Small State Security: Strategies, Challenges, Process

Small State Security: Strategies, Challenges, Process

Definition of a “Small State”

The term “Small State” is a relative term. For instance, Bhutan is a bigger state than the Vatican or Nauru, while it is a small state in comparison to India. Therefore, it poses difficulty in defining a small state.

For example, does smallness refer to its geographical size? Or does it refer to its incapacity to defend itself, irrespective of its size, because of its poor economy? Or does it refer to the size of the population?

For instance, Singapore and Israel are small states in size, but their defense capabilities are much stronger than those of a big-sized country, say Mauritania or Mali in Africa.

Various criteria have been considered to define a small state. The Commonwealth Consultative Group had adopted a population of one million or less as the yardstick for describing a small state.

It is argued that states with a population of one million or less are ordinarily not strong in the economy and incapable of defending their territories if attacked.

Suppose the population criterion of one million or less is considered as a criterion. In that case, it is estimated that about 23 percent of states in the world will be categorized as small states.

Another criterion is the behavior of states that, in turn, is linked to their size in terms of certain quantifiable features, including

  1. geographical size,
  2. gross domestic product,
  3. military expenditures, and
  4. population.

In light of this, some authors have used the term “weak states” in place of “small states”. The behavior of strong and small states has been summed up by the Greek historian Thucydides (460-395 BC) as follows: “….the strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept.”

From the time of Thucydides, affluent and militarily strong states have behaved differently than their less endowed counterparts. Power politics dominated inter-state relations, and preoccupation with the conduct of stronger states has attracted the notice of authors to theorize on their conduct or motives, and as a result, the theories with respect to the security of small states remain neglected.

Theories that focus on the role of stronger states treat small states as objects in the larger states’ game to be manipulated in a manner that serves the interests of powerful states.

For instance, during the Cold War, many small states had become pawns or passive consumers of superpowers. Proxy wars were fought in various parts of the world, including Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. These proxy wars were fought in the Third World countries as a result of the clash of ideologies between the two superpowers.

Security Concerns of Small States

Small states suffer from certain fundamental structural weaknesses, such as political, economic, and social.

These weaknesses pose insecurity for them within and outside. Newly independent states have not been able to develop strong political institutions, and often leaders are dictatorial because they claim they know what is best for their people, as they fought and achieved political independence.

Most leaders in developing countries disregard the necessity of public morality in their actions and conduct. They generally behave and act as though their countries and national resources were little more than their private or family property. During their lifetime, people reluctantly tolerate them.

Small states are largely economically weak because their economic base is very narrow. They depend largely on cash exports from one or two commodities.

The overwhelming majority of people live below the poverty line. Unemployment is chronic, and disease and hunger are widespread. The gap between the rich and poor within the country is staggering.

All these factors create an atmosphere of unease and frustration among young people and eventually instability. In many cases, military personnel take over in the name of restoring “democracy” in the country, which ends in the long run disaster for its stability.

Added to these, it is argued in some quarters that economic dependence can lead to vulnerability by creating an opportunity for one state to dominate another.

Dependency on foreign aid for economic growth and development eventually may pose a danger to security because economic dependency can be manipulated in such a manner that decision-makers have no options but to agree to foreign donors, despite such policies may go against national interests in the long run.

However, another view emphasizes that free trade and economic interdependence promote peace since states want beneficial economic relationships from joint investment and joint enterprise. They argue that war will be less likely if economic relations are interconnected because it will interrupt interconnected business and the economy.

Another fear is that a small state that is unusually wary about the military strength of another state may launch a preemptive armed attack to protect itself.

For instance, in early 2003, there was speculation that North Korea’s fear of a US attack on them might prompt them to launch a military attack on US forces in South Korea.

Another dimension of the security concern of small states was expressed by India’s chief of the Atomic Energy Commission, who said: “The greatest advantage of recognized strength is that you don’t have to use it, and the greatest disadvantage of perceived weakness is that an enemy may become adventurist”.

