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The world's five smallest sovereign states by area, from largest to smallest: San Marino, Tuvalu, Nauru, Monaco, and Vatican City shown in the same scale for size comparison.
Map of the smallest states in the world by land area. Note many of these are not considered microstates.

A microstate or ministate is a sovereign state having a very small population or very small land area, and usually both. The meanings of "state" and "very small" are not well-defined in international law.[1] Recent attempts, since 2010, to define microstates have focused on identifying political entities with unique qualitative features linked to their geographic or demographic limitations. According to a qualitative definition, microstates are "modern protected states, i.e. sovereign states that have been able to unilaterally depute certain attributes of sovereignty to larger powers in exchange for benign protection of their political and economic viability against their geographic or demographic constraints."[2] In line with this and most other definitions, examples of microstates include Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, Andorra, the Cook Islands, Niue, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

The smallest political unit recognized as a sovereign state is Vatican City, with 842 citizens as of July 2013 and an area of only 44 hectares (110 acres). However, some scholars dispute qualifying Vatican City as a state, arguing that it does not meet the "traditional criteria of statehood" and that the "special status of the Vatican City is probably best regarded as a means of ensuring that the Pope can freely exercise his spiritual functions, and in this respect is loosely analogous to that of the headquarters of international organisations."[3]

Microstates are distinct from micronations, which are not recognized as sovereign states. Special territories without full sovereignty, such as the British Crown Dependencies, the Chinese Special Administrative Regions, and overseas territories of Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Australia, Norway, the United States, and the United Kingdom, are also not considered microstates.

Quantitative definitions of microstates and their limitations[edit]

Most scholars identify microstates by using a quantitative threshold and applying it to either one variable (such as the size of its territory[4] or population[5]) or a composite of different variables.[6] While it is agreed that microstates are the smallest of all states, there is no consensus on what variable (or variables) or what cut-off point should be used to determine which political units should be labelled as "microstates" (as opposed to small "normal" states).[1][2][7][8]

Map of European ministates; Liechtenstein, San Marino, Malta, Monaco, Vatican and Andorra

By area[edit]

Sovereign states with a non-sea area less than 1,000 km2 (386 sq mi)[9][10] [11][12]
Rank Country / Territory Area (km²/sqmi) Capital city Region
1   Vatican City 0.44 km2 (0.17 sq mi) Vatican City Europe
2  Monaco 2.02 km2 (0.78 sq mi) Monaco Europe
3  Nauru 21 km2 (8 sq mi) Yaren Oceania
4  Tuvalu 26 km2 (10 sq mi) Funafuti Oceania
5  San Marino 61 km2 (24 sq mi) San Marino Europe
6  Liechtenstein 160 km2 (62 sq mi) Vaduz Europe
7  Marshall Islands 181 km2 (70 sq mi) Majuro Oceania
8  Saint Kitts and Nevis 261 km2 (101 sq mi) Basseterre Caribbean
9  Maldives 298 km2 (115 sq mi) Malé AsiaIndian Ocean
10  Malta 316 km2 (122 sq mi) Valletta EuropeMediterranean Sea
11  Grenada 344 km2 (133 sq mi) St. George's Caribbean
12  Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 389 km2 (150 sq mi) Kingstown Caribbean
13  Barbados 430 km2 (166 sq mi) Bridgetown Caribbean
14  Antigua and Barbuda 443 km2 (171 sq mi) St. John's Caribbean
15  Seychelles 455 km2 (176 sq mi) Victoria AfricaIndian Ocean
16  Palau 459 km2 (177 sq mi) Ngerulmud Oceania
17  Andorra 468 km2 (181 sq mi) Andorra la Vella Europe
18  Saint Lucia 616 km2 (238 sq mi) Castries Caribbean
19  Micronesia, Federated States of 702 km2 (271 sq mi) Palikir Oceania
20  Singapore 714 km2 (276 sq mi) Singapore Asia
21  Tonga 747 km2 (288 sq mi) Nukuʻalofa Oceania
22  Dominica 751 km2 (290 sq mi) Roseau Caribbean
23  Bahrain 765 km2 (295 sq mi) Manama AsiaPersian Gulf
24  Kiribati 811 km2 (313 sq mi) Tarawa Oceania
25  São Tomé and Príncipe 964 km2 (372 sq mi) São Tomé AfricaAtlantic Ocean
With the exceptions of Singapore and Bahrain, all the above have fewer than 500,000 people.

By population[edit]

Sovereign states with fewer than 500,000 people by latest national statistics or CIA Factbook estimate 2014.[9]
Rank Country/territory/entity Population Density (pop./km²) Capital Region
1   Vatican City 842 1913.6 Vatican City Europe
2  Nauru 9,488 451.8 None Oceania
3  Tuvalu 10,782 414.7 Funafuti Oceania
4  Palau 21,186 46.2 Ngerulmud Oceania
5  San Marino 32,742 536.8 San Marino Europe
6  Monaco 37,308 18469.3 Monaco-Ville Europe
7  Liechtenstein 37,313 233.2 Vaduz Europe
8  Saint Kitts and Nevis 51,538 197.5 Basseterre Caribbean
9  Marshall Islands 70,983 392.2 Majuro Oceania
10  Dominica 73,449 97.8 Roseau Caribbean
11  Andorra 85,458 182.6 Andorra la Vella Europe
12  Antigua and Barbuda 91,295 206.1 St. John's Caribbean
13  Seychelles 91,650 201.4 Victoria Africa - Indian Ocean
14  Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 102,918 264.6 Kingstown Caribbean
15  Kiribati 104,488 128.8 Tarawa Oceania
16  Micronesia, Federated States of 105,681 150.5 Palikir Oceania
17  Tonga 106,440 142.5 Nukuʻalofa Oceania
18  Grenada 110,152 320.2 St. George's Caribbean
19  Saint Lucia 163,362 265.2 Castries Caribbean
20  São Tomé and Príncipe 190,428 197.5 São Tomé Africa - Atlantic Ocean
21  Samoa 196,628 69.5 Apia Oceania
22  Vanuatu 266,937 21.9 Port Vila Oceania
23  Barbados 289,680 673.7 Bridgetown Caribbean
24  Iceland 317,351 3.1 Reykjavík Europe
25  Bahamas 321,834 23.2 Nassau Atlantic Ocean
26  Belize 340,844 14.8 Belmopan North America
27  Maldives 393,595 1320.8 Malé Asia - Indian Ocean
28  Malta 412,655 1305.9 Valletta Europe - Mediterranean Sea
29  Brunei 422,675 73.3 Bandar Seri Begawan Asia
With the exceptions of Samoa, Vanuatu, Iceland, Bahamas, Belize, and Brunei, all the above have a non-sea area less than 1,000 km2 (386 sq mi).

