Morocco's Contemporary Diplomacy as a Middle Power

The 20th anniversary of the reign of King Mohammed VI of Morocco is a timely opportunity to analyze the interaction between the kingdom and its diplomatic counterparts, in particular how Morocco approaches its diplomatic relations. The concepts of “Middle Power” and “Middle Power diplomacy,” developed by scholars out of international relations and diplomatic practice theories, help provide a conceptual framework for assessing Morocco’s contemporary diplomacy.

Amine Bennis
August 10, 2019

From Traditional to Emerging Middle Powers

The Middle Power concept has evolved significantly since the 20th century through constant diplomatic practice. Traditionally, Middle Powers comprised a narrow circle of established democracies that were industrialized and affluent, such as Australia, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden. These countries shared the following features: support for liberal internationalism and multilateralism, adherence to good international citizenship, active provision of development assistance, and concentrated “niche diplomacy.” 

Over the past two decades, scholars have started referring to "new" or "emerging" Middle Powers, including countries like Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Qatar, and South Africa. These new Middle Powers share a commitment to multilateralism, but nevertheless hold distinct features. Oftentimes they are newly democratic states facing internal economic challenges, serving as intermediaries between developed and developing states through regional dominance in terms of hard power (through economic strength, military capabilities) and/or by projecting their diplomatic soft power, and holding leadership roles in regional institutions as representatives of the global South.

Key Features of Middle Power Diplomacy

Renowned scholar Gareth Evans focused on the concept of Middle Power diplomacy instead of Middle Powers. He did so in order to address the constantly evolving definition of Middle Powers. According to Evans, Middle Power diplomacy holds certain distinct features. The first is the ability to challenge the established position of stronger powers and negotiate balanced agreements through intensive bargaining and negotiation. The second is the focus on a niche diplomacy in line with their institutional capacities and credibility; instead of extending to the whole policy spectrum, their diplomacy concentrates on a specific field, sector, or country in which it operates. Third is the constant use of multilateralism to promote international policy tasks. This takes the form of reaching compromise positions to resolve disputesforming coalitions with other states or through international organizations, and regional activism.

Each of these features face certain limits, however. For one, Middle Power diplomacy will tend to focus on more than one niche, which unravels the niche concept’s relevancy. Promoting international policy tasks through multilateralism requires Middle Power diplomacy to hold sufficient weight and credibility in the international arena to encompass the discussion over an item on the international politics agenda, or for the Middle Power country to be entrusted with advocating on behalf of other countries. Finally, Middle Power diplomacy still requires the country to have certain elements of hard power such as a sizeable economy, population, territory, and/or military, in order to ensure effectiveness over its diplomatic efforts.

To what extent then does Morocco’s contemporary diplomacy fit within the conceptual framework of Middle Power diplomacy?

Successfully Challenging a Stronger Power’s Position Through Persistent, Protracted Diplomatic Action

In March 2016, Turkey and the EU entered into a historical agreement to regulate the inflow of migrants reaching the Greek coast through Turkey. Following three years of intensive negotiations, Turkey obtained significant gains. Similarly, over the past decade, Morocco has been facing a significant increase in migration from Sub-Saharan Africa and Syria. In light of shared concerns with the EU over addressing the migration crisis, Morocco found itself in a better position to negotiate for overall assistance from the EU. The new deal not only includes satisfactory financial arrangements, but also a set of comprehensive policy measures. In other words, Morocco managed to negotiate a benefical agreement in spite of the EU’s status as a stronger power.

Likewise, Morocco was successful in increasing financial contribution from the EU for renewing the fishing and agricultural agreements between the two entities, as well as in applying preferential trade tariffs to products sourced from its Southern provinces. Moroccan diplomacy managed to successfully bargain with a stronger entity (the EU) by employing the tools of protracted negotiations, persistence, and issue linkage.

Strengthening Morocco’s Multilateral Position Through Regional Organizations

Moroccan diplomacy in recent years has increased the multilateral scope of its diplomatic action. Its growing visibility in international organizations is the result of an explicit policy to strengthen the country’s presence and influence within multilateral institutions through senior responsibility assignments. These influences have been exhibited in particular at the 72nd General Assembly of the United Nations, among others. Such action is significant in regional organizations following the return of Morocco to the African Union in January 2017 and the recent accession request to the Economic Community of West African States.

Moroccan Diplomacy in West Africa: A Quest for Leadership

When examining relations between Morocco and certain West African countries, namely Gabon, Guinea Conakry, Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal, we understand how its quest for regional leadership translates into South-South economic cooperation, niche diplomacy, and the willingness to serve as an intermediary between greater and smaller powers.

Morocco’s economic diplomacy has strengthened its involvement in the African continent over the past two decades, with three main trends underlying Morocco’s foreign direct investment: significant investment inflows by large Moroccan banks as well as commodities, construction, energy, and telecom companies into West African economies; a regional connectivity strategy to promote the Casablanca airport as a transport hub for travelers to West Africa; and the reinforcement of the partnership with Nigeria (another regional Middle Power) through religious diplomacy and a gas pipeline project.

It is important to highlight that Morocco’s economic diplomacy goes beyond the achievement of an economic return or the recognition by all African states of Morocco’s sovereignty over its Southern provinces. Instead, it seeks to promote the development and stability of African citizens through mutually profitable cooperation and active solidarity. It pursues shared interests with its African counterparts. That is the only way to be perceived by other African countries as a regional leader rather than a hegemon.

Another major feature of Moroccan contemporary diplomacy is using religious or faith-based diplomacy as a tool of niche diplomacy in Sub-Saharan Africa. Such religious diplomacy when used as a soft power targets shared objectives. It answers the needs of African states by training local religious scholars, prevents religious extremism by countering the influence of Wahhabism, and consolidates the preexisting moderate Malekite religious rite in Africa.

Morocco’s diplomacy also offers its human capital and facilities to serve as an intermediary between West African countries and greater powers by advocating on their behalf on strategic issues such as migration. This effectively translated into hosting the Global Compact Initiative in Marrakech in December 2018, where the kingdom played a leading role as the rapporteur for the African agenda and then as conference chair. It also led to an agreement with the African Union to host in Rabat the new headquarter of the African Observatory for Migration and Development.

A Subtle Balance

The Middle Power concept is therefore relevant to analyze Morocco’s status in the context of international relations, and elements of Moroccan diplomacy fit well within the framework of Middle Power diplomacy. The country's ability to strengthen leadership in the African continent whilst maintaining strong ties with Western allies will be key to consolidating its Middle Power status.  

Amine Bennis is a Principal Counsel at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. With over 10 years of experience in a multilateral development bank and law firms, he specializes in development finance and has a passion for international relations and geopolitics. He is a graduate of the Universities of Paris II Panthéon-Assas, Sciences Po Paris, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The views expressed are personal and should not be taken as representing the position of his employer.