Kishan S Rana

Former Indian ambassador
Senior Fellow, DiploFoundation
Professor Emeritus, Foreign Service Institute, New Delhi

The Case for Small States

Is diplomacy a luxury for small states? Do they have the capacity to function effectively in the international system? Is it worthwhile for them to spend money to run a wide network of embassies abroad? How many embassies does a typical small country, say of one million people, need? Is there an optimal way that a small country can operate in world politics to its best advantage?

There must be different answers to such questions, depending on the country one has in mind. Yet, there are similarities in the situation of small states that merit close analysis. Without producing a simple template such examination helps us identify commonalities, and the kind of issues that are of special concern to countries that belong to this cluster.

A recent report of the Danish Foreign Ministry speaks of "the risk for small nations being forgotten or sidelined".[1] If that is the perception of a wealthy European country of 4.5 million people, how much more acute is that issue for a small developing state, with slender material and human resources, facing daunting economic and social challenges?

Singapore, a city-island-state of 4.5 million defiantly asserts: "size is not destiny".[2] But the leitmotif of Singapore´s external relations is a profound sense of vulnerability. Hemmed in by its two large neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia, it works constantly to create and enlarge political espace for itself. Its feisty diplomatic style is not for everyone, predicated as it is on the self-confidence that comes from a strong will, amplified by its spectacular economic success, and its location on the collective ASEAN platform, arguably the most successful regional grouping after the European Union. Singapore also proves that astute diplomacy becomes a powerful instrument provided one sets clear, realistic external policy goals.


How do we define small states? The 1985 Commonwealth report, Vulnerability: Small States in the Global Society applied a cut-off figure of one million or less as the criterion for a small state; this was later revised to one-and-half million. The World Bank uses this definition, and 45 countries fall into the category. On the other hand, a "Forum of Small States" (FOSS) established at the UN in New York by Singapore (which chairs the several meetings held each year by this group), defines small as countries with a population of under 10 million. 93 countries are members of this group. Another contemporary term "micro-states" is used sometimes to cover countries with a population of under 0.5 million. One study reserves the title of micro states for those with a population of under 1.5 million, provided they do not have a high level of economic development.[3]

Several criteria could be considered to define a small state.

We should consider these points, to move towards a better definition of small states, though there will always exist some ambiguity, and the concept remains one of relative size, sometimes in relation to the country´s neighbors. One way of looking at the issue is to treat a country as small, if that is the appellation it applies to itself.

Political and Security Concerns

For the great part, small states stick to issues of direct concern in their international relations, but some pursue wider political concerns. At times, they become embroiled in global issues because one or more powers wants their UN vote, as has happened in the South Pacific, thanks to competition between China and Taiwan for diplomatic recognition.[4] In the 1960s the UN considered moves to establish "associate" rather than full membership for the very small states, but this floundered on the notion that a basic principle of the UN was the sovereign equality of all states. This has led to situations such as the admission in 2000 of Tuvalu, with a population of 11,000 as a full member.[5]

Small states have security concerns that flow from their limited size, and a sense of vulnerability, as mentioned above. But the extent to which this affects their international behavior depends on their context and their worldview. Some small states, such as Mauritius, a middle income country of 1.2 million, do not have any armed forces, while other smaller states invest sizable resources in national defense.[6]

The security threat that small states perceives has the usual dimensions. At the political level, this is a function of relations with neighbors; large neighbors are viewed with special caution, often distrust. Large neighbors have their task cut out in establishing an effective neighborhood diplomacy. Consider, for instance, pairs such as US-Mexico, Russia-Poland, India-Nepal, of China-Vietnam (it is the relative size difference that counts, not absolute size). Economics also shapes security concerns; countries that have viewed themselves as victims of their colonial past, and of exploitation by neighbors and other states and transnational enterprises often do not manage to take advantage of globalization, while those that practice flexible policies tend to do much better.[7] For instance, up to the early 1990s, the textile preferences extended by the EU to some 70 countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific were exploited in remarkably unbalanced fashion; the island of Mauritius accounted for nearly 90% of the EU imports under this provision; the other countries had simply not got their act together. Culture shapes security in a special way; some small states apprehend immersion under the cultural or linguistic onslaught of neighbors or great powers. Potential conflict over differences or religion is another source of insecurity (consider, for instance, Greece´s dispute with Macedonia over the formal name of this state that was formerly part of Yugoslavia). Demography may also be an issue, in terms of ethnicity and pressure of illegal migrants. The list of sources of insecurity is endless, and grows continually. We must regard climate security as a special problem, because the bulk of small states are highly vulnerable to the rising level of the oceans that is predicted to occur over the coming decades; this is bound to become a burning concern with these states.

