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Small States and International

By Rob Kevlihan
 Introduction: What constitutes a “small
state‟ ?
 Theories of International Relations
 Classical realism and neo-realism
 Liberalism and institutionalism
 World Systems and Dependency
 Constructivist
 Implications for small states
 What constitutes a “small state” ?
 Geographical size, size of population?
 Question of relative or absolute power?
 How is power defined? – military, economic,
defensive, offensive?
 Context of “smallness”: Local, regional or
 International relations and small states
 IR theory typically focuses on the behavior and
interests of the powerful
 The international system is also frequently defined in
terms of power distributions – for example, balance of
power theory
 Most modern IR theorists come from powerful
(western) states
 But; empirical reality – 190 + states – how many are
actually powerful?
Major schools of IR
 Three major arguments:
 Realist – that human nature or the system
defines the behavior of states
 Liberal - that domestic state / society relations
define state ends and as such state behavior
 Constructivist: that states can define the
nature of their interactions – the realist zero
sum game is not inevitable.
Theories on International
 Characteristics of Classical Realism
 Reductive view of power
 Dark view of human nature
 Risk Averse
Classical realism
 Reductive view of power
 Thucydides “Since you know as well as we do
that right, as the world goes, is only in
question between equals in power, while the
strong do what they can and the weak suffer
what they must.”
Classical Realism
 Dark View of Human Nature
 Thomas Hobbes: „The life of man, solitary,
poor, nasty, brutish and short‟
 In the absence of an overarching law
(anarchy), man lives in a state of war
 Morgenthau: Only through working with the
forces of human nature, rather than against
them, by ever balancing interests, that moral
principles can be realized.
Classical Realism
 Risk Averse
 Machiavelli – It is better to be feared than
 EH Carr – “the conservatism of realism”
 Morgenthau - realism „aims at the realization
of the lesser evil rather than of the absolute
Classical Realism
 Outcome: the self fulfilling prophesy of realism:
 Worst case scenario assumption about states
intentions leads states to adopt realist positions
 Implications for small states
 Small states are essentially pawns in “the great
game” played between larger states and should use
whatever (small) advantages they have to maintain
(limited) autonomy of action and (relative) freedom
from external domination
Classical Realism
 But
 Moral aspect in some later writers (Carr,
 Bounded definitions of what constitutes
international relations
 Morgenthau: IR = activities normally undertaken
where power is considered
 Carr: Politics defined as power politics, with
international co-operation divided into the „political‟
and „non-political‟
 Focus on the implications of anarchy,
rather than on human nature
 More systemic approach that is concerned
with relative power
 System defined by the most powerful
 Waltz: Theory of International Politics
 “Continuities” in international relations - balance of
power the ultimate outcome
 Forces are shaped by the very existence of other
states as well as interactions between them and will
persist as long as none of the competing units can
convert the anarchic international system into a
hierarchic one
 socialization and competition are the two invisible
hands of the international system that lead to a
persistence in outcomes
 Waltz / contd.
 Capability of states is brought to the fore, with small
or weaker states been mostly unimportant for Waltz‟s
 With respect to the distribution of these capabilities,
Waltz highlights the importance of relative power, with
the distribution of capabilities being a function of the
number of great powers.
 This results in a self help approach by states to other
states that involves the use of realpolitick. Realist
behavior is necessary in order for states to ensure
their survival in the system
 Alliance formation in the realist system
 Walt:
 Balancing or band-wagoning behavior likely from
small states in response to the system of balance
of power;
 Not just a question of power: states will ally with or
against the most threatening power.
 As a result aggregate power, proximity, offensive
capability and offensive intentions all play a role in
deciding state behavior
 More aggressive variant
 Mearsheimer‟s Offensive Realism
 All states strive to be the global hegemon
 But, global hegemony is not possible; best case
scenario as regional hegemon with ability to
project power into other regions
 Regional hegemons will therefore seek to keep
other potential hegemons from emerging
Neo realism
 Mearsheimer / contd.
 Greater range of strategies possible for states
(including small states):
 War, blackmail, bait and bleed (where states try to weaken
rivals by provoking a long war between them), bloodletting
(taking measures to ensure that any war will be costly),
balancing and buckpassing, appeasement and band-
 However, actual choice in a realist world frequently comes
down to balancing or buck-passing in the face of threatening
states, with states preferring buck-passing whenever
 Classical liberalism is frequently equated
with the straw man of idealism (or
 Naive reliance on
 International law (e.g. The Kellogg Briand pact
outlawing war)
 The power of international public opinion