While employing simple quantitative criteria may seem straightforward, it can also be perceived as potentially problematic. According to some scholars the quantitative approach to defining microstates suffers from such problems as "inconsistency, arbitrariness, vagueness and inability to meaningfully isolate qualitatively distinct political units"[2]

Qualitative definitions[edit]

In response to the problems associated with the quantitative definitions of microstates, some academics have suggested finding states with unique features linked to their geographic or demographic smallness.[2][10][13] Newer approaches have proposed looking at the behaviour or capacity to operate in the international arena in order to determine which states should deserve the microstate label.[13][14] Yet, it has been argued that such approaches could lead to either confusing microstates with weak states[7][10] (or failed states) or relying too much on subjective perceptions.[2]

Microstates as modern protected states[edit]

In order to address both the problems with quantitative approaches and with definitions based on qualitative features, it has been argued that a useful and meaningful way to isolate microstates from other types of states, would be to see them as "modern protected states".[2] According to the definition proposed by Dumienski (2014): "microstates are modern protected states, i.e. sovereign states that have been able to unilaterally depute certain attributes of sovereignty to larger powers in exchange for benign protection of their political and economic viability against their geographic or demographic constraints."[2] Adopting this approach permits limiting the number of microstates and separating them from both small states and autonomies or dependencies.[2] Examples of microstates understood as modern protected states include such states as Liechtenstein, San Marino, Monaco, Niue, Andorra, the Cook Islands or Palau.

Historical anomalies and aspirant states[edit]

A small number of tiny sovereign political units are founded on historical anomalies or eccentric interpretations of law. These types of states, often labelled as "microstates," are usually located on small (usually disputed) territorial enclaves, generate limited economic activity founded on tourism and philatelic and numismatic sales, and are tolerated or ignored by the nations from which they claim to have seceded.

One example is the Republic of Indian Stream, now the town of Pittsburg, New Hampshire—a geographic anomaly left unresolved by the Treaty of Paris that ended the U.S. Revolutionary War, and claimed by both the U.S. and Canada. Between 1832 and 1835, the area's residents refused to acknowledge either claimant.

Another example is the Cospaia Republic, which became independent through a treaty error and survived from 1440 to 1826. Its independence made it important in the introduction of tobacco cultivation to Italy.

Another is Couto Misto, disputed by Spain and Portugal, that operated as a sovereign state in its own right until the 1864 Treaty of Lisbon that partitioned the territory, with the largest part becoming part of Spain.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Warrington, E. (1994). "Lilliputs Revisited". Asian Journal of Public Administration, 16(1).
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Dumienski, Zbigniew (2014). "Microstates as Modern Protected States: Towards a New Definition of Micro-Statehood" (PDF). Occasional Paper. Centre for Small State Studies. Retrieved 2014-06-07. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  3. ^ Mendelson, M. (1972). "Diminutive States in the United Nations". The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 21(4), pp.609–630.
  4. ^ Mehmet, O. & Tahiroglu, M., 2002. Growth and equity in microstates: Does size matter in development? International Journal of Social Economics, 29(1/2), pp.152–162.
  5. ^ Boyce, P.J. & Herr, R.A., 2008. Microstate diplomacy in the south pacific. Australian Outlook, (April 2012), pp.37–41.
  6. ^ Reid, G.L., 1975. Impact of Very Small Size on the International Behaviour of Microstates (International Studies), SAGE Publications Ltd.
  7. ^ a b Neemia, U., 1995. Smallness, islandness and foreign policy behaviour: aspects of island microstates foreign policy behaviour with special reference to Cook Islands and Kiribati. University of Wollongong.
  8. ^ Dommen, E., 1985. States, Microstates and Islands, Routledge Kegan & Paul.
  9. ^ a b "CIA – The World Factbook – Rank Order – Population". CIA. Retrieved 2012-06-05.
  10. ^ a b c Amstrup, N., 1976. The Perennial Problem of Small States: A Survey of Research Efforts. Cooperation and Conflict, 11(2), pp. 163–182.
  11. ^ "CIA – The World Factbook – Rank Order – Area". CIA. Retrieved 2008-06-20.
  12. ^ "Demographic Yearbook—Table 3: Population by sex, rate of population increase, surface area and density" (pdf). United Nations Statistics Division. 2008. Retrieved 2011-06-12. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  13. ^ a b Neumann, I.B. & Gstöhl, S., 2004. Lilliputians in Gulliver’s World ? Small States in International Relations.
  14. ^ Oest, K.J.N. & Wivel, A., 2010. Security, profit or shadow of the past? Explaining the security strategies of microstates. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 23(3), pp. 429–453.

Further reading[edit]