Hoppa yfir valmynd
Ministry for Foreign Affairs

The Position of Small States in the 21st Century

Respected members of the Association of Icelandic Historians and other guests. As an amateur of history in general, and of the culture and history of our nation in particular, I would like to start by thanking you for the opportunity to be with you here at this luncheon meeting. A nation without a history is like a man without a memory, one of your colleagues once said, and I entirely agree. From their very beginnings, Icelanders have always shared an enthusiasm for their national lore, and the cultural heritage bequeathed to us gives us a national cultural identity second to none. One might even be tempted to speculate that our culture is particularly remarkable given the size of our nation; but that is idle, indeed futile speculation, for how can we apply a yardstick to the culture and history of a nation, let alone many nations. Who can judge what is remarkable and what is not? History preserves much which at one time aroused little interest but is treasured now. The spirit of the age is a transitory phenomenon and values are relative.

It is an old adage, for example, that size is relative. Assessment of size is dependent on criteria and viewpoint. This is particularly true when we take the measure of the various different countries of the world. Microstates, small states, smaller states, larger states, world powers and superpowers are vague concepts. The question is also whether the size of a state has any relevance when it comes to their role vis-à-vis their own citizens and other states. If we count Iceland among the smaller states, as we do, and if we look to the future, we are confronted with the following question: Can such states, in the foreseeable and undoubtedly turbulent future, continue to ensure the security and welfare of their citizens and engage in successful relations with the world at large to that end? There are numerous portents of trouble at the outset of the 21st century, but I think that even so there is reason for optimism.

Smaller states were the rule rather than the exception at the beginning of recorded history, and the history of mediaeval Europe abounds with examples of small duchies and city states which enjoyed considerable or even complete sovereignty in the modern sense of that word. It may be foolhardy to venture into historical simplification at a meeting of the Icelandic Association of Historians, but I think it is safe to say that the Treaty of Westphalia and the confirmation of the concept of “the state” in the mid 17th century, the advance of romantic nationalism in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, and the strengthening of international law following the Great War in the early 20th century all had the effect of reinforcing the position of smaller states in Europe and shaping the entire world. Actually, one of the results of nationalism was that a number of smaller states disappeared, for instance with the unification of Germany and Italy, but in time numerous nation states swelled the ranks of smaller states. By the same token, the rights of some smaller states in Europe were violated during the Second World War, and the sovereignty of some other states was curtailed during the Cold War, but by the end of the last century most of these had regained their independence and sovereignty, and they have since been joined by further nation states. From a global perspective, the greatest growth in the number of smaller states resulted from the collapse of colonialism.

Definition of smaller states

The founding of the United Nations not only reflected the trend outlined above, but actually contributed to it. Because the United Nations include virtually all the states of the world, and because they all enjoy an equal standing, the United Nations represent the most credible forum for the exercise of international law in relations between states, and the United Nations also contribute to the constant shaping of the legal framework of numerous different areas. This is of great importance to smaller states, as I will touch upon later. The strength of the United Nations results from a combination of the universal membership of the countries of the world and the fact that membership as such has been regarded as a permanent confirmation of the independence of the member states. At the founding of the United Nations there were 51 member states; there are now 191 states and most of the accessions involve smaller states. It is an interesting fact that there exists within the United Nations a so-called Forum of Smaller States, with the latter defined as states with populations under 10 million, of which there are now 88.

This definition of what constitutes a smaller state is useful for the purpose of creating a lobby within the United Nations, but in other respects the definition is not much use. In the measurement of public security and welfare and geopolitical influence, can it matter whether a population is just short of or just over 10 million people? Is it an axiom that less populous states must be weaker than more populous ones? For the sake of comparison, Icelanders are equal in number to the people of Malmö, the population of Sweden is about equal to the population of Paris, and the French are about as many as the inhabitants of the province of Hunan in China. This does not mean that Iceland’s position is similar to that of Malmö, or Sweden to that of Paris or France to that of Hunan. In the assessment of the size of states, to the extent that this is necessary, it makes most sense to balance population, geographic area and economy. It is interesting to speculate whether the last factor might not carry the greatest weight. It is also interesting that many failed states have been medium-sized or even larger states.

