Will There Be a Place for Small Nations in Tomorrow’s World?

The late 20th and early 21st centuries have reverberated with major shifts in what we used to commonly refer to as the Modern World Order and have borne us ever more swiftly towards an even more modern term—that of a ‘World 2.0’. This sea-change primarily relates to a whole set of developments, notably: the collapse of the Soviet empire and the ensuing disintegration of the Warsaw block; the emergence of international corporations as powerful new actors in international relationships; a refreshed impetus for the expansion of existing political and military amalgamations; the rise of ‘Eastern tigers;’ the ensuing quest to dominate Eurasia; the increasingly blurred framework of national identities and the resulting rise of populism, of ‘America First’ and other similar notions.

This and other events unfolding at a quasi-cosmic speed have given rise to renewed debate over the role of small nations on the world stage, over their capacity to handle the current agenda and their suitability in terms of coping with global challenges. Our new multipolar world, in which large and small nations are often portrayed as enjoying cosy, good-neighbourly relations, has in fact resulted in adherence to a new ‘Concert of Europe.’ This time, however, the latter bears no resemblance to the Viennese post-Napoleonic system of international relations, but operates instead on a tremendously larger intercontinental scale.

The real roots and context of multipolarity must remain a subject for separate and more focused discussions, but what is undisputable is that every analysis of the concept applied to our world quite frequently leads to a rather depressing mastery of functionality over small nations, either condemning them to a ‘grey area’ of fluctuating international arrangements or, even worse, predicting their quick and inevitable demise. Various paragons of the ‘2.0’ world even adventurously foresee that in the rivalry between emerging ‘poles’ (when neither states nor even coalitions of states have the right to claim a seat), small states are incapable of looking after their own security and economic sustainability, not to mention contributing to efforts to reshape the new global order. That said, only a handful of truly sovereign states should remain, whilst others (and especially small states) are bound to sacrifice their own sovereignty in the name of a safer and more prosperous world.

Ethical limits for similar discussions are even more revealing when they unabashedly argue that ‘molls’ (small or insignificant players in international politics) should rush into the arms of neighbouring ‘gangsters’ (a handful of truly ‘sovereign’ poles) out of love or by coercion, in doing so assuaging concerns for the uncontrollable present. Needless to say, and besides being ruthlessly immoral, such an extreme understanding of the multipolar ‘2.0’ world fits perfectly with the narrative of revisionist states, which are avidly attempting to upend the post-1945 international security system and satisfy their narrow and neo-imperialistic whims.

When it comes to the destiny of small nations, the question is one of two worlds: beyond simply maintaining oneself on the map, one must become a distinctive and unique contributor to the global community, acting as a sui generis citizen on an equal and non-discriminatory basis. The requirement for fairness in discussions also forces us to admit that—regardless of how culturally rich, historically diverse and economically attractive they may be—the probability of small nations being able to successfully trace their own path through our dangerous modern world is practically zero unless their align, realign or somehow integrate themselves into a system of settled and intelligible global interplays and favourable exchanges. Any deviation, either willing or unwilling, from this narrow path results in condemnation as a pariah state destined to ‘exit’ the stage and perish.


Stretching to Limits: Risks and Pitfalls

It is relatively simple to opt for international or overseas reliance, but much harder and trickier to define a right balance without tilting towards either complete dependency or absurd self-determination: both options promise nothing else but self-inflicted wounds and much suffering. Some historical examples of such blunders can illustrate the depth and complexity of the choice.

The case of South Vietnam stands out as a stark precedent of a complete state of dependency that, instead of favouring the country’s chances of survival, ended up incapacitating the government and destroying the state. The ‘Strategic Hamlet Program’ was not simply a U.S. and South Vietnamese strategy to combat communism, but effectively shaped all meaningful policy in South Vietnam during the late 1950s and early 1960s. It achieved the exact opposite of its intended goal, alienating ever more Vietnamese and strengthening the influence of the Viet Cong. The Program’s failure and that of various other ‘pacification’ projects (in total, the U.S. spent nearly USD 141 billion), followed by direct American military intervention (by 1969, America had deployed over 543,000 troops), only added to the plight of South Vietnam by driving the state of affairs to new heights of unsustainability.

Both these military operations and the fact that the U.S. had essentially assumed the responsibilities of government on the ground led to the painful questions of why they were fighting this war (the key motive being the Domino Theory, according to which if a country turned to communism, so would its neighbours) and of whether their goals could be achieved by other means than intervention. On the whole, the example of South Vietnam shows that Saigon’s unconditional dependence and strongly biased unilateralism rendered it completely unable to map a course of action both domestically and internationally, ultimately causing it to collapse.      

