6 Swing States to Decide Future of Geopolitics

Foreign Policy, 07.06.2023
Cliff Kupchan, presidente del Eurasia Group
  • These middle powers of the global south should be the focus of U.S. policy.

Last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a rare foray out of Ukraine, spending almost one week in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Hiroshima, Japan. His goal: to win the support of Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia—four major fence-sitters on Russia’s war in Ukraine. These and other leading countries of the global south have more power today than ever before. The reasons for their newfound geopolitical heft: They have more agency, they benefit from regionalization, and they can leverage US-China tensions.

Middle powers today have more agency than at any time since World War II. These are countries with significant leverage in geopolitics, but they are less powerful than the world’s two superpowers­­—the United States and China. In the global north, they include France, Germany, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and others. With the exception of Russia, these countries do not tell us much about the shifting dynamics of power and leverage, as they remain broadly aligned with the United States.

Much more interesting are the six leading middle powers of the global south: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Türkiye. These swing states of the global south are not fully aligned with either superpower and are therefore free to create new power dynamics. All are members of the G-20 and active in both geopolitics and geoeconomics. These six also serve as a good barometer for broader geopolitical trends in the global south.

There are many reasons for the growing importance of these six states, but they can be grouped into two buckets: long-term, historical developments and more recent global trends. Regarding the first bucket, developments since the Cold War have given these powers more agency in international relations. The Cold War entailed a stricter separation into opposing blocs, which pulled in some of today’s swing states. The subsequent era of US unipolarity necessitated some fealty to Washington by almost all states. Today’s Sino-US bipolarity is weaker, and all middle powers have more freedom of movement.

Second in the history bucket: The world has been deglobalizing in important ways over the past two decades, and as a result new geopolitical and geoeconomic relationships are forming at the regional level. The swing states are all regional leaders, and they become more important as power devolves to their regions. The processes of near-shoring (moving supply chains closer to home) and friend-shoring (moving them from adversaries to like-minded countries) are slowly moving some firms and trading relationships away from China to other regions, mostly in the global south. Some of the swing states of the global south will become even busier hubs of regional trade.

India is the best example, as some US firms are setting up production and routing new supply chains there. Energy markets are becoming more regional, which benefits Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the Saudi capital, Riyadh, is emerging as a regional financial hub. Also, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) emphasises that the world is fragmenting, and in a fragmenting world regional middle powers logically play an increasingly important role.

Third, during the Cold War, India and Indonesia had just emerged from colonial rule. That limited their global role during that bipolar era. Today, the six swing states are fully autonomous actors. But they are not just a new incarnation of the Non-Aligned Movement, or other groupings dominated by the global south, such as the G-77 and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), none of which have packed much punch. Those groups all involved or involve some ideological affinity, which today’s six swing states don’t have. The absence of ideological affinity helps free these states to take a hard-core transactional approach in foreign policy, which in turn elevates their aggregate impact on international affairs.

Other drivers of swing state power flow from more recent global trends. Swing states’ power is enhanced by the leverage they gain from the competition and confrontation that increasingly characterizes US-China relations. Each superpower wants the swing states to align with it, creating opportunities for swing states to play one off the other. For example, India’s power and leverage has increased dramatically since joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, the most important US-led effort to balance China.

Brazil and Indonesia have benefited from China’s eagerness to lock down deals on critical minerals, especially lithium, nickel, and aluminium. A recent study shows that while each of the six states may swing toward the United States or China on a particular issue, most of them remain relatively balanced in their allegiances. For now, they will be free in many areas to play one great power off the other. Foundational technologies, including semiconductors, artificial intelligence, quantum technology, 5G telecommunications, and biotechnology, are the only exception; here, the middle powers probably have to make a choice between trading with the United States or China.

Similarly, the swing states of the global south, with their large and growing economies, derive leverage from international climate policies. There can be no solution to the challenges from pollution and climate impacts without the participation of these states. Carbon markets will increasingly bring resources to these middle powers, regardless of their actual impact on emissions, because Western companies need to purchase offsets as they pursue net-zero status. More broadly, policies on deforestation and decarbonization need constructive participation by the swing states—Brazil and Indonesia on deforestation and mainly India and Indonesia on decarbonization, especially relating to the use of coal.

Finally, Just Energy Transition Partnerships focus on finding creative solutions to financing climate goals, with South Africa and Indonesia being the first funding recipients. Although the results of the program are mixed so far, this is an example of two middle powers taking on a leadership role on climate policy.

The six swing states have played an important role on sanctions and framing the optics of the war in Ukraine. From the very outset, they have refused to fall into line behind Western military aid to Ukraine and sanctions on Russia. They argue that the war affects only European and not global security, and that it does not advance their national interests in development, debt reduction, food security, energy security, and other areas.

But the most important impact of these states on the war has been their leadership role in opposing—and in some instances undermining—Western sanctions on Russia. Türkiye is one of several countries involved in channelling large volumes of dual-use items to Russia, violating the spirit and possibly the letter of Western sanctions. For these activities, the United States has already sanctioned four Turkish companies. Most of the other middle powers have remained firmly neutral, although South Africa tilts toward Russia. All six have maintained or increased trade and other ties with Russia since the start of the war.