Diplomatic networks

Some small states maintain fairly extensive diplomatic networks, often to the very limit of affordability. If we look to neighboring countries of similar size, with a comparable resource endowment, we find that they have very different kinds of overseas networks. For instance, Namibia has about 20 embassies abroad, while its immediate neighbor Botswana, comparable in size, population, and per capita GDP, has barely 12. In one study, 37 states with under 1.5 million people were found to maintain an average of just 7 resident missions abroad (Mohamed 2002, 16-8). What determines the size of these networks?

The simple answer is that countries see themselves in distinct, unique ways. In the example given above, Namibia which came into existence in 1991, a product of a protracted liberation struggle, some of which was waged in the international arena, especially with the help of the UN; in consequence it perceives itself connected to these countries, resulting in a larger than usual network. Exactly as with other countries, small states have specific concerns that shape their diplomacy. We can identify some generic factors.

In the future, it is possible that the size of diplomatic networks maintained by countries, large and small, may shrink, owing to tighter application of public funding limits, and public demands for cost-effectiveness. While this is not as yet an established trend, several countries have shrunk the size of their embassies, shifting some work to back-offices at home, and using locally engaged staff in more intensive fashion, in executive roles.[10] For small countries another dilemma is to determine the minimal viable size of its embassy; some fear that if it is too small, it may not be able to perform, or senior ambassadors insist on a minimum level of support staff. And yet, the large diplomatic networks operate micro-embassies that perform rather well; UK even has one-man missions, where one home-based official works with small numbers of locally engaged staff, who are given executive functions, and even a limited amount of political work. Cuba has devised a special method: it mainly sends to its embassies husband-and-wife teams; even of one spouse has not worked earlier in the foreign ministry, this person is trained to take on support functions, often administration work. Denmark tried out another way in 2005, placing its Ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union, unsupported by any other staff, within the Swedish Embassy, working with his laptop out of a single room.

We can count on more innovation in the years ahead, as small states try to reconcile the needs of representation abroad with limited resources.

One area for experimentation is in the cost-effective options to resident embassies. Concurrent accreditation is the old and tried method, but if one ambassador is burdened with more than say two or three such tasks, the chances are that he and his team may do justice to none of them. The better alternative is the non-resident ambassador, who also handles relationships with the assigned country from a distance, but from the home capital. Besides the Scandinavians, Singapore has used this to great effect, as has Malta; it has the side benefit of giving the foreign ministry access to non-official advice, in effect providing a public-private partnership.[11] Croatia has followed the lead of Finland, to establish miniscule embassies headed by a chargé d´affaires, with the ambassador living in the home capital, traveling to the assigned country a few times in the year. Joint embassies are used by the Caribbean group OCES, but no one else seems to have put this into effect. The other practical device is to appoint a number of honorary consuls, and leave it to them to fly the flag; a practical difficulty that small states face in selecting the right kind of persons for such appointments, since many that seek these are social climbers, unwilling to contribute anything substantial. Another option, which can be pursued jointly with others, is to establish small trade and tourism offices at places of economic interest, manned entirely by local staff; this is much cheaper than resident diplomatic missions. Small states have often been conservative in using such alternate forms of representation.

Small State Diplomacy

The diplomacy pursued by small states can be classified in several ways. Before taking that up we might consider some characteristics that typify these countries.

First, they tend to be upholders of the rule of law, and strong advocates of both the UN system and international cooperation. Usually lacking military strength, or an ability to project power vis-á-vis other states, it is the smooth functioning of the international system that is their security safeguard. It is not by accident that several of them have led in the development of international law (Malta and Singapore in relation to the Law of the Sea, Trinidad and Tobago in relation to the International Criminal Court). Second, they have a natural proclivity towards regional cooperation. The Caribbean group Caricom, consisting of 16 states, is an advanced regional cooperation mechanism. The Pacific Islands Forum is comparable in its small states membership; in this particular case, larger states of the region are the leading members, serving as the principal donors, i.e. Australia and New Zealand. ECOWAS in West Africa, began with initial focus on economic cooperation, but in recent years it has transformed itself into an instrument of regional peacekeeping, demonstrating fine adaptability. Third, the first driver for regional cooperation is economics (in the shape of market sharing, mutual tariff adjustments and free trade agreements, plus economies in communication and transport networks); the second driver, often implicit, is the indirect security that the group provides. Both these dimensions are important; they lead to the establishment of political cooperation. Fourth, small states attach the highest priority to multilateral diplomacy, in part because it makes sense to work within the large framework that the UN and its agencies, and partly because their missions in New York (and to a lesser extent those in Brussels and Geneva) also serve as a base for bilateral contact. While this method is not as efficacious as maintaining bilateral contact with foreign countries through a string of resident embassies, the high cost involved usually rules out maintaining more than a handful of essential bilateral embassies abroad. Fifth, they usually do not develop very well their economic diplomacy. Is this mainly due to a lack of capacity (Mohamed, 2002, 34-5), or inadequate training and organization of work? The author believes the latter is a major factor. For instance, it should be of value to small states to brainstorm on the ways a small embassy can optimize its working, and produce a bigger bang-for-the-buck.[12]

