The power of small and smart states
The publication of my book, The Small States Club: How Small Smart States Can Save the World, has provoked a much-needed discussion on small states. In the course of my lives as a scientist and diplomat, businessman and politician, I have unceasingly marveled at the tenacity of small states. Their survival has always been predicated on overcoming insuperable odds.
When the modern state came into existence with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, there were 400 small states. Hundreds of them were extinguished by the antecedents of today’s great and middle powers. Today, there are roughly 150 small states — a sevenfold increase since the establishment of the postwar order in 1945. But their survival can scarcely be taken for granted in an increasingly multipolar world whose order, institutions and norms are being torpedoed by the velocity of political, geopolitical, social and technological transformation.
If there is an overwhelming priority or a paramount preoccupation common to all small states, it is survival. The world has never been structured to facilitate the survival of small states and treating small states as disposable has been the norm through most of recent history. Survival, therefore, has largely depended on the will and skill of small states themselves.
To preserve themselves, small states must be agile, adaptable and adroit. Internally, as Aristotle said of the city-states of the 4th century B.C., they must train their populations to be jacks of all trades. Externally, they must exert themselves to mobilize an international order reinforced by institutions and equipped with the means to uphold its rules. In short, small states must also be smart states.
In international relations, as the Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye argues, there are three kinds of power: hard power, which involves coercion; soft power, which flows from a nation’s cultural output; and what I would call “smart power.” The last of these amalgamates components of both hard and soft power but also, crucially, makes an effort to bolster itself by leveraging technology intelligently.
Unlike conventional approaches, smart power actively embraces and harnesses emerging tools such as artificial intelligence, aiming not only to adapt but also to derive significant advantages from these innovations. The essence of smart power lies in its ability to synergize traditional sources of influence with cutting-edge technologies, positioning itself strategically to navigate and capitalize on the ever-evolving landscape of power dynamics.
In the course of my career, I have seen the improbable rise of small states that were born in impossible conditions and written off before they could learn to crawl. The UAE, for instance, was dismissed even before its visionary founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, had unified the dusty emirates that made up the Trucial States. Today, more than five decades after its inauguration in 1971, the UAE is not only an international cultural hub and a center of commerce, it is also home to the world’s unlikeliest green city. Meanwhile, Qatar, capitalizing on its gas reserves and the strategic American airbase it hosts, contributes uniquely to global diplomacy by serving as both a mediator and a negotiator.
The future of Singapore was similarly in grave doubt once Britain withdrew its forces in 1971, exposing it to the whims of the great and middle powers surrounding it. Lee Kuan Yew, the city-state’s father, reacted to this crisis by aggressively superintending Singapore’s transformation into an economic force in the world and a diplomatic troubleshooter in the region.
At its independence in 1966, Botswana had exactly 8 miles (12 km) of tarred road in the entire country. Its land was shrouded with sand and its people scraped a living from agriculture. Today, Botswana is a model of economic prudence and efficient governance in Africa. With a population under 2 million, its low taxes, high income (at $6,000, its per capita income is larger than Malaysia’s), excellent healthcare and openness to foreign talent have made it the envy of others.
Today, the UAE is not only an international cultural hub and a center of commerce, it is also home to the world’s unlikeliest green city.
We inhabit a world in which, for the first time, long-marginalized voices have acquired the capability to amplify themselves and be heard. An individual with a smartphone is possessed with the power to break news and shape trends. A small, tech-savvy state can compete with large states. Technology has eroded the capacity of large powers to remain the predominant centers of progress and achievement.
Eight of the top 10 nations on the Bloomberg Innovation Index are small states. Singapore, a consistently high-ranking state on the index, is a world leader in medical innovation. Despite being home to the equivalent of only 7 percent of Germany’s population, it accounts for more patents in healthcare than its European counterpart. It has converted its curses — its location and limited resources — into opportunities to become one of the most prosperous countries in the world.
Sweden, home to fewer than 11 million citizens, has emerged as a captain in the fields of technology, research and development and innovation. It has more technology hubs per capita than any part of the world save Silicon Valley. Even the stars are no longer beyond the reach of small states. In 2021, the UAE, home to just over 9 million people, successfully orbited its rover around Mars — catapulting itself into an exclusive league once occupied by great powers.
Stability, constancy, the rule of law, peace and predictability are imperative for the success of small states. And a club of such states would help smaller nations exert greater influence in cultivating the climate essential for global security, progress and prosperity. In doing so, it would also temper the aggression and destructive impulses of large powers.
“The Small States Club” tells the compelling story of eight small countries that dot Europe, Asia and Africa that would qualify as founding members of such a club. There are, of course, others that merit attention, but I selected these states because I have studied them closely and their travails and successes, individually and collectively, carry indispensable lessons for small (and even large) states operating in a world in flux.
Often, I have interacted extensively with the leaders and key figures in these nations. Not every country I have examined features every virtue prized by every society. But despite their shortcomings, they can teach us something valuable about surviving and succeeding in an inhospitable world.
As an Armenian diplomat and later as president, I often reflected on the need for a consortium of smaller states, a collective that might be nimbler and more effective than the sluggish giants that currently dominate international relations. This “S20,” as one might call it, would be a club of nations — from Singapore to Switzerland and Botswana to Arab states — unburdened by the weight of empires, ready to learn from past errors and earnestly seek to arbitrate conflicts with fairness and foresight.
Small states live on the knife-edge of survival; peace is not a luxury for them but the precondition of their existence. This is why small states tend for the most part to be averse to conflict: war imposes a disproportionate toll on them. There will always be exceptions to the rule, but small states generally tend to promote peace — or at least strive to create conditions to avert the outbreak of fighting. Therefore, minimizing, if not altogether eliminating, bloody conflict is not a noble ideal for them — it is a necessity.
Even though a club of small states would take responsibility for their fates and help foster peace through collective action and mutual support, the idea of such a collaborative body has met with resistance from the larger states, whose preeminence depends on the status quo. They look upon any new institution that might affect the scales of influence with suspicion and skepticism.
But I am pleased to note that the publication of The Small States Club has stirred a discussion. Representatives of key small states have shared their enthusiasm for a so-called S20 grouping. There is much work to be done, but the idea is catching on. If peace and progress are to be more than impossible dreams, we must reduce if not cease our dependence on big powers and obsolete institutions and instead harness the survival instinct of small states to create a body that values dialogue over discord and collaboration and peace over conquest and perpetual conflict.
• Armen Sarkissian is the former President of Armenia and author of “The Small States Club: How Small Smart States Can Save the World.” X: @ArmSarkissian