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Strategies of modern-day small states

Published on 06 January 2022
Updated on 05 April 2024
Diplo Wisdom Circle

A general, yet to a certain extent incorrect, feeling in international relations is that smaller states are weaker than large or medium-sized states. 

Many factors shed light on this school of thought, including the fact that larger states often have the means and methods of investing more time and resources in their quest to strategise their way into relevance, and becoming strong and influential international players. However, an international system dominated by larger states also compels smaller states to devise craftier ways of gaining relevance in international affairs through non-traditional foreign and security policies and, in many cases, this has proven to be extremely effective. 

Soft power and the Al Jazeera effect

One of the main tools which small states tend to use to turn their smallness into a strength rather than a weakness is soft power.

Joseph Nye pioneered the study of soft power which he described as ‘the ability to appeal to and persuade others using the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies’. This ability, which advocates cooperation rather than coercion in interstate relations, is extremely effective for a small state, to the extent that it allows such states to develop a solid reputation and credibility in a particular area of interest and become globally relevant; a process in which the state’s smallness is turned into a strength, as it increases the likelihood of other states trusting it and not perceiving it as a threat.  

In this manner, smaller states can develop state-branding strategies which allow them to gain relevance in the international system in certain key areas. 

Another example is what is commonly known as the ‘Al Jazeera effect’ of Qatar. As Kevin Ponniah noted in 2017, ‘Qatar’s Al Jazeera media network has undoubtedly put the small Gulf state on the international map in an extremely effective manner’. This crafty method of gaining a very strong voice in the international sphere, has proven to be an asset for the small, yet powerful, state.

Regional and international alliances

Finally, small states also use regional and international alliances to set their foothold in international debates. Small states use these forums to voice their opinion on vital issues such as climate change, economic development, security, and to continue combatting the general idea (which is often projected by large states) that small states are not relevant, weak, or tend to neutralise themselves. 

Regional alliances, such as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have become highly influential players not only in their respective regions, but also in many international forums. 

To obtain relevance and a strong voice in the international community, small states must work harder. That is a fact. However, previous experiences have clearly shown that this is obtainable if innovative strategies are adopted and sustained.

Alfred Tabone is a Maltese diplomat currently working in commercial diplomacy. He has recently completed Diplo’s online course Diplomacy of Small States.

Browse through our alumni blog posts at Diplo Alumni Blog

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