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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 population or land area.

A microstate or ministate is a sovereign state having a very small population or land area, usually both. However, the meanings of "state" and "very small" are not well-defined in international law.[1] Some recent attempts to define microstates have focused on identifying qualitative features that are linked to their size and population, such as partial delegation of their sovereignty to larger states, such as for international defense.

Commonly accepted examples of microstates include Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Nauru, Palau, San Marino, and Tuvalu. The smallest political entity recognized as a sovereign state is Vatican City, with fewer than 1,000 residents and an area of only 49 hectares (120 acres). Some microstates – such as Monaco and Vatican City – are city-states consisting of a single municipality.





Most scholars identify microstates by using a quantitative threshold and applying it to either one variable (such as the size of its territory[2] or population[3]) or a composite of different variables.[4] While it is agreed that microstates are the smallest of all states, there is no consensus on what variable (or variables) or cut-off point should be used to determine which political units should be labelled as "microstates" (as opposed to small "normal" states).[1][5][6][7] 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".[5]


Vatican City, the smallest independent country in Europe with 0.44 km2 (110 acres), is also the smallest in the world

Some academics have suggested defining microstates according to the unique features that are linked to their geographic or demographic smallness.[5][8][9] 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.[9][10] Yet, it has been argued[by whom?] that such approaches could lead to either confusing microstates with weak states[6][8] (or failed states) or relying too much on subjective perceptions.[5]

An alternative approach is to define microstates as "modern protected states".[5] 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."[5] Adopting this approach permits limiting the number of microstates and separating them from both small states and autonomies or dependencies.[5] Examples of microstates understood as modern protected states include such states as Liechtenstein, San Marino, Monaco, Niue, Andorra, the Cook Islands or Palau.

The smallest political unit recognized as a sovereign state is the Vatican City, though its precise status is sometimes disputed, e.g., Maurice Mendelson argued in 1972 that "[i]n two respects it may be doubted whether the territorial entity, the Vatican City, meets the traditional criteria of statehood".[11]

St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean Sea, the smallest independent country in the Americas with 261 km2 (101 sq mi).



Statistical research has shown that microstates are more likely to be democracies than larger states. In 2012, Freedom House classified 86% of the countries with fewer than 500,000 inhabitants as "free".[12] This shows that countries with small populations often had a high degree of political freedom and civil liberties, which is one of the hallmarks of democracies. Some scholars have taken the statistical correlation between small size and democracy as a sign that smallness is beneficial to the development of a democratic political system,[13] mentioning social cohesiveness, opportunities for direct communication and homogeneity of interests as possible explanations for why this is the case.[12][14]

Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, the smallest independent country in Africa with 459 km2 (177 sq mi)

Case study research, however, has led some researchers to believe that the statistical evidence belies the anti-democratic elements of microstate politics.[12][15] Due to small populations, family and personal relations are often decisive in microstate politics. In some cases, this impedes neutral and formal decision-making and instead leads to undemocratic political activity, such as clientelism, corruption, particularism and executive dominance.[12]

The high number of democracies amongst microstates could be explained by their colonial history.[12][13] Most microstates adopted the same political system as their colonial ruler.[16] Because of the high number of microstates that were British colonies in the past, microstates often have a majoritarian and parliamentary political system similar to the Westminster system.[13] Some microstates with a history as British colony have implemented some aspects of a consensus political system, to adapt to their geographic features or societal make-up.[16] While the colonial history often determines what political systems microstates have, they do implement changes to better accommodate their specific characteristics.

Microstates and international relations


Microstates often rely on other countries in order to survive, as they have a small military capacity and a lack of resources. This had led some to believe that microstates are forced to subordinate themselves to larger states which reduces their sovereignty.[17] However, research has shown that microstates strategically engage in patron-client relationships with other countries.[18] This allows them to trade some privileges to countries that can advance their interests the most. Examples of this are microstates that establish a tax haven or sell their support in international committees in exchange for military and economic support.[17]

Historical anomalies and aspirant states


A small number of tiny sovereign political units have been founded on historic anomalies or eccentric interpretations of law. Those 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.

The Republic of Indian Stream, now the town of Pittsburg, New Hampshire, was a geographic anomaly that had been left unresolved by the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War, and was claimed by both the United States and Canada. Between 1832 and 1835, the area's residents refused to acknowledge either claimant.[19]

The Cospaia Republic became independent by a treaty error and survived from 1440 to 1826.[20] Its independence made it important in the introduction of tobacco cultivation to Italy.

