Is Smaller Better? I Don’t Know, But This Year I’m Thankful for Small States in Global Politics

The roll call most of the way through the final vote on the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty in the UN General Assembly, July 7, 2017.

Denmark does not matter.

Kenneth Waltz*

Mainstream (i.e. American) International Relations (IR) theory has long neglected the role of small states in global politics. The above quip from the grand-daddy of contemporary IR theory is typical of the dismissive attitude many IR scholars adopt towards smaller countries. As a general rule, IR as a discipline focuses much more on the Chinas, Pakistans, and Germanys of the world than the Chads, Palaus, and Guyanas. Slowly, however, awareness is growing among IR theorists that all states matter. In their own ways, realists, liberals, and constructivists are all beginning to look past the “great powers” to identify the important roles small states play in shaping and sustaining global politics.

In 2020, small states received a fair amount of media attention for their better handling of the Covid pandemic than large states. Indeed, an analysis of a dataset of coronavirus cases** confirms that there is a negative relationship between Covid deaths per capita and total population size: visualization here. (Note that the relationship is actually stronger than the trendline suggests, because the y-axis is logarithmic.) In other words, it’s easier to control an infectious disease in a small population compared to a larger one, even when taking into account the more limited financial and technical resources of small states (probably because state capacity increases linearly while diseases spread exponentially).

Despite this being a 2020 end-of-the-year post, however, the pandemic is not what I want to focus on. A more profound reason why small states matter in global politics is that sometimes their very insignificance allows them to speak truth to power far better than bigger states which may have more to lose. Much as medieval jesters may have counted on their very lack of power to safely needle the king, so too do small states sometimes take moral stances that the great powers claim realpolitik prevents them from entertaining.

2020 provided us with several examples of small states speaking truth to power:

As I prepare to teach Introduction to Comparative Politics to Baylor undergraduates in just a few weeks, I’ll be thinking about how I can get my students to appreciate what small states can offer us when studying comparative politics!

* Quoted in: Cox, RW (1992), “Towards a post-hegemonic conceptualisation of world order: reflections on therelevancy of Ibn Khaldun,” in JN Rosenau & C Ernst-Otto (eds.), Governance without Government: Order and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 143.

** The data is downloadable here. I used the figures from Jan. 2nd, 2021. A simple Python script is available upon request.