How History Helps Us Uncover the Real Successes of Middle Power Internationalism

How History Helps Us Uncover the Real Successes of Middle Power Internationalism
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Heidi TworekAssistant Professor in International History, University of British Columbia, and Visiting Fellow, Center for History and Economics, Harvard University

Over 15 years ago, Barry Buzan and Richard Little lamented that international relations had long sustained “a dominant attitude, partly against history, partly just indifferent to it.” While some scholars do use history, it still often furnishes background rather than being taken seriously in its own right. History can offer several new perspectives on the role of middle power internationalism. First, it suggests that middle powers actually have influence on technical processes rather than “big topics” like peace and security. Second, history provides contextual nuance about when middle powers could and could not follow their own agendas within a framework set by global powers. Third, it reminds us that convening may be middle powers’ greatest strength.

Almost all Canadian children learn in school about how Canada helped to create peacekeeping. Lester Pearson pioneered the first United Nations peacekeeping force (UN Emergency Force I) in 1956 and received the Nobel Peace Prize the year afterwards. In international diplomacy since World War II, Canadians have “often played the role of moral arbiter,” as historian Margaret Conrad put it.

Despite this notable example, Canadian activity in the international realm often happened more below the radar, such as hosting headquarters of obscure agencies. I constantly straw poll Canadians to see if they know which UN agency is housed in Canada. Virtually no one gives me the correct answer: the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). This highly technical agency has had astonishingly wide-reaching influence on the invention of air travel.

Founded in 1947, ICAO created and maintains the standard and recommended practices (SARPs) for air travel. These standards enable airplanes to fly across borders and thus the astounding rise of mass tourism from the 1950s onwards — from a few million people a year to 300 million by 1980. By 2011, it reached one billion. ICAO is vital for the billions who fly every year, but only aviation experts have ever heard of it.

By 2013, ICAO’s presence in Montreal generated over 1200 direct and indirect jobs and over $100 million annually. The headquarters have also attracted considerable further business with other organizations moving to Montreal for proximity to ICAO. While the commercial regulation of air travel was excluded from ICAO’s remit, the industry body International Air Transport Association (IATA) also placed its headquarters in Montreal. Companies in the airline industry chose to put their headquarters or regional centres in Montreal. The global airline telecommunications organization SITA, for instance, chose in 1986 to manage its operations in the Americas and the Caribbean from Montreal in order to liaise extensively with IATA and ICAO. Bombardier Aerospace, created as part of Bombardier after the company acquired Canadair in 1986, is headquartered near Montreal airport. Quebec houses the third-largest global cluster of the aerospace industry after Seattle and Toulouse.

When we look at the history of hosting, we find that Canadian government officials have used ICAO in arguments to attract other international agencies, agreements like the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1987, and fairs like Expo ’67. In 1994, the Canadian government chose Montreal as the home for NAFTA’s new Commission for Environmental Cooperation. Finance Minister Paul Martin hailed Montreal’s “proven track record” as the site of such international agencies. ICAO cemented Montreal’s convening power, indirectly generating further revenue and prestige for the city.

There have been several attempts to transfer ICAO headquarters away from Montreal, first in the 1950s and then, more famously, in the early 2010s by Qatar. Both times the Canadian government fought hard to keep the agency and subsidized the costs for its headquarters. The Canadian government understood the significance of what Yale law professor David Grewal has called “network power.” This means “the power that a successful standard possesses when it enables cooperation among members of a network.” Once ICAO had set standards, they remained central to air travel. By hosting this technical agency, Canada facilitates “network power.” ICAO reminds us that Canada’s participation as a middle power sometimes means supporting expert institutions that facilitate everyday experiences of globalization.

Examples like ICAO also show how the broader international context frames middle powers’ room to manoeuvre within particular issue areas. This was certainly true for aviation when ICAO was created in the mid-1940s. Montreal was chosen as its headquarters because it represented a compromise between the United States and Europe. During World War II, the United States had become the preeminent aerial power. Europeans were worried that they would have no role in the airline industry and thus fought against the new aviation agency being located in the United States. Montreal satisfied the Americans because it was in North America, the British because it was in the Commonwealth, and the French because it was French-speaking. And, of course, it satisfied Canadians because it made Montreal “the aviation capital of the world.” (This phrase appears constantly in articles and press releases.)

Without agencies like ICAO, international exchanges cannot get off the ground. Looking at its history reminds us that middle powers like Canada can shape international exchanges at particular moments in unexpected ways. Canada has used the ICAO headquarters to burnish its status as a convening middle power and team player. Often the most important means of shaping international interactions happen below the radar in technical arenas such as ICAO. These are areas where middle powers like Canada can exert the most influence or gain the largest benefits.

History is not just a footnote or a throwaway introductory paragraph. In this case, it suggests that middle powers might influence technical international initiatives far more than flashier, public-facing alternatives. Middle powers can best act on certain issues if they can identify and implement the compromise that suits all sides. In this case, Canada has benefitted significantly from seizing that moment over seven decades ago. If we take the past of middle power internationalism seriously, we can create a more clear-eyed assessment of its present and future.

* This article is part of a six-blog series that follows from a workshop on “Middle Power Liberal Internationalism in an Illiberal World,” hosted by CIPS and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). For other blogs in this series, click here:

Liberal Internationalism: Save, Ditch, or Reform? by Rita Abrahamsen

Making the United Nations Fit for Purpose in an Illiberal Era by Louise Riis Andersen

The View from MARS: American Populism and the Liberal World Order by Jean-François Drolet and Michael C. Williams

In Defence of Liberal Internationalism? by Alexandra Gheciu

Small States vs. Middle Powers — What’s the Difference? by Njord Wegge

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