Enough Space For Small States

Binod Khanda Timilsana


The international system is mainly dominated by super and middle powers in global and regional level respectively. So, small states are certainly at a disadvantage in international relations. The case of small states and landlocked countries in international arena seems similar. Such states in Africa and Asia are more vulnerable and suffer from dependency in international system. There are 42 land-locked states in the world -- 12 in Asia, 15 in Africa, two in Latin America and 13 in Europe. Among them, the African and Asian Landlocked States (LLS) are either trapped or have been forced or remain underdeveloped and dependent status. The scenario of LLS is pathetic if we observe data in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Gross National Product (GNP) and Human Development Index (HDI). The case of small states is very similar in this regard.
A large number of LLS are in developing stage whereas some of them are in developed status. For instance, almost all African and some Asian LLS are developing on one side and almost all European LLS are developed and are on the other side. We may cite Nepal and Switzerland as examples. The first is at the top in the list of developing states and the second is at the top of the developed states list. So, the position as small or landlocked is not the only cause of underdevelopment and dependency. This varies on stability of system in domestic level, foreign policy they have adopted to maintain relations in systemic level and the behaviour of neighbouring states.
The concept of smallness varies as per definition given by various scholars. Traditionally, the shortage of resources, and capabilities, comparatively weak military power, having small territory, small size economy and less population which cannot influence the international system may be associated with a small state. After WWII the world is comparatively peaceful. Military capabilities, arsenal, population and territorial volume are being less influential in comparison to the size of economy and practice, export capabilities and political strength.
There are various disadvantages of being a small state in the international system. Small states have less capability to invest in military, technology, research and industry. They are unable to field a large and diverse diplomatic workforce, which limits the skills and human resources that can be put into formulating foreign policies and taking part in negotiations. This incapability affects negotiations and cooperation opportunities. They experience high dependency on security guarantees, free trade, loan trap and international institutions.
The foreign policy of small states always seeks opportunity for free trade instead of fair trade because they are disproportionately disposed to imports. To handle their economic and security needs, they must rectify the power asymmetry between them and large states in negotiations and fill the gaps in diplomatic resources. The diplomatic squads of small states are far smaller than that of larger states -- they are less skilful due to lack of training, and less competent due to lack of experience and opportunity. The transaction costs of diplomacy are cumbersome for small states. Indeed, it hinders their engagement with other states and the formulation of comprehensive and informed foreign policies, sometimes failing to prioritise issues in the negotiation tables.
Security strategies of small states focus on neutrality. It would be easy for such states if they can show their pure neutrality and non-threat to larger states. Sometimes alliance with large states may be worthy for territorial integrity, security, economic and diplomatic aspects of small state. The international institutions such as UN are important platforms for the small states to reduce asymmetry between large states and small ones. So, small states can resolve their security concerns, strategies and protection plans through UN in the international system. International institutions also reduce the transaction costs of diplomacy for small states by bringing states, experts and interested parties to the same table. This allows small states to access information, learn the best practices, build relationships, coordinate with other states, and strike deals that they otherwise could not on a state-by-state basis due to their resource constraints.
Small states focus on their own sector of capabilities. They direct all their resources to the few affairs in which they have major stakes and leave others out. Nepal can be expected to make sufficient efforts on water resources and on the promotion of tourism. Besides, small state’s foreign policy may require a reliance on collective solidarity and the rule of law, a strict focus on limited objectives, and the adoption of creative solutions. The role of small states in various multilateral negotiations confirms that small and cohesive groups can have an important effect. For example, the Neutral and Non-Aligned countries in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) process, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in climate negotiations, and the Small and Vulnerable Economies (SVEs) group in the World Trade Organisations are faring better in the recent years. The small states may benefit from foreign policy initiatives if they could manage ‘greater degree of trade diversification to pursue a high level of foreign policy initiative’, if they promote ‘more stable domestic political condition to a higher level of foreign policy initiative’ because a regime which feels threatened by domestic challenges to their survival is less likely to pursue international engagement. Indeed, the perception of meaningful threats or possible gains of particular small states to their security and prosperity will lead to a more active foreign policy.
In terms of population, Nepal is in the 48th position in the world, and in terms of territory, it is 96th largest country. It has remained a sovereign country forever even through the colonial era. However, at present its overall influence in the international system falls under the small states. So, Nepal primarily needs to formulate its updated foreign policy and enhance its diplomatic practice as a small state in the contemporary international system. Each small state like Nepal needs to examine its domestic policy as per the dynamism of political, social, economic and diplomatic situations and configure appropriate foreign policy.
(A Ph.D. scholar on International Relations and Diplomacy at TU, Timilsana is a lecturer at Saptagandaki Multiple Campus, Chitwan)


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