Economic power is a source of political influence

In recent years it seems that economic strength has conferred more political power than size of population or surface area might otherwise warrant. Examples of this can be found in most regions of the world, but perhaps the most salient example for us is the international standing of the Nordic States, on the one hand, and the position of the EFTA states in world trade, on the other hand. It is food for thought that the Nordic countries are home to about 0.4% of the world population, but that these five countries account jointly for just under 10% of all the official development assistance in the world. The EFTA states are home to about 0.2% of the world population, but the combined trade of these four states amounts to about 2.0% of world trade. Smaller, prosperous states have gone to different lengths in their attempts to exercise economic power in the pursuit of appropriate regional or global influence, and often such influence is simply a result of circumstances. On the other hand, there is a difference in the nature of the potential influence of smaller states and larger states in that the former usually have a political objective relating to the preservation of their own security and welfare, as they lack the military capacity, and usually also the will, to resort to the use of force. Of course the focus of the foreign policy of smaller states will vary depending on circumstances, but on the whole it can be maintained that their interests primarily involve the preservation of peace and stability. This is not because smaller states are by nature more virtuous than larger states, but because they are liable to suffer severe setbacks in any course of events on which they have little or no influence.

It is particularly in the area of security where smaller states may find themselves at a disadvantage. The resort to superior force is one of the central themes of human history and in the period following the bloodshed and destruction of the two world wars one of the notable trends, first with the founding of the League of Nations and later the United Nations, was that the use of force in international relations was gradually being relegated to the status of a last resort rather than a cynical political option. Unfortunately, this has not made the second half of the 20th century into a time of global peace and reconciliation, but it has led to a change of attitude around the world, which is also rooted in the increasingly uninhibited flow of information. The vague concept of “the international community” is frequently used in connection with the use of economic or military force and it reflects the increasing need for international and legal approval of such actions.

Own interests and common interests

While smaller states, more or less by their nature, share an aversion to the use of force in international relations, it must be remembered that enforcement of international law, just like domestic law, sometimes requires the use of force. If persuasion were the only available recourse the laws would soon, unfortunately, be reduced to the status of empty words. The power to legislate is in most cases vested jointly in the member states of international and multilateral organisations and institutions, most notably the Security Council of the United Nations. The executive power rests with each individual member state, but in reality enforcement often depends on the political will of the larger states. In light of the importance of international law for smaller states, it must be a comfort to them if the most powerful states are prepared to sacrifice assets, and even human lives, in the interests of the many. It is by no means a given fact that the interests of great powers and the common interest cannot coincide.

Membership of associations or alliances of states

In recent years, smaller states have generally attempted to ensure their own security on the basis of international law and by supporting the negotiation of legally binding instruments under the auspices of international or multilateral organisations and institutions. Many of them have advocated and participated in regional co-operation and become members of multilateral organisations and alliances. Experience has shown that smaller states can successfully strengthen their positions on the basis of international law, and even pursue their specific interests, as in the case of Iceland, which participated actively in the formulation of the Law of the Sea, while at the same time extending its fisheries jurisdiction. Nordic co-operation is perhaps the clearest example of how regional co-operation can promote stability, and smaller states around the world have been prominent in similar co-operation in recent years. Membership of organisations and institutions has given smaller states security and more political influence than their size might warrant on the basis of the principle of non-discrimination, unity and solidarity; the European Union and NATO are prime examples of this.

Even if it were possible to arrive at an international definition of what constitutes a smaller state, it is clear that this would not be a homogenous group. Different circumstances and interests may have the effect that trends in international affairs affect smaller states in different ways. For example, the end of the Cold War decreased the temporary and localised influence of many smaller states around the world, while at the same time other states gained freedom. Of course we all genuinely welcome the end of the Cold War and time will show that the dividends from the reduced tension in world affairs will benefit all, but this does not change the fact that most smaller states have suddenly had to adapt their foreign policies to a changed world, either because of increased or reduced scope for action. It is no secret that the sudden increase in the number of smaller states has led to more dispersed attention on the part of the larger states, particularly the greater powers, as in fact many of the newly independent states present numerous problems requiring urgent attention.