Whereas we should of course never ignore the historical context, the Winter War of 1939-1940 between Russia and Finland is an example of relying exclusively on one’s own resources when attempting to resist the dominant might of an aggressor. Facing Soviet demands for concessions, Finland began to seek help from Sweden and various other Western allies, but practically none was forthcoming. And yet the Soviet Union, 200 million strong, found it extremely challenging to overcome 3.7 million Finns. The treaty ending the Winter War eventually forced Finland to cede 11 per cent of its territory, but the country maintained its independence and set an indelible example of a small nation standing up to an aggressive bully. That said, the consequences of the Winter War and renewed hostilities in 1944 forced Finland to finally accept harsh terms and gave birth to the new diplomatic concept of ‘Finlandization’—maintaining neutrality without antagonizing a neighbouring superpower.        


Options we could pursue…

The South Vietnamese and Finnish examples shed a brief light on the history of the failure or success (albeit limited) of small nations to maintain themselves. The realities of our world make the available options more complex and more difficult to choose and follow. The interconnections and complexity of current international volatilities force small nations to confront choices consisting of many different and simultaneously linked elements. Some resist successfully, others fail—most commonly as a result of balking, which is not the most sensible way to proceed (unless a country aspires to be a pariah)—and the rest are forced to constantly change course, rapidly and unpredictably, and sometimes for the worse.

Yet a stable system of global politics assumes that major powers should consider small countries and thereby maintain an appropriate balance on the world stage. In turn, the smaller players must also consider the interests and expectations of the ‘poles’ for the benefit of humanity, order and progress. There are a few options available, but they are hard to implement in practice. One of these options, which relies a great deal upon experience, knowledge and culture, involves a balancing act (sometimes ‘balancing softly’) that involves escaping from the pressure of one powerful state by letting another (or a group of states) rein that powerful state in. Some other states may accept to jump onto the ‘bandwagon’ of a powerful and threatening neighbour, but such a short-sighted approach simply encourages more aggression and ultimately leads to an inescapable trap.

An intermediary option, and indeed one that has stood the test of history, is responding to threats by finding allies, pooling resources and acting together. In such cases, however, small nations must properly weigh all the pros and cons when identifying effective alliances, whilst geography (i.e. distance), the prior commitments of allies and the real capacity for effective collective action under a strong leadership can all hamper well-functioning arrangements. In any case, various small nations may choose to ‘bond’: this is particularly effective when strong personal ties exist with top officials in a ‘bonded’ country, as it gives small nations a plausible means of influencing these officials and shaping their decisions in the small nation’s favour.

There are quite a few options, but as is often the case in the world of international politics, finding the right path is a never-ending process of adapting, formulating and following a strategy that could never convincingly be described as ‘grand’, but is instead quite shallow when one examines it in practical terms.


…and options Georgia must pursue 

Historically, this country has never enjoyed the comfort of being able to relax—not even for a minute. Instead, Georgia has always grappled with other powers and fought for her survival and the maintenance of her sovereign identity as a nation-state. Realistically speaking, this will always be the case: the Georgian ship of state will always have to beat her way against strong headwinds. Constantly acquiring and using the knowledge and skills she needs to maintain her dignified and well-deserved place in the world is a ceaseless effort. We have discussed many different facets of Georgian foreign policy-making in previous articles, and in fine the prerequisite for success is once again more multilateralism in trade and investment coupled with more security and defence ties with key allies.

In order to achieve the former, various legal instruments are indeed already in place (e.g. free trade and investment agreements), but these need to be regularly reviewed and upgraded as global trade develops and international business becomes more sophisticated. Geo-economic factors must also be considered, as the country can employ a definite set of tools that could be used to varying degrees in the immediate neighbourhood. As for Georgia’s security and defence ties with her allies, the country is apparently on the right track and making progress, but this progress could be stopped or suspended by disastrous developments within the Alliance unless the latter’s internal divisions are not quickly smoothed over. If the U.S. Congress were to adopt the recently introduced ‘Georgia Support Act’, for example, this would serve as a powerful decision in support of Georgia’s sovereignty and integrity—equivalent perhaps in importance to the 1940 Welles Declaration in support of the Baltic States, that refused to recognize their occupation and forceful incorporation into the Soviet Union and also served as a reference point for the American government’s 2018 Crimea Declaration.

As a parting note, it is worth remembering that abiding by strategic values while rationalizing reality is the hardest mission a small nation must face. Doing so is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘test of a first-rate intelligence, [i.e.] the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,’ but it is precisely that first-rate intelligence that we need—and we, as the small nation, certainly do need to retain the ability to function.

By Victor Kipiani                  


14 September 2018 13:40