Defining a Small State. Determinations and Distinctions Between the Notions "Small State" and "Small Power"

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2018
16 Pages


Table of Contents


1. Introduction

2. Theoretical overview

3. Defining the notion of small state

4. Small, great and super power state


Literature Review


The existing literature in the field of international relations gives different definitions of the term small states. Furthermore, there are authors who believe that it is not possible to define this notion because it has only meaning in a comparative analysis between two and more states. However, we consider that the definition of this term is both, possible and desirable, in order to serve as a tool in the science of international relations. Our basic remark in the previous theoretical work of the authors dealing with this issue is the fact that in most of the cases where they try to define the term "small state", they start from the wrong assumption that this notion (always) is the same with the notion "small power" and virtually do not distinguish between the two terms. This is exactly the basic task and goal of this paper, on one hand, to impose the need to define this term but also to suggest the manner of defining the term "small state" as well as to make and explain the difference with the term "small power" on the other hand.

Key Words: small state, big state, a small power, great power, superpower

1. Introduction

The international relations theory often operates with notions such as small / big state, small / great power, etc. In order this terms to be used as appropriate analytical tools, numerous authors have been trying and trying to define them. In most of these definitions they start from the wrong assumption that a small state is an identical term with a small power state. It is precisely the first part of this paper that deals with the so far work of numerous authors who worked on the topic. Although their contribution is indisputable in this specific issues, however, we believe that a clear distinction must be made between the above-mentioned terms although they may in certain cases be identical but also in a large part of the cases are not.

It is the second part of this paper that deals with this question in which we provide the two variables based on which the term small / big state can be defined in the modern international system. In order to solve the problem, we use primarily the legislative (legal) concept of defining a state under international public law. This especially applies in the attempt to define and delineate the term small / big state.

In the further work, more precisely in the third part of this paper, the concept of power is analyzed for the purpose of determining and distinguishing the various types of powers that exist in the international system like a state without power, a small power state, great power state, and finally a state super power. The previous is also analyzed from the perspective of the numerous variables that can define a particular state as more or less powerful, which can be completely independent of the fact whether the state is small or big according to our proposed definition. As the sublimate of the previous, clear contours are given for defining the terms of small / great power and their clear distinction from the notions of small / great force.

2. Theoretical overview

There are many attempts and different definitions trying to frame the term small state. For the very beginning, we can use the definitions that frame the small states in an opposite way. Instead of saying, what a small state is, we can say what small state is not. So, small states are not great powers and are simply regarded as all of those states that are not great powers. Although very broad, this kind of approach can be very helpful to start from, since more or less there is clear perception in regards of who the great powers are. In other words, the great powers are those which are capable of making difference in the international order and changing the rules of it, so the small states ate the opposite of this i.e. are those states that not capable to change the rules and make any difference in the international order (Archer, Bailes and Wivel, 2014). However, we must note there is also a longstanding debate about precise conceptualization of the great powers (see Organiski 1958, Modelski, 1974, Waltz, 1979 or Mansfield, 1993). According to Levy great powers are the states that play a major role in the international politics in security related issues. “Military power is, albeit important, not their sole defining characteristic. Great powers set themselves apart trough their continental/global rather than local/regional interests, their capability to project military power beyond their borders, their willingness to defend their interests more aggressively, their disproportionate engagement in alliance and wars, other powers perceiving them as great power, and through their identification as a great power by an international congress, organization or treaty. (Levy, 1983, p.10-19). According to Fox, while great powers exert their influence over wide areas small powers are almost by definition 'local' powers whose demands are restricted to their own areas, (Fox, 1959). However, as previously said, it is much easier to locate the great powers as in different international system the science already detected them. For example in the international system before WWI there were six great powers, in the system after WWII there were two super powers, in the system after the cold war there is one super power.1