The IMF projects that the Russian economy will grow by 0.7 per cent this year—hardly the paralyzing impact Western nations had hoped for. The swing states have helped Russia erode the impact of sanctions and will continue to do so. They are one reason why the Kremlin seems to believe it can make a living by turning its trade south and east.

The vastly increased leverage of the global south’s middle powers is also evident in their mediation initiatives. Türkiye is the single most influential external power on the war in Ukraine. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a key negotiator of the grain deals, was involved in the peace talks at the beginning of the war, and is well-positioned to facilitate future talks if the warring parties opt for them.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has come forward with his own initiative. India, meanwhile, has more quietly positioned itself to broker a peace in the future. These states are now well-positioned to mediate other conflicts, too. India’s stature in this regard is particularly high, not least because it already contributes 8 per cent of active U.N. peacekeepers, as of February. Indonesia and South Africa are also active as mediators and peacekeepers.

Finally, the scientific and engineering expertise found in these countries makes them future proliferation risks; the next instance of nuclear weapons proliferation, were it to occur, would most likely be in a country in the global south. While unlikely in the near term, especially after the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, Iran remains the world’s most dangerous proliferation risk. It is only a few technological steps away from becoming a latent nuclear power—one with the ability to make a bomb in a short amount of time. In a scenario where relations with Riyadh plummet and Tehran dashes to a bomb, the Saudis and possibly Turks could seek one also.

That’s why the Saudis reportedly demanded nuclear guarantees from the United States, among other concessions, in exchange for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel—Riyadh wants the protection afforded by a nuclear umbrella, if not nuclear weapons themselves.

The popular focus on the BRICS countries as the main counterweight to Western dominance obscures much of what’s interesting about the global south. That’s because the inclusion of China and Russia in BRICS masks the critical rise of the swing states.

China is today one of the two great powers in a bipolar world. It’s a big stretch to consider China part of the global south, primarily because China’s economic power and extensive geopolitical ambitions make it a different type of state. Russia is a middle power, but one in decline. It is also hyper-revisionist in its approach to the world, a view which the global south’s swing states do not share. So the policies of the two most geopolitically active BRICS states need to be explained with a different logic than that driving the swing states.

That said, the question remains whether the BRICS states are going to become a more formal institution under China’s direction that claims to represent the global south. That prospect is a clear challenge to the West, especially given that 19 other countries have already expressed interest in joining the group. But the threat is unlikely to materialize. India is an influential BRICS state and will adamantly oppose Chinese efforts to co-opt the body. Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Türkiye (a NATO member), India, and even South Africa still have significant relationships with the United States and other key Western countries, whether in security or trade.

These countries may have tacked away from the United States—but that’s different from joining a Chinese-directed, Russian-assisted body actively opposing the United States. As of now, BRICS has not shown the ability to develop and implement a common agenda, so there is very little institutional strength for China to co-opt. Lastly, BRICS operates on a consensus basis; the likely addition of new members with their own interests will make reaching consensus even harder.

Some may disagree with the idea that these six swing states are the powers to watch. They are all still emerging markets, and recent years have not been kind to that part of the global economy. Except for India, growth rates in the swing states have not met expectations. The group lags in the development of institutions that support the rule of law. Technological revolutions, including AI, will hit the global south harder than the advanced industrialized democracies, since the former has fewer resources with which to combat the politically dangerous effects of generative AI. And even as climate goals give the swing states leverage, climate-related effects will also inflict significant damage and suffering on some of these states.

On balance, though, the argument that these powers have become and will continue to become more powerful geopolitically remains strong. They are able to derive leverage from some of the strongest global trends, and there are already clear manifestations of their new power.

The most important policy implication is that Washington needs to up its game towards the six swing states in order to prevent a significant weakening in the U.S. position in the global power balance. With the swing states’ refusal to line up behind the United States on the Russia-Ukraine war or competition with China, many of these key countries are already drifting away. The threat of a Sino-Russian co-optation of an expanded BRICS—and through it, of the global south—is real, and it needs to be addressed.

Washington needs to have a well-crafted diplomatic strategy not only toward each of the six key countries, but toward the global south more broadly. Inviting most of the swing states to the recent meeting of the G-7 was a useful start, but much more is needed. A better strategy would begin with more high-level visits by key US diplomats. The improved policy would also include a nimbler trade strategy that begins to crack the nut of access to the U.S. market. More broadly, the United States needs to be able to better predict the reactions of the six swing states and the global south to key US policy decisions. For example, the degree to which Western policies on Russia’s war have created alienation in the global south caught Washington by surprise.

Since the start of the invasion in February 2022, the United States has been playing catch-up––and not doing very well at even that. This kind of prediction capability would necessitate a better understanding of sentiment and elite beliefs in the many countries of the global south.

Second, the power and leverage of the swing states and indeed all middle powers would take a hit if US-China tensions rise dramatically and turn into a Cold War-style confrontation. Decoupling would broaden, and the swing states would likely have to align more closely with one side or the other.

Finally, because of the rise of the swing states, there are now more countries in the world that have leverage over geopolitical outcomes. Among these states, there are no discernible patterns of behaviour beyond intensive pursuit of their national interest. We now have more drivers on every geopolitical issue. That makes predictions of geopolitical outcomes, already a fraught endeavour, even harder.

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