The adaptability of smaller states represents an opportunity

What all the smaller states share in the wake of the Cold War is the need to address the advantages and disadvantages of globalisation, which provides previously unknown opportunities but also presents a greater challenge for them than for the larger states. Globalisation calls for adaptation from domestic self-sufficiency to an international market economy, e.g. in the areas of trade, culture, transport and communications. This radical change could prove difficult for many smaller states because their existence is often based on the individual characteristics of the nation state and their economies often lack the resilience which is the fruit of diversity. On the other hand, the general adaptability which is inherent in small size, and the greater potential for growth, represent opportunities. This applies both to the enlargement of domestic markets and access to foreign markets. The cross-border expansion of Icelandic companies testifies to that.

As regards the social and cultural consequences of globalisation, it is clear that globalisation is generating rapid change in most smaller states. Notwithstanding the voices of pessimism, there is nothing to indicate that these changes will leave the smaller states worse off in the long term. The EEA Agreement is obviously a part of the process of globalisation, and one might ask: do Icelandic wage earners and consumers feel that their rights have been eroded in recent years? The answer is definitely no, and labour unions, for example, welcome their widened scope. Another question is whether Icelandic culture and national awareness have suffered in recent decades. The answer to that question is also no, because even though Icelandic culture and self-perception have changed this does not mean that they are no longer Icelandic and still less that Icelanders are in a worse position to engage in independent relations with the world than before.

Consistent foreign policy is the best policy

There has been much discussion in recent years of whether the international balance of power has become unipolar and whether a multipolar balance is a more desirable state of affairs. It is paradoxical that this discourse is characterised on the one hand by old-fashioned superpower politics, as if the world could be divided into spheres of influence, while on the other hand it leans heavily toward the rule of international law. In the years between the wars many smaller European states sought shelter in neutrality with mixed results, and at the same time, as I mentioned earlier, the bipolar power balance of the Cold War years strengthened the position of many smaller states, but the difference was one of degree. The perceived political gains of smaller states derived from a state of tension between greater powers tend to be short-lived and are easily reversed.

There is a strong argument for the case that in the long term a consistent foreign policy is the best foreign policy. Therefore, the old great power politics does not have the same significance for the smaller countries in comparison with the importance of the rule of international law. Fears have been voiced that great power politics, and in particular a unipolar world, can pose a threat to legal certainty, but it would be unwise to draw too many conclusions from the isolated events of recent months. It is primarily the western democracies, both large and small, which have been at the forefront in the development of international law in recent decades, and this is not likely to change as the interests are unlikely to change. It has been maintained in recent years, for instance, that the United States are turning their back on international co-operation and the rule of international law. In this context it is important to distinguish on the one hand between reservations in the face of new approaches and tough negotiating positions stand in negotiations and on the other hand complete departure from codified principles. Even though the US government now appears more determined than before to defend US global interests, based on their own definition, there is no indication of any radical change in policy, as it is quite clear to Washington that it is one thing to impose one’s will unilaterally and quite another to secure universal acceptance of the outcome in the longer term.

Influence of organisations proportional to their efficiency

The future trends that I described above of smaller states influence in international and multilateral co-operation has come under some discussion in recent years, e.g. in connection with the enlargement of the European Union and NATO. Smaller states are faced with a dilemma, because their influence is proportional to the efficiency of the organisations to which they belong, but at the same time they have to defend the principle of equality. It goes without saying that a large number of member states of equal standing can test the efficiency of organisations and institutions because of the risk of a cumbersome process of decision making, particularly if decisions require a consensus. On the other hand, it is clear that successful partnerships of sovereign states can never be based on the unilateral or isolated policymaking of leading states, and even less on their authoritarianism. The legitimacy of decisions and the benefits of solidarity depend on general acceptance. This does not mean that all the participants in international or multilateral co-operation always have to be happy with all decisions, but only that care must be taken that the general consensus on interests and objectives is not eroded.