Let us turn to small state typology. In a celebrated 1998lecture, Prof. Alan Henrikson analyzed small state diplomacy as corresponding to three pairs of conceptual approaches to the external world.

The Henrikson schema offers important concepts, but it can be supplemented with other ideas. On an empirical analysis, the diplomacy pursed by different small states shows that several distinct principles or concepts frequently co-exist, in varying degrees. The actual policy mix adopted by specific countries is usually a blend of several factors. This is examined below.

One. Disengagement: In varying ways, some small states minimize, or deliberately restrict, their external contacts, in a way that seems to fly in the face of our globalized and inter-connected world. Bhutan, Myanmar, and North Korea, and the very small island states, exhibit this in their own particular ways, for varying reasons; Mongolia used to pursue such a policy in the past, but is less reclusive after the end of the Cold War. Such states reduce their external dependence, even at the cost of loss of economic opportunity. For instance, since the 1960s, long before the current human rights imbroglio Burma/Myanmar chose to stay away from the Non-Aligned Movement, on the premise that even that identification represented a deviation from its strict political neutrality. Bhutan restricts external contact on the argument that an influx of foreign visitors and other contacts would erode its distinct cultural personality.

Two. Low key: Another option is to keep a low profile without becoming reclusive. Many small states pursue this, seeking neither special favor from others, nor a sharp stance on any issue, unless vital national interests are at stake. One feature in such policy is to avoid the limelight on international issues, and always stick to the mainstream of opinion, be it at the UN General Assembly or elsewhere. Countries fully committed to such policy usually do not seek membership of the UN Security Council, since that would expose them to major power pressures on issues far removed from their immediate interests.

Three: Regionalism: This becomes an easy and productive conduit for active diplomacy, within the comfort zone of one´s regional group. It is also a low-risk option, and as noted above, offers a number of tangible advantages, including political security. Several Caribbean countries have been the prime movers in their organization Caricom, and the related Caribbean Single Market, CEMA. In West Africa, Gabon has played a prominent role in regional peacemaking initiatives. But we should note that some small states, even when they have the resources and wealth, plus established membership of a proactive regional group, they choose to avoid the limelight; Brunei is a case in point (we might distinguish Brunei from ASEAN´s more recent small state members, e.g. Cambodia and Laos, who might be building their capacity and confidence, before participating more actively in this regional group).

Four: World Stage Preening: A different way for a small state to actively engage the world community is to make itself "attractive and relevant" to the world, using the words of one scholar.[13] This proposition is implemented in different ways. Several Caribbean states, and others such as Luxembourg, chose offshore banking as their USP, offering secure, confidential banking services to the global rich; recent concerns over money-laundering and terrorism funding have taken the sheen off this activity, but it remains an effective way for these small countries to connect with the world. Maldives, with a population of barely 400,000, inhabiting several hundred low-lying islands and atolls, presents itself as an extraordinary holiday destination; its slogan "The Sunny Side of Life" sums up its approach. Examined closely, we find that these countries mainly concentrate on making themselves "attractive"; "relevance" is implicit; tranquility is also built into that value proposition. Norway seeks relevance in a more explicit manner ( it even contracted a UK thinktank in 2002-03 for a complete strategy, focused on international peacemaking and an image that featured wholesome adventure as well. Singapore takes advantage of its geographic location to offer itself as the regional base to multinational entities, and that in turn helps it to overcome its sense of geopolitical vulnerability.[14] Another option: a country may take a lead in a regional organization, as in the case of Mauritius, when became the headquarters of the putative group IOC-ARC, aimed at stronger regional cooperation among the Indian Ocean rim countries; it is another matter that the group has not taken off.

