middle
Middle powers may be defined as regional hegemons or those with access to significant geopolitical resources, such as India, Turkey, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, or Japan. However, it can also include regional blocs that pull and consolidate resources, access, and therefore power. These groupings include formal organizations such as ASEAN and the African Union, ad hoc groupings such as those in the Gulf, hopes of a unified South American bloc, and, of course, the BRICS.
We understand that while the term “middle powers” is broadly applicable for this analysis, it is an imperfect way to describe a diverse array of independent and autonomous nations. While the term is often associated with countries criticizing U.S. policy, this is a misleading framework. The rise of middle powers is better understood as countries pursuing a strategy of hedging against major powers, where the dominant consideration is their own self-interest.
One of the strategic surprises to emerge from Russia’s invasion was the unity of the U.S.-led Western coalition in providing support to Ukraine. Yet, at the same time, many countries have remained neutral. Some have called these fence-sitters a “new nonaligned movement.” Indeed, these powers and regional groupings have bucked U.S. or Russian attempts to win over their exclusive support, instead forging their own paths.
India represents a clear example of hedging. In one policy area, such as security cooperation, it is closely aligned with the West: India and the United States have strengthened their bilateral military relationship through the Quad in order to counter Chinese influence in Asia. However, India has refused to align with the U.S. position on Russia’s war in Ukraine, given New Delhi’s historically close ties with Moscow. India has become a leader among the non-aligned powers, making it an important partner for the United States. Yet Washington cannot take this relationship for granted: Even in the event of a military confrontation with China, it is not clear whether the United States would receive full support from India.
Regional organizations, such as the African Union, further demonstrate how middle powers have adopted a strategy of hedging. In recent years, the organization has strengthened its own capacity for international peace and security operations. It has mediated peace deals among parties to armed conflicts in Africa, conducted peacekeeping missions, and advocated for a cohesive Africa agenda on issues such as climate change and food insecurity.
African countries have become stronger independent players in the international system and, as a result, few have aligned with the West on the war in Ukraine. Although a plurality of African Union member states voted in favor of U.N. resolutions condemning Russia, many were unwilling to take additional punitive measures against Moscow. Some of them do not want to disrupt their existing relationships with Russia, which provide them in large part with loans, arms sales, and military contractors. In addition, a South-African-led delegation, promoted by French businessman and consultant Jean-Yves Ollivier’s Brazzaville Foundation, went to Kyiv and Moscow in early June 2023 to discuss an end to the war in Ukraine, with access to grain exports likely at the top of the agenda. For the United States, these trends mean that even as the Biden administration deepens its engagement on the African continent, it should understand these countries’ own respective interests and work with them accordingly.
As these examples show, middle powers are not a homogenous grouping of necessarily like-minded states. These nations and blocs use different tools and levers of power to exercise their own agency. Some use their unique economic positions and others their regional political power to achieve diverse objectives including economic gain, domestic politics, or staying out of great-power conflicts that they do not see as their own. Regardless of their tools or intentions, the ability and willingness of middle powers to speak with a louder voice will shape the strategic landscape for the United States in the coming decades. This diffusion of power is an opportunity for the United States to engage with empowered partners on issues of shared interest — adding both legitimacy and capability to broader coalitions.
U.S. Diplomacy for a New World
The linchpin of any successful diplomatic strategy moving forward will be a special emphasis on multilateral diplomacy, where the United States can use its convening power to build and lead coalitions around mutual interests. As power diffuses throughout the system, such coalitions will be necessary to align efforts and marshal resources. Rather than seeking explicit commitments to stand by the United States in its rivalry with China or any other actor, Washington should prioritize flexible frameworks that do not compromise other countries’ concerns and provide these hedging nations with a positive currency. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called this “variable geometry.” It allows for convergence on issues requiring a concert of powers without requiring adherence to or support for all U.S. priorities. As it already does in forums such as the G7, the United States can organize informal arrangements with other countries on issues like climate change, finance, or nonproliferation, either within established institutions, such as the U.N. Security Council, or outside them.
