Matthias Maas on Small States and Power

The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” -Melian Dialogue

From the legal point of view, all states are equal and sovereign, in reality, terms such as ‘super powers’ and ‘small states’ are often used for purposes of definition. Professor Matthias Maass, the new chair of the International Cooperation concentration, and the author of the soon-to-be published Small States in World Politics sat down with NOVAsia to talk about small states and power.


How would you define a small state?


Well nobody can. Everybody comes up with their own definitions. Firstly, people decided to go with population, which is still the most commonly used. Population is normally linked to the size of economy so it works. Back in the days a study would say a population of 1 million and later of 1.5 million, but this feels incomplete. Then we’d try to combine population with geography or size of military, but there would be still have to be a clear cut off with numbers, where a one-unit difference would change the category. This is very arbitrary and not satisfying for the intellectual mind. The second option was to think about power. You have great powers, middle powers and then by extension you would call small powers small states, so it’s the relative power, one state vis-à-vis another. This shows a different characteristic of a small state, but in international relations we can’t even define ‘power.’ Lastly there is the constructionist approach, which basically means that if a state thinks that it’s a small state then it is. Or if others say you are, then you are.

There are other ways to define a small state. For example, many of the small states are developing states and are particularly vulnerable, especially in economic terms. Yet, another perspective is seeing small states as negligible states as far as the entire states system is concerned. The latter in particular is quite controversial. It means that from a structural perspective, if Kiribati disappeared the world structure wouldn’t change but let’s say a middle power like New Zealand or the Netherlands would, then we would see a change in structure.


With a historic trend of the strong conquering the weak, is it a paradox that we still have so many small states?


Not really. Nowadays we have prohibition of war by law, collective security and defense, and structures like the United Nations. So, we have a norm that once you exist you exist, even if you are a failed state.


Is there a collective understanding for this?


I think we never intended this, but it became a norm. We try to help failing states, instead of saying “Ok, this state has failed, who wants it?” In the past, you would be legally entitled to integrate territories to your own. This is highly connected to the notion of self-determination, which is now part of international law. Also, nowadays we increasingly think small can also be sexy. And we have a fairly global economy so you don’t need a strong home market like in the past to have an effective economy.


So the strong can no longer bully the weak so to say?


Well, straight coercive action and usage of crude power are very difficult. As an example, the middle power Iraq decided to occupy Kuwait in 1990. Iraq found some economic and legal justifications by saying that Kuwait used slant drilling so it reached into Iraq territory. But then almost universal opposition rose in the UN that the occupation was illegal. A broad international coalition liberated the small state of Kuwait. You can complain and debate, but not deploy force.


Typically, small states are seen as weak. How do they execute power?


Well this takes us back to the definition and where you focus. Small states are weak powers if your focus is on power-dynamics. If you focus on development issues, then economy, population and geography become more relevant. If you focus on the structure, then power becomes more relevant.


So is there a way to see how they would use their power?


Power can be problematic if you think in absolute terms (one power, ten power ‘units’), but it’s more relevant if you think in relation to your neighbors or other actors. In this sense, there’s a chance small states will use power against a smaller state or a confused middle power. Also during the Cold War, due to ideology, there was a thought that you don’t want to lose any member of your camp, even if it’s a small state. So a small state may find leverage if geography or ideology is in its favor. Iceland is still part of NATO even though it has no military, but because of its location. Some say small states must be nimble to be able to ‘punch above their weight.’ Personally, I think there’s no way to do it on a consistent basis, but mostly in favorable situations.


What about soft power usage? There was an article about Nordic countries using their representation at the UN as a mechanism of soft power. They have a large impact at the UN despite their small populations.


States like Sweden and Switzerland can use their known neutrality and their earlier track record with affiliations with such organizations as the Red Cross to their benefit. Also, states like Costa Rica and Iceland, who have no military, may appeal to a norm to “play by the rules.’’ Commonly, small states are strong supporters of international organizations, and are usually those who benefit the most from them. The same with international law as it sort of takes away a bit of the dangers of greater powers. The small states already have more restrictions, so for them, compromising on something they don’t have is easier. For them it would be perfect if everyone would be bound by international law.


Are there any examples of the earlier mentioned ‘small states that can punch above their weight?’


States like Singapore and Qatar are good examples, as well as Switzerland; they all can somehow act and have influence beyond their size. Singapore plays an important role in ASEAN, has a meaningful military, remains active in the fight against terrorism in South East Asia, has excellent diplomatic record and has played a key role in the UNCLOS. Higher education exceeds its size, which creates soft power as well as being a logistical hub. Qatar on the other hand has taken a strong role in the regional diplomacy. Also logistic and geographical position, as well as natural resources are an advantage. Singapore has deeper roots and has cemented itself, but we’ll see how resolute Qatar is.


Could you think of an example of states that are increasing or decreasing in their power?


Well, there are a couple of examples where a secession is possible, which would mean creation of new small states. Catalonia and Scotland are the prominent examples. Recently, there have been some talks about self-determination in a region in Papua-New Guinea. However, predictions are hard.


The Small States in World Politics is not yet in print, but could you reveal what is it going to be about?


The subtitle is The Story of Small States Survival From 1648 to Today, meaning from the Peace of Westphalia to today. So basically, what allowed small states to survive during different times; the Sun King Era, the Napoleonic era, the 1920s, the Cold War and so on. If you look at the number of small states, it goes up and down, and what emerges is that it’s the system that allows them to survive or causes them to vanish more than anything else.