World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Small power

Article Id: WHEBN0030890699
Reproduction Date:

Title: Small power  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Middle power, Annette Baker Fox, Great power, Emerging power, Power (international relations)
Collection: States by Power Status
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Small power

The international system is for the most part made up by small powers (or small states). While a small power in the international system may never equal or surpass the impact of the greater powers, they can nevertheless influence the workings of the international system together with others.

The formalization of the division between small and great powers came about with the signing of the Treaty of Chaumont in 1814. Before that the assumption had been that all independent states were in theory equal regardless of physical strength and responsibilities. From the second half of the twentieth century, the bipolar power blocs decreased the strategic room for manoeuvre for smaller actors.


  • Powers great and small 1
  • Characteristics of small powers 2
  • List of small powers 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5

Powers great and small

Almost all studies of power in international relations focus on great power politics and it will for this reason not be discussed here. For, as László Réczei noted, power status hinges on the capacity for violence: "If the notion of war were unknown in international relations, the definition of ‘small power’ would have no significance; just as in the domestic life of a nation it has no significance whether a man is less tall or has a weaker physique than his fellow citizen.[1]

Most of the small-state studies that make up the backbone of the small power research tradition were carried out in the heyday of non-alignment by scholars such as David Vital,[2] Robert Rothstein,[3] Maurice East[4] and Robert Keohane.[5]

The weakening of the non-alignment movement during the 1970s coincided with a gradual decline in small-state studies, culminating in Peter Baehr’s critical appraisal of the research tradition in which he questioned smallness as a useful framework for analysis. The small-power category was first taken into serious account with David Mitrany’s study on world government (pax oecumenica) in 1933.12 Mitrany argued that the international community consisted only of two tiers of state powers: great and small.[6]

Asle Toje takes a view where great powers and small powers distinguish themselves through patterns of behaviour. Small powers are not down scaled great powers – or oversized microstates.[7]

Characteristics of small powers

Though a single definition has proved elusive due to the number of potential variables and their particular interpretation under given conditions, Asle Toje claims to have found recurring traits in the research literature regarding the behavioural patterns of small powers on the international stage:[8]

  1. The strategic behaviour of small powers is characterized by dependence. A small power recognizes that it cannot obtain security by relying solely on its own capabilities. They cannot affect the international system alone but with some concerted effort they can have an impact on the way the system works. A small power plays a dispensable and non-decisive part in a great power’s array of political and military resources. Small powers therefore tend towards a policy of either strict neutrality or alliance. Those ‘located in geopolitical regions critical to maintaining a great power’s position in the international system [tend] to opt for alliance’. In an alliance, small powers tend to follow the alliance leader closely, lend it what support they can and avoid antagonizing it. Under regional hegemony with a low probability of punishment, small powers tend to adopt neutrality.
  2. Small powers display variable geometry. In terms of military capabilities there is no ability to project power on a global scale. They are forced by their limited resources, their location and by the international system itself to establish clear priorities. To this end, they identify a hierarchy of risks and attempt to internationalize those considered to be most serious. Small power policies, argues David Vital, are aimed at altering the external environment by ‘reducing an unfavourable discrepancy in strength, broadening the field of manoeuvre and choice, and increasing the total resources on which the state can count in times of stress’.[9] Small powers are therefore status quo oriented. They work within the established order rather than attempting to revise the order itself.
  3. Small powers are the primary beneficiaries of international institutions and are, by necessity, lovers of the law. A small power will often seek to minimize the costs of conducting foreign policy and will increase the weight behind its policies by engaging in concerted efforts with other actors. Generally, this leads to a high degree of participation in and support for international organizations, which leads to a tendency to adopt ‘moral’ or ‘normative’ policy positions. Formal rules are actively encouraged in order to curb the great powers and strengthen their own position. Cooper et al. identify small powers by ‘[t]heir tendency to pursue multilateral solutions to international problems, their tendency to embrace compromise positions in international disputes, and their tendency to embrace notions of “good international citizenship” to guide their diplomacy’.[10]
  4. Small powers are risk averse. They see more dangers than opportunities in international politics, which leads them both to shun system-upholding tasks and to display a penchant for token participation in such endeavours. Zaki Laidi defines a risk averse power as an international actor that ‘defines and responds to the political states of a given identified risk in terms of a will to reduce its uncertainties and uncontrollable effects’.[11] Due to the risks of extermination when challenging more powerful states, their ambitions are generally ‘defensive’. They have a narrow range of interests and little freedom of activity. Annette Baker Fox sees small powers as being geographically bound in the sense that their demands are restricted to their own and immediately adjacent areas, while great powers exert their influence on a global scale. Subsequently, small power strategic behaviour is characterized by a general reluctance to coerce and a tendency to promote multilateral, non-military solutions to security challenges.”[12]

List of small powers

The following is a list of countries that are described as being small powers:

See also


  1. ^ Réczei, (1971). The Political Aims and Experiences of Small Socialist States. In Schou, A. & Brundtland, A. O. (eds) Small States in International Relations. New York: Wiley Interscience Division, p. 76.
  2. ^ Vital, D. (1967). The Inequality of States: a Study of Small Power in International Relations. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ Rothstein, R. L. (1968). Alliances and Small Powers. New York: Columbia University Press.
  4. ^ East, M. A. (1973). Size and Foreign Policy Behaviours: a Test of Two Models. World Politics, 25 (4), pp. 556–576.
  5. ^ Keohane, R. O. (1969). Lilliputian’s Dilemmas: Small States in International Politics. International Organization, 23 (2), pp. 291–310.
  6. ^ Mitrany, D. (1933). The Progress of International Government. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, p. 9.
  7. ^ Toje, A. (2010). The European Union as a small power: After the post-Cold War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  8. ^ TOJE, A. S. L. E. (1 January 2011). The European Union as a Small Power. Jcms: Journal of Common Market Studies, 49, 1.)
  9. ^ Vital, D. (1967) The Inequality of States: A Study of Small Power in International Relations, Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.134
  10. ^ Cooper, R., Higgott, A. and Nossal, K (1993) Relocating Middle Powers: Australia and Canada in a Changing World Order Vancouver: UBC Press, pp. 19–20.
  11. ^ Laïdi, Z. (2010) Europe as a Risk Averse Power – A hypothesis, Garnet Policy Brief No. 11, p. 1.
  12. ^ Fox, A. B. (1959) The Power of Small States: Diplomacy in World War Two, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 3, fn. 8.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g Small States and International Security: Europe and Beyond, Routledge, 14 Mar 2014, Page 130
  14. ^ Small States' Responses to the Great Depression: A case study of Bulgaria
  15. ^ a b c d e Lessons From Europe For the Economic Policy of Small States, March, 2007
  16. ^ The Influence of Small States in the EU, UCD Dublin European Institute , 2008
  17. ^ Latvia: Some Notes on Small State Security, February 26, 2014
  18. ^ interdependencies of a small state, 2012
  19. ^ P Balík, [ role of small states in international organizations], 2008
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.