The True Strength of Small States

Isabel Perucho – Philippines

Editor’s Note: This piece speaks directly to another, “Bulgaria and the Plight of the Small State.” We recommend that you read both in succession.

It is often assumed that many countries in the world are caught powerlessly in the middle of a match of tug-of-war, subject to the whims of large geopolitical powers or blocs. The question inevitably arises: are small states relevant in the global arena? While it is true that small countries must follow some global political narratives when it comes to international relations, the ability to join a particular narrative can be seen as a strength, not a weakness. This becomes particularly relevant in turbulent times, when more nuanced cracks between blocs emerge, and the support of small countries becomes a vital resource for any big power.

To frame small states as dependent on the wishes and political affiliations of larger powers is to ignore their importance to the larger countries themselves. The current divide between the European Union, United States, and Russia has elevated the influence of smaller states in international relations. For instance, Cyprus recently agreed to allow Russia’s navy to make use of Cypriot ports. This move serves to show the EU the discontent that European sanctions towards Russia have bred within the island country. Additionally, it is speculated that animosity towards the EU-imposed austerity measures in Greece and Cyprus motivated the agreement, as Russia promised to restructure the debt that Cyprus owes. Certainly, this is not a gesture of Russian goodwill, but of possible future collaboration. With Russia being increasingly sidelined in European politics as an entity that disregards international law and breaks ceasefire agreements, it needs to consolidate support within the EU. Cyprus is most certainly not the only target for Russia to befriend. Russia has also proposed to help alleviate Greece’s debt in an effort to gain an ally, and keeps warm diplomatic relations with the Hungarian government; all this to gain a foothold in EU politics.

Within the EU, support from more members means fewer sanctions, or at least a lobby angling in the other direction. Currently, discussions on sanctions in the aftermath of the Minsk Accords have stalled, as Hungary, Greece, and other states express their doubts over effectiveness and potential damage to their economies. Within another important bloc, NATO, it is necessary (hypothetically at least) to have unanimity for even defensive action to be approved, and Greece can drive a wedge into the consensus. In a way, geopolitical rifts between blocs create the opportunity for smaller states to position themselves within and between them—and to either blackmail larger powers or reap the benefits from patronage.

But is this just not a tug-of-war between the EU and Russia with small states being the rope? Yes, an alignment with a bloc—Russia or the EU—can threaten the ability of a state to make independent decisions. Eastern European states, such as Bulgaria and Hungary, are highly dependent on Russian gas supplies, and alliances with the EU force concessions on foreign policy and monetary initiatives. However, the tug-of-war analogy is too simplistic—to an extent, larger states are often held hostage by natural resources, including gas, as what happened to the US in 1973 and Germany during Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. Additionally, small states are not static—Lithuania, a country that has similar geopolitical and energy dependencies to other Eastern European states, recently made the move to become less dependent on Russia, and thereby gain increased sovereignty over their foreign policy decisions.

Within their specific geopolitical frameworks, small states often become coveted assets. By maintaining their friendly ties with Russia and seeking its help, Cyprus, Greece, and Hungary can send the EU a powerful and clear signal of displeasure with certain policies. They can derive large benefits from outside powers such as Russia without having to make significant concessions.

The fight for smaller countries’ support can be seen in some situations as a game of tug-of-war. However, tug-of-war is won by getting the rope onto one’s side—not by letting it slip. With some wise maneuvering and strategizing, small states can create their own autonomy.

Illustration – Isabel Perucho