Five: Niche specialization: This entails developing a chosen niche, such as an expertise area; to work, it must fill out a real need in world affairs. This involves the identification of an area that responds to the interests the country, or matches its natural and other resources, or its cultural or other attributes. Or it may simply involve a choice made after cool reflection, calculating what may appeal to the world audience. Switzerland, for instance, offers itself to Western and other countries to run their "interests sections" when sets of countries break bilateral ties. The fact that Switzerland is a neutral country helps in this role. Malta found its niche in the Law of the Sea. We have already considered Norway in its role as a mediator of complex conflicts; Finland is another country with a similar vocation. Of course, this requires a proactive mindset, and a willingness to spend resources on the chosen task; that effectively inhibits developing and transition countries from pursuing this option. More small countries could perhaps exploit niche areas, than actually happens in practice.

Six: Defiance: Cuba and North Korea are among the states that have chosen to stand against countries much more powerful than themselves, though some may argue that this "option" is actually a necessity forced by circumstance. Other small countries adopt a posture of protest on issues deemed as important, even if the odds against them are substantial. Libya is a good example of a country that started with defiance and moved from protest diplomacy to niche diplomacy, presenting itself to its pan-African constituency as the strongest advocate of continental unity, and of the African Union. This has enabled Libya to carve out a large footprint in Africa. Zimbabwe is another instance of defiance diplomacy, managing to withstand Western sanctions over several recent years.

Any form of proactive diplomacy presupposes that country concerned has the resources, human and material, that permits such a role on the international stage. Often, that is simply not the case, and countries bereft of resources have no choice but to stick to their knitting, not venturing forth with new initiatives. A risk-gain calculation has to be undertaken in the process of moving such ideas from concept to implementation. Looking to Africa, one can think of several countries that should have a self-interest in developing niche specialties in relation to areas that match their resource endowment; this can be done at affordable cost. The same is also perhaps feasible for countries in other regions. The key is to use Norway´s approach and consider all the possibilities in a holistic manner.

Networking among small and micro states

Caricom is one of the best examples of a regional grouping of small countries that coordinates actions to the point that these 16 Caribbean member states have a single "joint negotiator" at the WTO and the EU, to represent their collective interests. OECS is a sub-group within Caricom that represents the nine small island countries of the East Caribbean; they even run a joint embassy in Ottawa. While conditions similar to those that animate Caricom exist in other regions, that particular model of group mobilization has not found emulators elsewhere. One might think at first sight that among the small island states of Oceania there may exist potential for similar regional harmonization, but examined more closely, their vast mutual geographic distance, and also perhaps their notional division into Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, and existence in the group large states such as Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, works against a unified formula.

It can be argued that the individuality of small states and their desire to preserve their distinct identity comes in the way of neighborhood collaboration that may otherwise appear logical.

AOSIS The "Association of Small Island States" (AOSIS), established in 1990, has 43 members and observers. It has played a role on international environmental and climate change negotiations.[15] It acts as a negotiating voice for SIDS (Small Island Developing States). All these states ( and many others ( are affected by global warming, the melting of the polar icecaps and the ensuing rise in ocean levels. However, no small state has emerged as yet as a leader or major communicator on these climate security issues. That is a niche that deserves to be addressed.

A fair number of small states have not applied information and communications technology (ICT) to diplomacy in a meaningful way, partly on account of cost and partly owing to a lack of trained human resources.[16] The consequence is that the gap in the efficacy of the diplomatic methods used by such states and the leading diplomatic powers has widened. Yet, it is the small states that need to develop their external affairs delivery process in the most optimal manner.

The World Bank and the Commonwealth Secretariat are two organizations that support small state activities on a regular basis. Their activities also deserve closer study, in terms of the impact and the coordinated contribution that other aid donors can make in helping small states.

Branding and Soft Power

A prerequisite to any attempt to gain international attention, or to re-brand one´s country in order to overcome existing stereotypes, is an objective assessment of the existing brand image as perceived in key overseas locations. Such a survey can become the platform for concerted action, in which the non-state actors that have potential influence, including representatives of civil society with their own contact networks, tourism industry representatives and business are invited to join.

Use of imagination, brainstorming, and domestic partnerships are among the methods that are available to all small states, in their efforts to improve their diplomatic outreach in the international system. Small size makes it imperative to use such a options in the most effective manner, and to use public-private partnerships to overcome resource constraints.

