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Small States foreign Policy: Challenges and Opportunities

‌By : Mohamad Mosa Ahmadzai

Small states are those entities which are intrinsically small in size, population, face acute shortage of natural resources and have weak economic capabilities. The forum of small states (FOSS) a voluntary and informal grouping at the UN defines small states as those with population of fewer than 10 million. (FOSS) was established in 1994 in New York upon the initiative of Singapore and currently it has 105 members from the 1993 members’ states of the world organization. The reason behind the creation of (FOSS) was that the small states can feel that if they cooperate more closely with each other they can have a real influence in world affairs. Half of the members of the United Nations are small states; the UN provided a fora for small states to exercise their role in international arena, while better economies, large population, abundant natural resources, large size and strong military are needed by states to play a greater role in international relations. Developed, underdeveloped, resource rich, resource scarce, islands and landlocked states are included in the unofficial category of small states. Size is a matter in international relations, states with big size have more resources and are mostly dependent on its own natural resources but small states are dependent on large states for their own survival, terroritory is an important element of state without which we cannot imagine the existence of state, Shortage of resources and economies determine the power and influence of a state.  Small states to exercise influence in international relations they must be economically and politically resilient, this resilience is adaptive and policy making in order to overcome the vulnerability of their size, Qatar is a good example while it has more influence in international relations due to its active diplomacy, rich natural resources. The emergence of Qatar as an influential powerbroker in the Middle East and beyond over the past decade has puzzled students and observers of the region alike. How can a small state, with little previous history of diplomatic engagement regionally or globally, have emerged as such an influential and significant player in shaping unfolding events across the Middle East and elsewhere?   

Smaller European Union member states face size-related challenges in the EU multilevel system, such as weighted voting in day-to-day policymaking in which EU secondary law is produced or high workloads and fewer resources during intergovernmental conferences (IGC) to set EU primary law. Coping with these challenges is paramount to smaller states’ success. Thus, they can use different strategies, most notably selective engagement and negotiation strategies that do not require much material power, such as persuasion, framing, and coalition-building, as well as the Council Presidency as a window of opportunity to influence the agenda. Applying these strategies allows small states to punch above their weight. Yet, doing so is easier the longer states have been members of the EU. Older, smaller states have more extensive networks, more insights about past policies, and in-depth knowledge on best practices that help them in effectively navigating day-to-day EU negotiations.

Small states are always prone to foreign invasions, threats, interferences and need to make to upgrade their economic capabilities. Here strong military is needed but a small state does not have strong military capabilities so it has to make alliances with large states for their survival and protection. Small states are left only to the mercy of large states. Large states always misuse the needs and vulnerabilities of small states and threaten small states. Thanks to multilateralism and the transnational organization for striking a balance in the relations between small and large states. No state can threaten or invade another state sans the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.  Therefore states are bound to obey the rules of internationalism. Small states adopt different foreign policies for achieving their favorable policy outcomes than large states. So they show preference for multilateral organizations for reducing the power gap between states and impose constraints on large states. According to scholars small states use multilateralism both as a path to influence and as a means to constrain large states. Security polices of small states are influenced by both internal and external conditions while large states are not mostly influenced by external conditions. Small states are military weak due to the constraints of small population and economies. Military weaknesses leave small states to foreign coercion. The main reason for that could be that small states do not invest in military technology, do not upgrade their military capabilities and maintain military campaigns for short period of time. Weak economies also limit economic negotiations of small states and therefore they cannot attract to make trade partners. Small states follow different security strategies, they can either remain neutral or join alliances or they show preference for balance. Rather than to rely on their counterparts, small states rely on multinational organizations from which they can benefit the most. These include the gathering, analysis of, and dissemination of data; forum for exchanges of views and decision-making; the defining of norms; the creation of rules; the monitoring and enforcing of rules; the settling of disputes; and the allocation of resources, provision of assistance. Multilateralism has paved the way for small states to exercise their influence in international relations. In the age of globalization and the growing interconnectedness of the world economic cooperation has become more important and countries need to come together and address the common challenges the world faced with.  Globalization influences with no doubt big and small states, developed and developing states with an impact which is positive for some states in some aspects and areas but negative and difficult for some other states which makes globalization be considered uneven, because of the different reach and effect in various parts of the world; Small states are able to work with and more quickly respond to international issues than large states due to their simple policy making processes and fewer internal and international constraints. Small states are attracted to the notions of legitimacy and the rule of law. They recognize the valuable role that multilateral diplomacy plays in enhancing their engagement and amplifying their voices on regional or global issues, small states .tendency toward international cooperation and obeying the rule of international law and their flexible diplomacy make them efficient international players and this is due to their active diplomacy which make them to engage in international cooperation with other states. A small population and a small economy set limits on the military and diplomatic resources of small states. Small states rely on international organizations for defense and diplomatic support and small state become important and influential actors in international relations. The major dilemma small states are facing with is their inability to protect themselves either economically or militarily against stronger powers encroachments. According to The cuddies, the strong do what they will while the weak suffer what they must. Small states are rarely in the focus of international media attention and there is lack of research aimed at e understanding the way they are conducting their foreign relations. Enough research is needed for states to conduct their affairs in international relations. Small states have lack of recognition and visibility by foreign public so they have to struggle to gain international attention while large states have more audiences, large number of notions and the pictures associated to them by foreign public. Small states are unpopular in the comity of nations but there are states which are small but rich and developed and they are exercising more influence in international relations.


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2_ Babak Mohammadzadeh, Status and Foreign Policy Change in Small States: Qatar’s Emergence in Perspective, THE INTERNATIONAL SPECTATOR 2017,VOL. 52, NO. 2, 19,36,2017.

3_ Baldur Thorhallsson, Studying small states: A review, Small States & Territories, Vol. 1, No. 1, Islands and Small States Institute, University of Malta, Malta, 2018.

4_  Baldur Thorhallsson, Sverrir Steinsson, Small State Foreign Policy, From The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics (Oxford University Press), researchgate,2017,https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313769977_Small_State_Foreign_Policy

5_ István Lakatos, The Potential Role of Small States and their „NicheDiplomacy” at the UN and in the Field of Human Rights, with Special Attention to Montenegro, Pécs Journal of International and European Law – 2017/I,

6_ Macklin Scheldrup, Lilliputian Choice: Explaining Small State Foreign Policy Variation, Undergraduate Honors Theses,University of Colorado, Boulder CU Scholar, Spring 2014.

7_  Maria Nilaus Tarp and Jens Ole Bach Hansen,Size and Influence How small states influence policy making in multilateral arenas,DIIS Working Paper 2013: :11, Danish Institute for International Studies(DIIS), Copenhagen, Denmark, 2013.

8_ Peya Mushelenga and Jo-Ansie Van Wyk, THE DIPLOMACY OF SMALL STATES IN THE INTERNATIONAL POLITICAL SYSTEM,University of Namibia, Journal for Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences, Volume 6, Number 2, 2017 – ISSN 2026-7215 .

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