The Second Gulf War of 2003 on Iraq without UN authority has given a serious jolt to the security of small states.

Small states have been assured that no war can be launched without UN approval, and the big powerful states agreed under the UN Charter to refrain from an armed attack unless they were attacked or under the threat of imminent attack. This consensus has been destroyed by the preemptive attack on Iraq.

Furthermore, the preemptive doctrine is dangerous as the distinction between imminent threat of attack and capacity to attack has been obliterated.

This distinction is important for small states; otherwise, they may be subject to unprovoked attacks by powerful states for self-interests. Of particular concern is how powerful regional states may see such a policy serving their interests since small states can no longer count on the UN.

Soon after the war on Iraq in April 2003, India’s Foreign Minister reportedly threatened pre-emptive strikes on camps of militants in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, who allegedly had been fighting a rebellion against Indian rule since 1989.

Different means of achieving security for small states

Small states have used various strategies for their security because they cannot afford to become a militarily strong power. The strategies are described below.

A few small states adopt a deliberate policy not to arm themselves because they perceive it is useless at the time of armed conflict.

They have no chance to defend themselves against powerful states. For instance, Costa Rica has decided to have no army, and it is one of its strategies to secure its political independence and territorial integrity. The very fact that Costa Rica has no army deters other powerful states from attacking.

Another means a few states adopt is to become insular and distance themselves from power politics. For instance, Myanmar/Burma adopted a policy of isolation from international groupings. It did not become a member of the Commonwealth and withdrew from the Non-Aligned Movement.

It remained aloof from superpower rivalry during the Cold War. It had maintained a “correct” relationship with major powers. During the Chinese “Cultural Revolution” in 1966, it remained neutral. During the Vietnam conflict, Myanmar did not get involved with any powers in the conflict.

A group of states believes in the strategy of mobilization of its entire adult population to fight against any armed attack. Switzerland has adopted this policy. Each Swiss adult has to undertake compulsory military training and is allowed to keep weapons at home.

Besides its policy of neutrality, swift mobilization of human resources provides security in Switzerland, whose mountainous terrain is not conducive to the enemy’s victory in a short time.

During the Second World War, the Finnish people provided stout resistance to the Soviet Union’s invasion in November 1939 and saved the country from a vastly superior Soviet army because of the strength of the Finnish people, which was rooted in their strong motivation and determination to deter the attack of the Soviet Union.

This policy of mobilization of its entire adult population, according to a writer, is a “strategy of maximum effectiveness at a minimum cost.”

Another group of states has concentrated its diplomacy as a tool to protect their security interests. They do not open embassies worldwide.

They try to maximize their efforts to protect their economic and security interests by opening their diplomatic representation in the capitals of big powers. For instance, Singapore and Jamaica opened embassies in powerful countries and ignored the rest.

The Non-Aligned Movement was one of the means adopted by many states to keep armed attacks at bay. Non-Aligned policies were successful during the Cold War as both superpowers respected genuine non-aligned policies.

However, many Non-Aligned countries became “aligned” with one of the superpowers because of regional rivalry. Furthermore, neutrality has achieved security for Sweden, Ireland, and Switzerland. A delicate balance of maintaining relations with China and India kept Nepal in peace.

Since small states are arguably the most vulnerable to any serious deterioration in the regional security environment that allows dominant states to show their military power.

In such situations, small states may develop a strategy where major powers may be persuaded to acknowledge the interdependence between the security of small states and those of major powers within the region.

Iraq War and the Credibility of the UN

The greatest protection for small states is the mechanism of collective self-defense contained in Article 51 of the UN Charter. A relevant extract of the Article provides that:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.

The implication of the above Article is clear. If a member of the UN is attacked, the UN will organize to defend the aggrieved member-country against the aggressor.

It was manifested in 1990 when the UN-sponsored attack, led by the US with a coalition of 33 countries, including Bangladesh, compelled Iraq to withdraw its troops and occupation of Kuwait in 1991.

