Sam Seitz

Most contemporary political commentary and international relations theory deals with the “great powers.” Of course, any explanation of international conflict and cooperation must address the activities, goals, and motivations of the superpower(s) and great powers, big states like the U.S., China, and Germany. But it’s also important to remember the role of so-called “middle powers” and small states in shaping global events. It’s certainly true that they lack the kind of military might and economic influence wielded by their larger neighbors, but they nonetheless play non-trivial roles in influencing the international system. In many ways, this post is a kind of mea culpa, as I have mostly ignored the role of smaller states in my thinking of international politics. But after a conversation with Alan Tidwell, director of the Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies at Georgetown’s SFS, I am far more appreciative of the interesting and unique research questions they pose. There will undoubtedly be more posts on this topic during the course of the semester, but I wanted to share a few quick thoughts.

First, it is far from clear to me that IR theory has adequate definitions for what constitutes a superpower, great power, middle power, small state, and microstate, though all of these designations are treated like official terms of art by many scholars. Obviously some countries quite closely correspond to the ideal types: the United States is a superpower, China is a great power, Australia and Brazil are regional or middle powers, etc. But what about Italy? It has a smaller population and weaker economy than Germany, but it has far greater naval and power projection capabilities. Is it a great power like Germany or merely a regional/middle power like South Korea? Social scientific classifications and definitions are frequently a tad vague and squishy by necessity, but it seems to me like this particular area of IR is undertheorized and could use a more thorough and rigorous set of standards for classifying states.

Second, even if scholars were to create a more appropriate and rigorous classification system, we would still have to contend with the fact that many of these labels are relative. New Zealand is, from an American perspective, clearly a small state. It’s in the middle of nowhere, has a tiny population of around 4.5 million, and is hardly a military heavyweight (its entire active military is composed of just 11,500 personnel). Yet, for many South Pacific nations, New Zealand is a major regional power that assists them in everything from economic aid to disaster relief to greater representation in international fora like the United Nations. It’s understandable that citizens of powerful, influential countries tend to downplay the importance and leverage of these smaller states. But within their regions, many of these alleged lightweights actually command a significant amount of respect and thus acquire surprisingly large amounts of influence.

Third, smaller states have to be more creative and smart with their foreign policies because they lack the kind of resources and power commanded by their larger neighbors. But this is exactly why non-great powers are so interesting to study. Consider nuclear weapons, for example. Most theoretical models argue that security is the core reason great powers seek to acquire nukes. By possessing the ultimate deterrent, these bigger states are able to greatly reduce the risk of military invasion by making the cost of war too high. This motive also applies to smaller states of course, but there are a number of other potential motivations that are unique to non-great powers. For instance, many scholars contend that North Korea seeks nukes not only to ensure regime survival but also to garner attention and prestige on the international stage. Let’s face it, North Korea is a backward state barely worth anyone’s attention… before they started saber-rattling with nukes, that is. Great powers don’t have this problem because, well, they are “great.” But smaller states do, and that leads to a whole new set of research questions.

Another example is Norway, the “Viking Peacemaker.” During the Sri Lankan Civil War, Norway was one of the countries that most forcefully worked toward conflict resolution. Indeed, Norway had far more assets deployed to Sri Lanka than just about any other state (including the U.S.). This was partly out of humanitarian concern but also out of a desire to stay relevant on the international scene. And their strategy worked, as Condoleezza Rice insisted on personally meeting with the Norwegian foreign minister whenever he was in D.C. because she wanted updates on the civil war. It’s almost impossible for a foreign minister from a country that isn’t China or a core American ally to meet with the U.S. Secretary of State, so this represented a major coup for the Norwegians. And while Sri Lanka was certainly discussed, so was the salmon trade (a major element of the Norwegian economy). I find this kind of issue linkage absolutely fascinating because it explains so much seemingly bizarre small country behavior and is often understudied.

To conclude, just because a state is “weak” according to conventional metrics of power doesn’t mean it is irrelevant to international politics or uninteresting from an academic perspective. In many ways, these weaker states offer some of the most interesting and unique research opportunities, and they probably deserve a lot more attention than they have gotten.