Maldives in the Indian Ocean, the smallest independent country in Asia with an area of 298 km2 (115 sq mi)

Couto Misto was disputed by Spain and Portugal and operated as a sovereign state until the 1864 Treaty of Lisbon partitioned the territory, with the larger part becoming part of Spain.[21]

Jaxa was a small state that existed during the 17th century at the border between Tsardom of Russia and Qing China. Despite its location in East Asia, the state's primary language was Polish.[22]

See also



  1. ^ a b Warrington, Edward (June 1994). "Lilliput Revisited". Asian Journal of Public Administration. 16 (1): 3–13. doi:10.1080/02598272.1994.10800284.
  2. ^ Mehmet, Ozay; Tahiroglu, M. (1 January 2002). "Growth and equity in microstates: Does size matter in development?". International Journal of Social Economics. 29 (1/2): 152–162. doi:10.1108/03068290210413047.
  3. ^ Boyce, Peter J.; Herr, Richard A. (April 1974). "Microstate diplomacy in the south pacific". Australian Outlook. 28 (1): 24–35. doi:10.1080/10357717408444489.
  4. ^ Reid, George L. (1974). The impact of very small size on the international behavior of microstates. Beverly Hills, Calif: Sage Publications. ISBN 9780803904064.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Dumienski, Zbigniew (2014). Microstates as Modern Protected States: Towards a New Definition of Micro-Statehood (PDF) (Report). Occasional Paper. Centre for Small State Studies. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-07-14. Retrieved 2014-06-07.
  6. ^ 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 (Thesis). University of Wollongong. Archived from the original on 19 February 2024.
  7. ^ Dommen, E. (1985). Hein, P. (ed.). States, Microstates and Islands. London ; Dover, N.H: Routledge Kegan & Paul. ISBN 978-0-7099-0862-3.
  8. ^ a b Amstrup, Niels (June 1976). "The Perennial Problem of Small States: A Survey of Research Efforts". Cooperation and Conflict. 11 (2): 163–182. doi:10.1177/001083677601100202. ISSN 0010-8367.
  9. ^ a b Ingebritsen, Christine; Neumann, Iver; Gstöhl, Sieglinde; Beyer, Jessica, eds. (May 2006). Small States in International Relations: Lilliputians in Gulliver's World?. New directions in Scandinavian studies. Seattle : Reykjavik: University of Washington Press; University of Iceland Press. ISBN 978-0-295-98524-4. OCLC 63171147.
  10. ^ Wivel, Anders; Oest, Kajsa Ji Noe (September 2010). "Security, profit or shadow of the past? Explaining the security strategies of microstates". Cambridge Review of International Affairs. 23 (3): 429–453. doi:10.1080/09557571.2010.484047. ISSN 0955-7571.
  11. ^ Mendelson, M. H. (October 1972). "Diminutive States in the United Nations". International and Comparative Law Quarterly. 21 (4): 609–630. doi:10.1093/iclqaj/21.4.609. ISSN 0020-5893.[better source needed]
  12. ^ a b c d e Veenendaal, Wouter P. (2015). "Democracy in microstates: why smallness does not produce a democratic political system". Democratization. 22 (1): 92–112. doi:10.1080/13510347.2013.820710. ISSN 1351-0347.
  13. ^ a b c Anckar, Dag (July 2004). "Regime choices in microstates: the cultural constraint". Commonwealth & Comparative Politics. 42 (2): 206–223. doi:10.1080/1466204042000299263. ISSN 1466-2043.
  14. ^ Corbett, Jack (January 2015). ""Everybody knows everybody": practising politics in the Pacific Islands". Democratization. 22 (1): 51–72. doi:10.1080/13510347.2013.811233. hdl:10072/60226. ISSN 1351-0347.
  15. ^ Erk, Jan; Veenendaal, Wouter (July 2014). "Is Small Really Beautiful?: The Microstate Mistake". Journal of Democracy. 25 (3): 135–148. doi:10.1353/jod.2014.0054. ISSN 1086-3214.
  16. ^ a b Anckar, Dag (February 2008). "Microstate Democracy: Majority or Consensus; Diffusion or Problem-Solving?". Democratization. 15 (1): 67–85. doi:10.1080/13510340701768158. ISSN 1351-0347.
  17. ^ a b Sharman, J.C. (October 2017). "Sovereignty at the Extremes: Micro-States in World Politics". Political Studies. 65 (3): 559–575. doi:10.1177/0032321716665392. hdl:10072/353417. ISSN 0032-3217.
  18. ^ Veenendaal, Wouter P. (2017). "Analyzing the Foreign Policy of Microstates: The Relevance of the International Patron-Client Model". Foreign Policy Analysis: 561–577. doi:10.1111/fpa.12068.
  19. ^ Doan, Daniel; Daniell, Jere R.; MacDougall, Ruth Doan (1997). Indian Stream Republic: settling a New England frontier, 1785-1842. Library of New England. Jere R. Daniell, Ruth Doan MacDougall. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England. ISBN 978-0-87451-767-5. OCLC 35651345.
  20. ^ Jepson, Tim (2009). The rough guide to Tuscany & Umbria. Jonathan Buckley, Mark Ellingham, Rough Guides (7th ed.). New York: Rough Guides. ISBN 978-1-4053-8529-9. OCLC 743223039.
  21. ^ United Nations (2001-02-14). "Treaty Series 1889". United Nations Treaty Series. UN. doi:10.18356/a43b73bc-en-fr. ISBN 978-92-1-045419-3. ISSN 2412-1495. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  22. ^ Sulewski, Wojciech (1973). Konterfekty dziwnych Polaków. Iskry. OCLC 69483582.

Further reading