The Beauty of Small Power Politics

Natalie Tan – Singapore

Traditional theories of international relations are justifiably dominated by the analysis of great power interactions. Neorealism and neoliberalism take as their foundations a world structure devoid of greater authority; the inevitable jostling for security between great powers creates security dilemmas where great powers are forced to perpetually increase their arms. Large states, possessing greater material and military capabilities, understandably have a greater say in how international relations play out.

It is to the detriment of the field of international relations that a majority of scholars and practitioners neglect that class of state that escapes the realist’s conceptual straitjacket that is anarchy. Small states; they form a majority of those in the world, but are rarely in the headlines, and their leaders virtually unknown. They are small states for lack of a better term, despite much discussion on the subject (see Robert Keohane’s article source webpage The Lilliputian’s Dilemmas, for instance): small in geographic size, population, and wealth, though not necessarily all at the same time. What they all have in common is an apparent lack of outright power. It is clear that small states must operate differently than the great powers in international relations, but it is too simplistic to ignore them as unimportant anomalies and meaningless exceptions. Small states deserve to be better understood, for though the great powers may possess a monopoly on power, their exclusive reach does not extend to the realm of ideas and wisdom.

What is it about small states that causes them to behave so differently? The answer is at once obvious and elusive. I here explore the origins of these differences, and suggest that small states often exploit them for use as a force for good.

A thought experiment is of use here. Imagine that you arrive at a subway station late at night. There is just one other person there, and there are no policemen or security cameras. A realist would say that whether or not the other individual is friendly, it is safer for you to take no chances in the absence of a higher authority; thus you should arm yourself in case the other person were to attack you. In turn, the other individual sees you quietly brandishing your pistol, and so checks to see that their shotgun is loaded to ensure they have an advantage. The cycle continues, and the classical security dilemma emerges.

I am convinced that in relations between great powers the uncertainty over other states’ future actions is a primary motivator. Uncertainty backed by military force holds the great powers in the structural realist’s straitjacket of anarchy.

But what happens when a state has no military capabilities to speak of, and no capacity to materially enhance its arsenal? The structural realist’s concern that two strangers at a subway station will always arm themselves just “in case” does not exist when one or both individuals know that there is no weapon nearby with which to defend or attack; priorities and strategies thus take a very different turn.

One state is weak, the other strong; one state can annihilate the other at any point, and the other state can do nothing about it. This is the crude starting point from which small states must approach the world. The implications of this starting point are not insignificant; the security dilemma becomes impossible. And when a security dilemma is impossible, states are free from the straitjacket, and are able to focus on ideas instead of force.

It is for this reason that constructivism is by and large considered best able to explain the actions of small states. Ideas and discourse are fundamentally the only tools that small states have with which to defend themselves, and they must learn to use them well. It is also why I believe that a modification of Alexander Wendt’s famous dictum that “anarchy is what states make of it” is needed: anarchy is what small states make of it. Small states, by their very nature, are the only ones able to escape security dilemmas, and in so doing are inevitably led to use ideas that make their worlds safer.

Herein lies the beauty of small power politics. Rather than perpetually trying to make “small gains at the barrel of a gun,” as President Obama put it in a speech to the United Nations in September last year, small states show that ideas alone can make large gains the world over. Small states have no guns that matter; they merely know that they are made safer when dangerous norms and institutions are altered, and so in setting out to protect themselves, they often end up serving humanity.

When the leader of a nuclear power needs to test a weapon, they see the wide expanses of ocean in the South Pacific, with no power nearby to step in. Between 1946 and the 1970s, multiple nuclear powers used atolls in the South Pacific to atmospherically test nuclear weapons, disregarding the consequences for the livelihoods of many living in nearby states. This was a classic case of a great power against a small state, with the latter powerless to militarily protect itself against the former. In 1973 New Zealand and Australia took France to the International Court of Justice in an attempt to halt nuclear testing; France ignored the ICJ’s decisions. As it was described in the ICJ proceedings documents, “The Court, by an Order of 22 June 1973, indicated inter alia that, pending its final decision, France should avoid nuclear tests causing the deposit of radio-active fall-out on the territory of the Applicant. By various communications the Applicant has informed the Court that further series of atmospheric tests took place in July-August 1973 and June-September 1974.”

As a response, New Zealand sent two navy frigates with a Cabinet Minister onboard to Mururoa Atoll to protest. By protesting peacefully, New Zealand garnered such international support for the cause that in 1974 France announced an end to atmospheric nuclear testing at Mururoa. By using the only capabilities it had—words, people, and an idea—New Zealand managed to secure an end to nuclear testing in the region, and in doing so protected those in many other states. Small power politics was a force for good.

Likewise, the current international campaigns by many small island states (at risk of total land erosion or submersion from climate change-induced sea level rise) to mandate emission reductions has seen success beyond what these states’ sizes would indicate were possible. Many small states not only lack military resources, but resources in general; it is wisdom alone that allows them to focus the world’s attention on an injustice. It is the great powers that cause the majority of these small states’ problems by being the largest carbon emitters, and the irony is that the great powers can afford any short-term damage from climate change that they may suffer. For small states to pressure a climate agreement that is against the immediate economic interests of a great power is a success in itself, and again shows the beauty of small power politics—by protecting themselves, they protect everyone.

It is at the reader’s risk that these examples are dismissed as exceptions or anomalies. Though they may not capture the excitement or scale of great power politics, small states are an important dimension of the international system which is too often defined by the tragedy of relations between great powers. Robert Keohane defined a small power as “a state whose leaders consider that it can never, acting alone or in a small group, make a significant impact on the system.” Though small states’ impacts may pale in comparison to those of the nuclear powers, I reject this definition; small states can and do have significant impacts on the international system, and they do it without force of any kind. It would be to the world’s benefit if the great powers learned from their example.

Illustration – Natalie Tan