Collective security, according to an author, corresponds to a “neighborhood watch” program in which all neighbors watch one another’s houses for common protection against break-ins.

It may be noted that the concept of collective security was first introduced by President Wilson of the US in the Covenant of the League of Nations in 1919 after the First World War.

If a powerful country had been aware beforehand that a group of states would combine together to fight on behalf of the aggrieved state under the UN umbrella against armed aggression, then it would reduce the chances of wars.

However, the underlying consensus of the international community on the principle of collective self-defense of the UN Charter appears to be severely undermined by the attack on Iraq in 2003.

Nuclear weapons and Small States

In practical terms, no small state except Israel and North Korea has manufactured nuclear weapons, and almost all of them are parties to the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (commonly referred to as NPT).

Small states do not have resources to manufacture nuclear weapons. In light of the facts, non-nuclear small states have no fear that they will be attacked with nuclear weapons.

It may be noted that after the use of the atomic bomb in Japan in August 1945 to end the eastern theater of the Second World War, no nuclear weapons have been used until this date. Even during the Cold War, the US did not use them in Vietnam in the 70s, and likewise, the Soviet Union refrained from using them in Afghanistan in the 80s.

North Korea is comparatively a small nation (population 22 million) and perceives a threat from the US that has stationed 37,000 US soldiers in South Korea.

Faced with a situation, North Korea decided to develop nuclear capacity, and outside coercion not to develop nuclear weapons is unlikely to have any impact. It appears that dealing with a communist small state, coercion is simply ineffective.

Although nuclear threats have been used seven times since 1945 against North Korea, it remained defiant.

Progress was only made during the Clinton administration by concluding an Agreement in 1994 with North Korea when some attempt was made to understand its insecurities and feelings of vulnerability and the factors that gave rise to its decision to build its nuclear weapon capability.

In early 2003, the Bush administration developed a tense relationship with North Korea on the resumption of nuclear plants in the country.

North Korea reportedly withdrew from the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and fired up its nuclear plant. North Korea claimed that the nuclear plant was being used to generate electricity after the US stopped supplying fuel to North Korea on the plea that North Korea had breached the 1994 Agreement. The fuel from the nuclear plant could be used in nuclear weapons.

North Korea wants a security guarantee from the US and says that it needs a powerful deterrent to stave off the threat of attack. Washington says North Korea must scrap its nuclear program before it will offer a guarantee.

The Korean peninsula remains the Cold War’s last flashpoint, and North Korea talks about war being imminent fears it could be the next target after Iraq.

The North Korean example provides an indication that nuclear non-proliferation is not a narrow issue. Rather it is imperative to focus on national security from a broader perspective of regional security.

Some political observers argue that if 37,000 US soldiers are withdrawn from South Korea, tension in the Korean peninsula will be much less, and North Korea’s behavior could turn into peaceful co-existence with South Korea, resulting in the abandonment of its nuclear program.

Nuclear Weapons: South Asia

The question is, why did India and Pakistan acquire nuclear weapons?

Many security strategists believe that there are many reasons for a country opting for nuclear weapons, and among them include;

  1. possession of such weapons by neighboring countries,
  2. political influence and prestige in the region, and
  3. domestic politics.

Although in South Asia, the emergence of nuclear power is a matter of great concern for small states, it is believed that it is highly unlikely that India or Pakistan will use nuclear weapons on each other’s territory.

Both countries are dissuaded from fighting a nuclear war because of the vagaries of wind and the consequence chance of radioactive fallout drifting back over the attacker’s own territory.

It is interesting to note that President of Pakistan Musharraf, in an interview with CNN in May 2002, said that “Any sane individual cannot even think of going into this unconventional war”.

Likewise, India’s Defence Minister George Fernandes, in June 2002, reportedly said, “If the Western powers and China know how to keep their nuclear capabilities under control, the same holds good” for South Asian countries.