A memorable image emerged last November from COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland: that of a foreign minister standing knee-deep in the ocean, wearing a suit and tie, offering remarks. Tuvalu foreign minister Simon Kofe recorded the speech in this way to illustrate the very real threat rising sea levels pose to Tuvalu and other island states around the world.
Beyond the moral weight behind the statement, Tuvalu and other small island states in the Pacific can demonstrate authority and project power in other ways: each is in possession of an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that drastically increases its geographic footprint—contributing to a rebranding of certain small island states as “Large Ocean States.” Moreover, on the global stage, small states have contributed greatly to a formidable bloc in the UN General Assembly, prioritizing their own needs and holding larger states—especially the Permanent 5 of the Security Council—to account. And small states are doing more than just providing moral and multilateral leadership: they are serving as laboratories for innovative governance models and early adopters of novel technologies.
Yet at a time when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year and the continuing deterioration of U.S.-China relations have reinvigorated discussions around great-power politics, small states seemingly have little role to play, serving only as supporting cast members and bit players. While each state is sovereign within the international system of states, clearly economic clout and military capabilities are still central markers of power. Small states rarely have much of either.
So which is it: are small states agents of their own making or destined to, in the words of Thucydides, “suffer what they must”?
To strike the balance between recognizing small states’ agential capabilities in international affairs and acknowledging larger states’ coercive and sometimes distorting influences is difficult, but this issue seeks to do so.
Microstates and Small Island States in International Affairs presents diverse perspectives from and on small states, including in policy, law, governance, and journalism. Small states are at the forefront of the COVID-19 response, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and technological adoption. And while some small states have become unwilling arenas for larger states’ balance-of-power moves, they retain both distinct foreign policy and the ability to manage crises not of their own making. Norman Meller, writing in the Journal 35 years ago (41, no. 1), described the challenges confronting “Pacific island microstates” and noted that “whether sovereign nations or colonies, to some degree they remain dependent upon the metropolitan nations of the world.” That an imbalanced relationship still remains is beyond dispute, but this issue seeks to complicate that relationship and reframe it as one not so much of “dependence” but rather of “customizable linkages,” in the words of one contributor. The reader should emerge with a greater appreciation for this tension and a deeper understanding of small states’ capabilities.
This issue combines perspectives from practitioners and thinkers from microstates and small island states with expert analysis from scholars. The pieces contained within the issue present the diversity of small state engagement with the world and broaden the reader’s understanding of smallness in international affairs.
Two academic essays contextualize small states’ interactions with global systems. Shaindl Keshen and Steven Lazickas present the case of nonrefoulement and climate out-migration from small island states in the Pacific—and make the case for how this legal framework, based in international human rights law, may be applied in the future as climate-induced migration continues to rise alongside sea levels. The second, by Sarath Ganji, explores the multi-decade expansion of Qatar into the world of global sports, especially football. With Qatar set to host the World Cup this fall, the essay furnishes essential analysis of implications for foreign policy and convincing figures displaying both the breadth and depth of Qatar’s reach.
The Journal publishes arguments, as well as essays, and this issue includes four: mid-length analytic pieces spanning the range of small states’ engagement with the world. Archie Simpson provides a useful overview of previous attempts at identifying and classifying small states, which first started in Europe and soon branched out to incorporate a postcolonial world, and concludes with one plausible list of contemporary microstates. To provide a counterpoint, a piece by Sarina Theys eschews the accounting methods of previous scholars and proposes a method for identifying small states based on an “intersubjective” approach, suggesting states are small when both they and others agree to it. The instructive case of Large Ocean States complicates our understanding of smallness and how size functions in international affairs. Remaining in the Pacific, Riad Meddeb centers the importance of innovation for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in particular and how innovation in governance and technology will propel these small states forward into a globalized, climate-impacted 21st century. Finally, an argument by Mihai Sora situates the current great-power game between China and the United States in the region within a backdrop of Australian engagement. Given recent Chinese involvement in the Solomon Islands and the release of the “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States,” this analysis provides a needed perspective directly from small states in the Pacific and outlines their security interests independently of those of China, the United States, and Australia.
In this issue of the Journal, the Features section includes one interview. Michael Hudson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior reporter with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, discusses the roles small states play in the global financial system and explains how jurisdictions are often at the mercy of policies set far away—especially those from actors in the United States and the United Kingdom.
A special Postscript is included from Zbigniew Dumieński. Filled with keen observations on the world microstates and small states confront in 2022, the piece also reminds readers of the success many of these small states have had in protecting their populations from, and vaccinating those populations against, COVID-19. Perhaps the most salient conclusion is the recognition that while smallness has its downsides, the ability to “customize” political and economic linkages allows small states space to maneuver in international affairs.
An issue of this length cannot possibly cover all of the recent successes and remaining challenges of small states in the contemporary world: rather, it serves as an introduction and jumping-off point for future scholarship. Of particular interest moving forward are small states in Africa and island states in the Caribbean, as well as more on how small states everywhere are confronting the climate crisis and adopting new technologies.
Both are among the primary concerns of the current century, presenting every state with threats and opportunities; though as this issue of the Journal will show, small states can lead not just despite but because of their smallness. As crises mount, the world needs solutions to problems of increasing complexity, and no stone should go unturned: policies and techniques from small states should not be overlooked. This issue seeks to examine just a few.
The conversation will extend beyond this issue, through the Journal’s online presence, in digital and podcast form. Additional contributions on the theme of microstates and small island states in international affairs are very much welcomed. May the discussion continue.