On the Identification and Definition of Microstates
“Few people know much about microstates, though millions visit them each year.”
– Thomas Eccardt, 2005
In contemporary political science, there is no general consensus as to what defines a microstate. Scholars and policymakers have arbitrarily determined criteria to help identify and define microstates. Consequently, there are many different and competing definitions on microstates, yet the theme of smallness in statehood is pervasive. A variety of terms can be found in the literature, including village states, mini-states, small states, dwarf states, and miniature states. In simple terms, microstates can be said to be very small states in relation to other members of the international system. With a global population fast approaching 8 billion people in 2022 and the world divided into about 200 sovereign states (and other political jurisdictions) with varying populations, it is inevitable that some states are smaller than others. The term “micro” in microstates signifies an extreme smallness in size when referring to sovereign statehood.
This article explores how microstates are identified and defined. It begins by briefly outlining what statehood involves in contemporary international relations before reviewing how microstates are identified and defined. It is important to establish what statehood entails as a precursor to clarifying the definition of microstates. This will explain how microstates are members of the international system. There are various approaches in defining “small states” and “microstates” and there are different criteria used in defining states, each of which can be reasonably justified. Definitions are salient as they offer a level of clarity and meaning that help establish the objects of inquiry, even if they are subjective, contested, and imprecise. This ambiguity arises partly because different scholars are studying microstates for different purposes and are thus employing different criteria. As a result, there are many definitions for the microstate, contributing toward a healthy academic debate and further clarifying what microstates are. While a universal definition of microstates would be useful, multiple definitions exist due to the nature of political research. Debates about definitions are important, as they form part of the discourse of politics and international relations. As the smallest members of the international community, microstates face many political, economic, cultural, and environmental challenges. This is especially true for the island microstates, many of which face extinction due to climate change. Identifying microstates in relation to issues like climate change is crucial for politicians and bureaucrats in developing appropriate policies.
Microstates are significant in two ways. Firstly, they set out by example what the minimum criteria is for statehood. That is, they provide templates for future states or proto-states and provide insights into statehood. Secondly, there are currently 41 microstates in the international system, accounting for about 25 percent of contemporary sovereign states. Knowing more about the politics of microstates is therefore a valid and important pursuit for political science. Duursma writes, “Microstates, due to their limited territory, population and natural resources have to adapt themselves and find solutions in order to survive.” The identification and definition of microstates is therefore an important and useful exercise for both scholars and policy-makers.
What Constitutes a State in Contemporary International Politics?
States are the central actors in international relations and are the main forums for domestic politics. States are legally equal in international law regardless of size, and this is important for small states and microstates. There have been many forms of states throughout history, from the citystates of ancient Greece and Rome to the feudal states of medieval Europe, while modern sovereign states date from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In addition, the idea of the nation-state dates back to the 19th century, during which the effects of the American war of independence and the French Revolution, the industrial revolution, urbanization, and nationalism shaped and conditioned the idea of “the state” in the 20th century. The expansion of the welfare state throughout the 20th century expanded state capacity and power over society. The capacity of the state to provide an array of public goods including military security, a functioning economy, and judicial systems have become part of its raison d’état. With the undoing of imperialism through the processes of decolonization and secessionism (largely) in the post-Second World War period, the numbers of sovereign states considerably increased. Though the number of sovereign states increased, the size of states actually decreased. Coggins writes that “during the twentieth century, 150 new states entered the international system, quadrupling its membership.” The legal criteria for statehood was inaugurated by the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States by setting out four criteria:
The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with other states.
These criteria constitute the legal framework for modern states in the international system, though other important elements are also embedded in the idea of the state. These include the Weberian argument that modern states have a “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.” Weber also notes that the state “possesses an administrative and legal order subject to change by legislation … [T]his system of order claims binding authority.” These are essential features of sovereign states in the contemporary period. Additionally, the modern state is a sovereign state, which indicates that a final and special source of authority resides within the state. Hinsley argued that sovereignty is “the idea that there is a final and absolute authority in the political community.” In essence, sovereignty is a special form of authority within a defined territory that is recognized by other sovereign polities in international politics; it denotes constitutional independence from others. Sovereignty is multidimensional and involves political, legal, territorial, historical, and cultural dynamics, and it exists as an institution or practice. Moreover, Kenneth Waltz argues that sovereign states carry out the same functions though differ in their capabilities.
The modern sovereign state is therefore a complex polity that has evolved and developed over thousands of years. In terms of microstates and small island states, there are two more factors that are important to consider when considering statehood. First, the United Nations was created in 1945 as an international organization designed to foster international peace. Membership of the UN is open to “peace loving states” and as of 2022, it has 193 member states with an additional two observer members, the Vatican City State and the Palestinian Authority. Contemporary UN membership is almost universal, excluding 15 non-sovereign territories (or nonself-governing territories), a number of unrecognized states like the Turkish Republic of Cyprus and Somaliland, the Cook Islands, some politically contested polities like Kosovo and Taiwan, and other non-sovereign autonomous territories like Greenland, the Faroe Islands, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. Coggins writes, “many states must recognize a newcomer before it secures full membership in the international community.” UN membership is an important symbol of self-determination and statehood, a means of enhancing diplomatic capacity, a sign of legal equality with others, and a means of wide recognition. The Cook Islands, for example, is a sovereign microstate located in the South Pacific represented at the UN by New Zealand.