 And / or interdependency due to trade relations

 Modern variant emphasizes the
importance of domestic factors
 State cannot be treated as “black box”
 The character of the state determines or
influences how it will act in the international
system: for example:
 Democratic peace argument
 Allison‟s bureaucratic influences on foreign policy

 Role of interest groups (Putnam‟s two level game)

 Implications for small states
 Reliance on idealist principles proved inadequate for
many states in the 1930s
 However, post WWII, sovereignty has proved to be a
more effective shield for states (if not regimes
governing those states)
 Democracies may take some assurance from the
presence of other democracies in their region, even
ones that are more powerful.
 Alliances based on common interests may be
possible across borders, again, depending on the
openness of the systems involved
 Sometimes classified as a variant of liberalism,
sometimes treated separately
 Focus is on international institutions both global
(e.g. UN, WTO, IMF, WB), and regional (e.g.
EU, SCO, ASEAN, AU, OAS etc.) levels, and on
international regimes (environmental protection,
human rights etc)
 Debate focuses on degree to which these
institutions and regimes are creatures of the
most powerful or are autonomous entities
Realist interpretations
 Mearsheimer
 Institutions designed by and suit the needs of the
 Keohane
 Even realists have mutual interests.
 Institutions are typically established to serve the
interests of the global hegemon, but with their
decline, these institutions can still serve a purpose –
reduction in transaction costs, ability to make side
payments and reduction in uncertainty
Liberal interpretations
 Haas
 Importance of international communities of
experts (epistemic communities) in defining
states interests
 Young
 Regimes, often nested in institutional
arrangements, offer new ways for
decentralized global governance
 Implications for small states
 International institutions may provide some scope for
small states to have a greater influence, depending
on circumstances
 These institutions may benefit small states to a
disproportionate extent because of their benefits –
reducing transaction costs, reduction in uncertainty
 However, they may further bind the smaller state to
the policies and interests of larger states
World Systems and Dependency
 Marxist analysis – must consider global
division of labor and production
 Center vs Periphery, with system self
 Role of elites in both center and periphery
in maintaining the status quo.
World Systems and Dependency
 Implications for small states
 Very difficult for small states to change their
relative position in the world system
 Such states may not even “wish” to, if
governing elites find the current insertion to
be to their benefit
 Wendt
 “Anarchy is what states make of it” – i.e. states, acting
collectively, that can determine how international
affairs are conducted.
 Direct response to Waltz
 The way in which the international system works is a
function of socially constructed meanings between
 Different kinds of anarchy – Hobbesian, Lockean and
 Implications for small states
 Most of the time throughout most of the world,
states get along fine.
 Most states recognize this – probabilistic
rather than possibilistic approach to
international relations
 However, there are times when small states
may be part of a Hobbesian system
 Cutting edge?
 Wendt‟s Application of quantum theory to IR (2004 /
 Supports post modern approach from a scientific realist base
 States identities and relations formed in the moments of
interaction between states and are not “objective” or
 Process of interaction at moments of interaction that count,
rather than any essential qualities inherent in states
 Implications for small states
 Constant process of creating identity and defining nature of
insertion in the international system.
 For small states, a lot depends on local
 The kind of neighborhood you find yourself in
 Exactly how small are you relatively speaking
 What advantages do you possess (e.g. Switzerland)
 The climate of the times – the local nature of anarchy
 The alliances that you form (including institutional
 The issues at stake
Final Conclusion
 Politics is more an art than a science –
and never more so than in international
 All the theories of IR have something to
offer. Deciding when the insights of any
one are more persuasive remains the