Some other authors are trying to give some more precise definition of the small states although, according to our opinion, what they do actually is combining the previous two explained interdepended variables i.e. (1) the small states are all those stats that are not great powers and (2) this is because the small states are not capable of changing the rules and making difference in the international order. So the small states are those which are not capable to make difference in the international order and in the same time this is why they are small state. In this direction, goes Thorhallsson and Wivel according to whom should the great powers change their policy this would affect the conditions for policy making on the small states (Thorhallsson and Wivel, 2006). On the similar stand is Mouritizen according to whom the small state has to adapt to the changes that great powers bring about in the state system. (Mouritzen, 1996). Practically the small states are those that must adapt the changed rules on the international order imposed by the great powers because they are no capable to make any difference on the international system according to their own national interests. In this regards is also Jaquet, according to whom a small state can be defined as a state that is not able to impose its political or national interests by exerting power politics on global and regional scale (Jaquet, 1971). Vaicekauskaite suggests that the weaknesses of the small states is attribute to a quantitative characteristics like small size territory population, economy and very limited military capabilities. According to her, the small state are unable to defend its national interests by its own political or military means (Vaicekauskaite, 2017). On the similar position is Vandenbosch according to whom the small states are the consumers rather than producers of security (Army, 1964). Again it goes the same logic, the small states are those that can not make any difference in the international system not even defend their national interest by its own political or military means and this is why they are defined as small.

On the other hand, Keohan gives another dimension to the definition of the small states. Namely, he argues that small states elites does not expect to make an impact acting alone or in small group in terms of security capability and this is why define them as small state. (Keohane, 1969). Although not very different from the previous mentioned variables here, the accent is on the subjective element. I.e. the state elites ,do not expect” to make impact in the international system. Furthermore, the political elites uses this believe to justify same policy. Very similar view has been expressed by Rothstein who argues that small powers are states which “recognize that they’re not capable of obtaining security without relying on other states, institutions or resources but this inability to relay on their own capabilities mast also be recognized by other states.” (Rothstein, 1969, p. 29). However, he also includes the element of objectivism by saying that this perception of the small states as unable must also a perceptions of the other stats about them. In this context, Wiberg argues that nearly every state in the word is a small state from security perspective. (Wiberg 1996).

Some other authors are emphasizing the element of the relation between states as key in defining small states. Namely, according to them, the small state have this characteristic of been a weaker party in asymmetric relationship and unable to change the nature of function this kind of relationship (Archer, Bailes and Wivel, 2014). Or small state is a state which is unable to contend in war with the treat powers on anything like the equal terms. (Vandenbosch, 1964). In this regards is also Bjol according to whom, by itself the concept of small state means nothing. A state is only small in relation to a greater one. Belgium may be a small state in relation to France, but Luxembourg is a small state in relation to Belgium, and France is a small state in relation to the United States. (Bjol, 1971, p.29). The position and relative security of any weak state must be gauged in terms ofthe specific international system in which it is operating. Even at the same period of history, weak states located in different areas have different neighbors and thus face different problems. . . . Not Russia but the Arab states are the greatest danger to Israel (and vice versa). For India it was Pakistan rather than China. . Therefore, when speaking of the ability or inability of a weak state to defend itself, one must immediately ask, 'Against whom?'" (Handel, 1981,p.37). As for these definitions, one can conclude that defining the small states is only possible in specific and concrete relations between two states or at beast, group of states. This can be useful in detecting the small state in concrete relations between two states but not in defining the term small state in general. For example, indisputably, Czechoslovakia was the small state (according to the previous definitions) in the relation with Nazi Germany before the WWII, but in general, terms, in the same time there were other European states smaller states of Czechoslovakia too. So here, it would be wise to use the term “smaller” or “much smaller” instead of “small” since this previous definition operates in bilateral relations only.

Although in same direction, we consider the definition of Knudsen, much more accurate. According to him the relations, not size, are the decisive factors which can help defining smallness under current conditions. (Knudsen, 1996). We must note that he speaks about “relations” instead of relation i.e. bilateral relation like previous definition. For example, it was the relations between two great empires Nazi Germany, USSR with themselves and with Poland, which made Poland small states in these particular conditions. Theoretically, if there was no agreement between these two great powers for division of Poland, the things would have been different for Poland. Jurkynas, make especially good point according to whom the historical or geographical context is also very important especially if they determine the asymmetric relations (Jurkynas, 2014). The previous makes sense since history is often used to justify current actions of states and we can only imagine the relations between Nazi Germany, Poland and USSR if Poland was theoretically not located geography between this two great powers bus somewhere far from them.