Assembling a plurality of powers will require the difficult work of coalition building with the emerging middle powers and their divergent interests. To be sure, bilateral diplomacy remains important, but it complements multilateralism rather than precluding it. The United States can draw on its relationships with different countries to build coalitions in multilateral settings. Washington need not confine these efforts to formal mechanisms within international or regional organizations. Instead, the United States should be open to engagement in new avenues driven by regional actors, ad hoc groupings, and non-traditional actors.
As recent events have shown, Russia and China will both face serious constraints in the coming years. Bullying of regional neighbors cannot compensate for shady economic practices and a dismal demographic outlook. Russia, for its part, may have little to offer developing countries and hedging nations beyond the export of thugs like the Wagner Group as Western sanctions further sap economic and technological strength. The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is now attempting to source weapons from North Korea hints that this may be happening sooner, rather than later. Likewise, numerous recent reports of China’s current economic malaise do not bode well for Xi Jinping’s expansionist plans, nor does the Belt and Road Initiative’s increasingly shoddy track record.
How can Washington better embrace multilateral diplomacy? First, the State Department should focus more on training multilateral diplomats. U.S. diplomats at all levels should be familiar with multilateral, consensus-driven negotiations and understand their nuanced dynamics. The Bureau of International Organization Affairs already sponsors U.S. citizens for U.N. positions through the Junior Professional Officer program. The U.S. foreign service can build on these current initiatives by incorporating postings to multilateral institutions as one of the core pillars of diplomatic training and career development, thereby incentivizing this type of work.
Second, the United States should continue to support U.N. Security Council reform. The U.N. system remains an important institution to work within on any number of international threats, from climate change to food insecurity. However, the Security Council better reflects the immediate post-World War II order than the world that emerged following decolonization and the end of the Cold War. Reform would help secure greater buy-in from the middle powers and, in turn, increase the chances of multilateral cooperation in line with U.S. interests. President Joe Biden has already expressed support for adding permanent and non-permanent seats to the council. Working group members noted that the administration ought to support India for permanent membership, given its strategic importance and its leadership among the middle powers.
The United States should also seek to provide hedging nations with positive aid on areas of shared concern in the near term, with an eye toward long-term mutual benefits. This includes delivering “positive currency” to hedging nations that may not be aligning with the United States on other geopolitical issues. In regions such as South America and Southeast Asia, for example, multiple countries’ fishing industries are being crippled by illegal fishing and could benefit from partnerships with the U.S. Coast Guard. Likewise, American policymakers should make better use of intelligence sharing as a tool of long-term diplomacy. Whether on fishing, corruption, or trafficking, Washington can use more robust intelligence sharing to build relationships and long-term goodwill.
With this in mind, policymakers should focus on policies that can build long-term relationships and secure payoffs for the United States. Whatever resources or expertise China may be offering rising powers, there remain plenty of capabilities that only the United States can provide for the growing list of nations that are beginning to fear Chinese influence. Rather than rely on the threat of sanctions, trade blockages, or defunding, the United States can persuade other countries to take actions in pursuit of mutual benefits. These should not be tied to short-term payoffs like favorable votes on U.N. resolutions — rather, they should be seen as long-term investments. By starting to build goodwill and influence now on technical matters, such as fisheries or intelligence sharing, the United States can increase the chances of eventual payoffs on large-scale issues of international peace and security.
Finally, the United States should embrace variable geometry in its coalition building efforts. In practice, this would involve working within existing institutions and forming ad hoc coalitions to corral states with a shared interest without necessarily requiring agreement on other core issues. By reinvigorating the diplomatic toolkit, engaging effectively in multilateral spaces, developing and deploying “positive currency,” and exercising variable geometry, the United States can compete and succeed in a world of rising middle powers.
Kelly M. McFarland is a U.S. diplomatic historian and the director of programs and research at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. He also hosts the institute’s Diplomatic Immunity podcast. Prior to Georgetown, he served in the U.S. Department of State as an intelligence analyst. Follow him on X @mcfarlandkellym
Chester A. Crocker is professor emeritus of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and distinguished fellow at its Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. A former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, he subsequently served as chairman and board member at the U.S. Institute of Peace for 20 years.
Ryan Conner is a research and communications associate at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. He recently completed an MA in European Studies in the School of Foreign Service.
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