This appears to have been achieved quite successfully in the European Union, and there are no cases of smaller states leaving the Union; on the contrary, there are numerous examples of countries applying for membership. It is interesting that most of these are which have recently reclaimed their sovereignty states and they are clearly convinced that their interests are best preserved by sharing their new-found sovereignty within the European Union. If we look at the history of the European Union we see that in voting in the Council of Ministers it is usually the larger member states that find themselves frustrated and much more rarely the smaller states. The reason is that the larger member states have diverse interests while the smaller states normally have special interests, and in their case the interests involved are usually fundamental ones. The larger states frequently have to seek the support of the smaller states, which gives the latter some leverage. Also, even though the larger European states have led the integration process, it is clear that the smaller states have normally been extremely supportive and it is safe to say that they are much more interested in the supranational powers of the Commission than most of the larger ones.

The same is true of NATO, where recently sovereign states are knocking on the door and want to be able to rely on the collective defence undertakings of the member states. In the North Atlantic Council all the member states, smaller and larger, sit side by side in a spirit of non-discrimination and all decisions are made by consensus. Even though it is clear to everyone that it is the largest member states that are contributing the most, the smaller states have an undisputed right to involvement in all actions taken in the name of the Alliance. It is interesting that within the Alliance, the smaller member states have generally been among the most vocal advocates of a strong trans-Atlantic link, i.e. close security and defence co-operation with the superpower across the ocean, the United States.

The global framework of multilateral relations

Although generalising about international affairs and attempting to pigeonhole different states is fraught with risks, the countries of the world undeniably have different capacities and there is much common ground among the smaller states. Common indicators of size can never constitute a permanent basis for solidarity among the smaller states, and in fact they often share political interests with the larger states or great powers. However, smaller states can have similar emphases as regards the global framework of international relations, i.e. they can take the initiative in creating an international environment which will permit them to ensure their own security and welfare on the basis of international law and effective relations with other states.

No sense of inferiority

It is no feeling of inferiority that underlies the smaller states’ own definition of themselves. The facts are clear to the world. However, as I said earlier, size is relative and the capacity of different states for participation in world affairs varies greatly, particularly when the all-important economic factor is taken into account. The important thing is for smaller states to know their limits without sacrificing their aspirations and to be consistent. International trust and respect are desirable because they facilitate the protection of interests which is at the core of all foreign policy. Of course, all states want to be trusted and respected, but it is particularly important for smaller states who want to be serious participants in international affairs.

We do not have less to offer than others

In light of all that I have been saying, we can ask ourselves what the position of a country like Iceland is in the new global environment. Any response to that question must take account of the fact that the most important challenges facing us cannot be met by domestic measures, but only by international co-operation. Fundamental interests, such as peace and security and their derivative benefits, such as a sound economy, employment, a healthy environment and sustainable use of natural resources, cannot be defended except through international co-operation.

It is no use asking whether we are for or against certain international or multilateral associations and organisations, because the fact will remain that this is where the decisions are being made that affect our future. The most important of these are the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, NATO, and the European Union. Within some of these organisations it may be assumed that majority decisions and supranational decisions will become more prevalent. This certainly has disadvantages, but at the same time it curbs great power influence and the right of the strong. The response available to Iceland and other smaller states is active and vigorous participation in these associations and organisations. Within all of them there is some dispute and dissent based on different interests or ideologies, but that does not change the fact that big and small, right and left, south and north, industrial and developing, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, must exchange views, debate and search for common ground. We do not have any less to offer than other states, and we can make our influence felt, but only through hard work.

Small but effective

Someone once said: “I am all for progress, but I don’t like change.” Already at the very beginning of the 21st century all the indications are that the coming decades will be a period of rapid change and we Icelanders are fortunate that for most of the changes will probably also be progress. In a period of transition of this kind we should bear in mind that we may be small, but we can punch above our weight.


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