It is interesting that some other authors consider the definition of a small state irrelevant or impossible with no value as analytical tool simply because so many states full under this common denominator of a small state (Baehr, 1975), or according to authors like Baker Fox and David Vital strict definition is unnecessary or irrelevant. According to Vaicekauskaitė, there is no common definition of a small states because this term is defined both by its power relationship to its environment and quantitative factors which determine the challenges, imitations and abilities od a small states the make influence or make security policy choice independently (Vaicekauskaitė, 2017).

3. Defining the notion of small state

Having on mind all the previous definitions we here come to our view on the terms small state and small power. We argue that very often and most of the previous decisions are making mistake because they are starting from the wrong assumption that small state and small power is the same. Therefore, we here suggest approach that makes clear difference between the two terms and we are explaining what this difference is. To do this we will use the legislative concept in defining a state by the international public law. Namely each state (regardless is it big or small, powerful or not, developed or in development and so on) has four characteristics. It has to have its own territory (the size of the territory is irrelevant), its own population (aging the size it’s irrelevant), government (that is capable to issues and enforces rules for the people living within its territory) and finally to be in control its external affairs (Marolov, 2019). We will use the first two characteristics as variables to define a small or big state i.e. territory and population, while the other two characteristics are obviously related to the concept of power. So, small state is any state that has small territory and population. Now, the exact parameters of what can be consider as a small territory and population must be agreed on same international conference.2 Saying that small population would be less than 10 million people is a good start. The same goes with the territory. We simply suggest that this is less than 200.000 km2. Again this is more or less arbitrarily serving in the context of our point here. So, once we determine what can be consider as small population and territory on global level, we have the definition of a small states, further more it is very important to note that this can be applicable only in the modern international system and not in all international system through the history since each of the international systems has its own specifics and the importance the two variables had different value with in. Illustrative enough less the fact the world population was much smaller trough the history, a fact that can influents the variable of population. In any case, of course tings cannot be solved so easily.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

As we can see from the illustration no.1 all the states below the 10.000.000 population and 200.000 km2 territory are all in the group of small states. However, there can be different cases. For example, the state A can have territory of 250.00 km2 and population of 7.000.000 million. In this case, we can simply conclude that the state A should be consider big state according to territory but small according to the population. For example Kingdom of Denmark3 is quite big in territory around 2,220,930km2 but quite small in population i.e. around 6 million. Furthermore, from this provisional illustration can been also concluded that for despite the fact that in this why we can divide the states as small and big ones, there can be different variations inside this two big groups depending from the territory and population. For example we can see that the blue line can go really up and the red down at some point, meaning some big states can be very big in population but not so in territory. Of course this is not static, one state can be consider big but become small in terms of population or territory (with dissolution or unification for example) or on the other hand a small states in terms of population can become big state over time. Of course there can be states in the middle (near the round curlicue on the illustration). For example state C can have 10.500.00 population and 200.000 km2 territory. Having on mind the legalistic approach we consider that this state should be consider as a big state solving this in the same manner as a person with 18 years and 6 months old is no longer consider minor in the national legislative in most of the countries.


1 According to us, there is difference between great power and super power. for more see bellow

2 Similar as the example of the International Statistic Conference from 1987 where it was agreed that big cities are those having more then 100.000 citizens

3 including the island of Greenland

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Defining a Small State. Determinations and Distinctions Between the Notions "Small State" and "Small Power"
University Goce Delchev
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defining, small, state, determinations, distinctions, between, notions, power
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Dejan Marolov (Author), 2018, Defining a Small State. Determinations and Distinctions Between the Notions "Small State" and "Small Power", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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