Small power

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There is considerable literature on the foreign policy challenges of states that are not great powers, termed variously as middle powers, small states, regional powers, secondary powers and the like. 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. The late 1960s and early 1970s briefly saw strategic studies orienting towards smaller actors. The problem with bundling all small actors together is that the members of the group have so little in common that little can be learned from seeing them together. A more fine-masked classification is therefore required.[citation needed]

In his seminal study of great and small powers in international law, Karol Wolfke[who?] notes that ‘the existence of great and small powers side by side has always been a source of particular difficulties and international conflicts’.[1] There are several possible ways of defining a small power. Most attempts at definitions have been in reference to quantifiable entities. An obvious contemporary yardstick could be weapons technologies – or prestige. Different point of entry is in reference to resources. 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 small states.[2]

The International System is for the most part made up by small powers (and small states). This is easily forgotten by the single minded focus of academia on the great powers. Over time the impact of a small power in the international system may never equal or surpass the impact of greater powers. Nevertheless small powers can influence the workings of the international system together with other states causing reactions from other nations. Small powers are instruments of great powers and they are actors; they may act to strengthen stability or they may promote chaos. They may at times be dominated; but they cannot be ignored.

Powers great and small[edit]

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.[3]

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,[4] Robert Rothstein,[5] Maurice East[6] and Robert Keohane.[7]

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.[8]

Characteristics of small powers[edit]

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:[9]

  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’.[10] 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’.[11]
  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’.[12] 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.”[13]


  1. ^ Wolfke, K. (1961). Great and small powers in international law from 1814 to 1920: From the pre-history of the United Nations. Prace Wrocławskiego Towarzystwa Naukowego, nr. 72. Wrocław
  2. ^ Toje, A. (2010). The European Union as a small power: After the post-Cold War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Vital, D. (1967). The Inequality of States: a Study of Small Power in International Relations. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  5. ^ Rothstein, R. L. (1968). Alliances and Small Powers. New York: Columbia University Press.
  6. ^ East, M. A. (1973). Size and Foreign Policy Behaviours: a Test of Two Models. World Politics, 25 (4), pp. 556–576.
  7. ^ Keohane, R. O. (1969). Lilliputian’s Dilemmas: Small States in International Politics. International Organization, 23 (2), pp. 291–310.
  8. ^ Mitrany, D. (1933). The Progress of International Government. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, p. 9.
  9. ^ TOJE, A. S. L. E. (1 January 2011). The European Union as a Small Power. Jcms: Journal of Common Market Studies, 49, 1.)
  10. ^ Vital, D. (1967) The Inequality of States: A Study of Small Power in International Relations, Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.134
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Laïdi, Z. (2010) Europe as a Risk Averse Power – A hypothesis, Garnet Policy Brief No. 11, p. 1.
  13. ^ Fox, A. B. (1959) The Power of Small States: Diplomacy in World War Two, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 3, fn. 8.