One seductive idea put forward by an advocate of the development of "soft power" is that small states can pursue such public diplomacy to gain prominence and attractiveness.[17] Yes, a Qatar, with a population of barely one million (a good portion of them foreign workers) can afford to do this, presenting itself as a very modern state: home to the pioneering and controversial TV network, Al Jazeera; plus a glamorous, efficient airline and a brand new airport that the country offers as a regional transportation hub ( if only the other countries of the Gulf region were not doing the same. But few small states have the oil wealth of Qatar. The development of soft power does not come cheap. But the notion of branding and seeking a differentiated, attractive profile in the world community is a relevant option. Again, it comes down to brainstorming, rationally examining all the viable options, and providing domestic leadership and good governance in relation to external policy. Put another way, it is a question of sound policy choice, and pursuing an effective diplomacy to apply that policy in relation to the external world.


[1] Source: One of the interim documents of the Danish Foreign Ministry, during the course of its preparation of its report Vision 2015, published in October 2006; the author was one of a dozen international advisers used as a sounding board in its preparation.

[2] See Rana, "Singapore´s Diplomacy: Vulnerability into Strength", The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, Vol. I, No. 1, March 2006.

[3] Ali Naseer Mohamed, The Diplomacy of Micro-States, (Studies in Diplomacy No. 72, Clingendael Institute, The Hague, January 2002). 37 states are placed in this category, but Brunei, Cyprus, Malta and Qatar are excluded.

[4] In the Solomon Islands Taiwan has been involved in supporting local politicians in elections, which led to civil strife in 2005-06; there are allegations of vote-buying among small countries by other states, in keenly contested UN and other international agency elections.

[5] Mohamed, The Diplomacy of Micro-States, pp 4-5.

[6] Mauritius has a para-military force of modest size; it operates under the overall command of the police commissioner. In contrast, Suriname with under 400,000, but involved in territorial issues with its neighbors, maintains a standing army, which was involved in a coup in the 1980s and held power for several years. Fiji (pop. 800,000) has had the same experience in 2000 and 2006.

[7] One instance is Nepal, landlocked in the Himalayas, but with a latent capacity to generate 80,000 MW of hydropower; since the 1950s, not one additional KW of power export capacity has been created, though energy-hungry India is a natural market, and many projects have been considered in countless rounds of discussion. In contrast, another smaller neighbor Bhutan already exports 2000 MW of power to India, thanks to three hydro-projects built in the past 30 years, earning sums that equal 50% of its GDP.

[8] Mohamed, The Diplomacy of Micro-States, pp 37-8. The Himalayan kingdom Bhutan, with a population of barely 700,000, is an exception, having chosen to limit its diplomatic representation to just four countries, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Thailand, besides the UN at New York.

[9] Some observers note that barely 30 developing countries take an active part in WTO negotiations. Capacity is of course a limiting factor, but a heavy price is paid for such inability to influence the issues of detail in the almost continuous trade liberalization process that the WTO represents.

[10] New Zealand has cut back on its overseas representation in the past decade in a calculated bid to obtain better value for money. This country is a trend leader in foreign ministry reform.

[11] Singapore has about 25 such non-resident envoys, most of them drawn from business or academia, who travel to the country of assignment twice or thrice a year, always in the company of a foreign ministry desk officer. They play a valuable role in looking after visitors from the countries concerned, and in building some contacts, though they do not match the resident envoy in their reach. It is possible to combine this method with a web-based presence for such embassies.

[12] In 2007, one major diplomatic power is engaged in precisely such a study, since the challenge to get the best out of small embassies is not confined to small states.

[13] See Jozef Batora, "Public Diplomacy Between Home and Abroad: Norway and Canada" The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, Vol I, No. 1, p. 59.

[14] This is a central theme in a book by Michael Leifer, Singapore´s Foreign Policy: Coping With Vulnerability (Routledge, London, 2000)

[15] The 43 AOSIS members and observers are drawn from all oceans and regions of the world: Africa, Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, Pacific and South China Sea. Thirty-seven are members of the United Nations.

[16] But there are exceptions; Cook Islands and the Seychelles are identified as two countries with particularly effective websites (Dietrich Kappeler, "New diplomatic tools and the broadening access of developing states", Justin Robertson and Maurice A East, eds. Diplomacy and Developing Nations, Routledge, London, 2006).

[17] See Jozef Batora, "Public Diplomacy Between Home and Abroad", The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, Vol.1 No.1, March 2006.