Second, the issue of territory is important for small states, microstates, and island states. International law does not specify any minimum amount of territory required. The physical and geographical smallness of microstates is a key means of identifying microstates in relation to other sovereign states. The concept of “defined territory” as a requirement for statehood is (purposely) general in nature. There are, around the world, some local disputes regarding borders, such as the ongoing conflict involving Morocco and the Western Sahara, while Netherlands and Monaco have implemented land reclamation projects to bolster their landmasses. In addition, since 1982, international maritime law allows for a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) designed to aid economic development for island states. EEZs allow islands and coastal states to economically benefit from their ocean surroundings, including fishing rights. As it stands, the Vatican City state is the smallest sovereign state in the world with a territorial size of 0.44 km² or 44 hectares (approximately 100 acres) with a citizenship of between 500-1,000 people; a further 3,000-4,000 people work in the Vatican but live in the surrounding city of Rome. As microstates tend to have a smaller territorial area than larger states and consequently smaller populations, the absence of a minimum amount of territory threshold in international law is an important part of identifying microstates.
Identifying and Defining Microstates
Defining states by their size is fraught with difficulties as there are so many different methods and criteria that can be called upon. In small state studies, many scholars have assessed such issues in their research, and this extends into writings on microstates. Indeed, small state scholars devote a substantial amount of time and effort to questions of definitions in their literature. There are many ways to define small states, microstates, and small island states. Many scholars have adopted different approaches to defining small states, as “one cannot determine precisely how a small state is.” In an important article written by Niels Amstrup in 1976, six broad approaches are identified in defining small states, which extend to and include microstates. These are:
- Ignoring the problem of definition, as it’s too difficult or unnecessary.
- Linking small size to some measurable criteria such as territory, population, or GNP.
- Uses the concept of size in relative or relational terms with larger states.
- Small size can be seen as a perceptual problem meaning that small states are small because of self-perception. That is, there is an inherent psychological aspect to smallness in statehood.
- Small states can be identified through their behavior in specific circumstances. For example, in her analysis of small states during the Second World War, Annette Baker-Fox argues that external pressure created by the war helps identify small powers.
- Amstrup identifies an approach by Raimo Väyrynen that adopts a classification matrix involving five dimensions that categorizes small states. These five dimensions include low rank status, high levels of external penetration, specific forms of behavior, the interests of small states, and the role(s) of small states and their leaders.
These six approaches remain valid methods of identifying small states and microstates. In broad terms though, the quantitative approach involves selecting measurable criteria such as population data, territorial size, military capacity, or economic information as important indicators of small size, especially in comparison with other sovereign states. Over a period of time, these measurable criteria can (and will) change—for example, populations constantly fluctuate. On the other hand, the qualitative approach toward defining microstates uses subjective criteria, drawing on such concepts as power, e.g., small powers vs large powers, which are much more indicative and contestable criteria. In theoretical terms though, whichever approach is adopted can become the focal point in analyzing state behavior in international politics. For the study of microstates, the small size is an omnipresent and prevalent dynamic that shapes states’ domestic, economic, and foreign policies, as well as how other states perceive them in the international system.
Many scholars and policymakers have written about microstates, contributing to the many definitions in existence. One general definition of a microstate is “a sovereign state which is exceptionally small in area, population and economic resources,” attributed to U Thant, a former UN SecretaryGeneral. This definition establishes the general sense of “extreme smallness” in statehood by selecting three quantitative indicators that are important to states. In many respects, this is a useful working definition; however, it is perhaps too general in nature and needs further clarification. Richards also adopts a general definition of microstates by writing, “a micro-state is a very small state.” In his work on microstates, Elmer Plischke formulates a taxonomy of states based upon population data, and from this, he sets out ten categories of states including microstates. Plischke defines microstates as having populations of under 100,000 or between 100,000 and 300,000 with the added criterion of being a member of the UN. This means that a number of European microstates, such as Monaco and Liechtenstein, were not included in his analysis, but since the end of the Cold War, these microstates, alongside others, have joined the UN. The defining factor here is the population threshold up to 300,000: this is an arbitrary figure that nevertheless makes explicit the small size of microstates.
In comparison, a population threshold of up to one million people is, for Dag Anckar, the usual defining feature of a microstate. Furthermore, a number of other scholars have adopted the one million population threshold as the key element in defining microstates, including Gunter (1977), Harden (1985), Richards (1990), Warrington (1994), Christopher (2002), and Simpson (2021). Many other small state features like size of government, economic data, military capacity, and the like all stem from population size, and the 1 million threshold is a convenient marker of size in relation to the majority of other states. There are other scholars who adopt different population thresholds like Ali Naseer Mohamed (2002) who argues that a population of 1.5 million is sufficient to define microstates. Armstrong and Read (1995; 2003) focus on the economics of microstates and they adopt a population threshold of three million or fewer. The Mohamed definition is particularly interesting as the World Bank defines “small states” as having populations of 1.5 million or fewer, contributing some ambiguity about the terms “small states” and “microstates” to discussions around definitional issues. The Commonwealth also adopts a 1.5 million population threshold in defining small states. These examples illustrate that international organizations have an interest in small states and microstates. While there is no consensus as to what constitutes a microstate per se, the one million population threshold is often found in the scholarship, and as such is therefore a legitimate definition of the microstate.
However, Wivel and Oest suggest that microstates, as part of the international system, are “permanently stuck as the weak party in asymmetrical relationships internationally and therefore forced to adopt strategies that cope with the permanency of their weakness.” They argue that as very small states, microstates are passive in nature and often seek to ally with larger “protector” states. Using a realist analytical framework, they suggest that microstates can be defined with other states through their “power possession and power projection” abilities in absolute or relative terms. As inherently weak states in relation to other states, the permanency of microstates power means they are always at a disadvantage. On a continuum of states and their “power,” the superpowers are at one end and the microstates are at the other. This analysis reflects some of the practical realities of international politics regarding microstates.
Sidiropoulos George approaches the issue of microstates from a geographical perspective. He suggests as criteria qualitative features like geographical isolation, limited resources, limited land, and a proneness to natural disasters, alongside quantitative features like geographical area, population size, and economic indices. George focuses on geographical area as the defining means of identifying microstates and argues that there are 24 independent microstates with a further 24 semi-independent polities. The article also suggests that most microstates were established between 1975 and 1986 following the processes of decolonization. The processes of decolonization were galvanized by the promotion of self-determination by the UN and the superpowers, secessionist movements, and by the dismantling of European empires because of the economic and political costs in the post-war period. While decolonization began with large states like India in the mid-1940s, it inevitably moved to microstates following the logic of post-war selfdetermination.
Another commonly-found approach in defining microstates is to identify some specific examples or cases and to categorize those as being microstates. Yoko Ogashiwa writes about nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific region and lists 11 states as microstates. These include the Cook Islands, Tonga, and Kiribati, and there is little doubt that these examples constitute microstates. All are very small in terms of territorial size and population and are seen as being weak states in international politics. They are also all island states and former colonies of European powers. Thomas Eccardt builds on this analysis by writing about European microstates. He lists seven: Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican City state. These are also clearly microstates due to both their territory and population size. Duursma also writes about European microstates with a focus on international law. She identifies five microstates in her study, namely Andorra, Lichtenstein, San Marino, the Vatican City, and Monaco. Duursma also includes a general definition of microstates: “microstates are entities with exceptionally small territories and populations.” Wouter Veenendaal explores four microstates in his 2015 book: San Marino, St Kitts and Nevis, Seychelles, and Palau. Veenendaal includes a discussion on why microstates are usually overlooked in scholarly research into comparative politics and argues that they are seriously underresearched. Importantly, the theme of geographic smallness is identified as being of particular note when studying microstates. Klieger, in 2014, identifies seven microstates as “post-modern states” and includes Andorra, Liechtenstein, Malta, San Marino, the Vatican City, Monaco, and the “sovereign military order of Malta.” The inclusion of the “sovereign military order of Malta” is rather unusual, while the state itself is described as being “perhaps the most extraordinary and most opaque” diminutive country in the world. This is included in his list of microstates, largely adopted from a socio-historical review of European microstates.
Necessary and Sufficient Criteria?
Defining microstates by one criterion is probably too simplistic for political analysis. While the commonly used one million population criterion is a useful, convenient and indicative means of identifying microstates, it is possibly insufficient to properly define microstates. Using a more scientific approach of “necessary and sufficient” criteria can take into account a number of relevant variables, which leads to a more adequate means of defining microstates. In other words, one variable is not sufficient to fully identify or define microstates. As shown throughout this article, a number of legitimate criteria and approaches in defining microstates have been adopted by scholars. However, there are probably three criteria that could collectively be used to fully identify microstates in the contemporary international system. These are: a) fulfilling the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, b) membership and association of the UN, and c) a population of approximately one million people or less. The first criterion indicates that the microstate constitutes a sovereign state, albeit very small in relation to other states. The second criterion indicates that the microstate is engaged in international relations and is broadly recognized by the members of the international system. The third criterion is an indicator of the smallness of the microstate. These three criteria are both necessary and sufficient to identify and define microstates. From this means of identification, there are 41 microstates around the world today. These are:
- Europe (10): Andorra, Cyprus, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, San Marino, Vatican City.
- Caribbean (8): Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenadines.
- Africa (6): Cape Verde, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, São Tomé and Príncipe, Seychelles, Swaziland.
- Asia (3): Brunei, East Timor, Maldives.
- South Pacific (10): Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Micronesia, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu.
- North Pacific (1): Marshall Islands.
- South America (3): Belize, Guyana, Suriname.
Source: Archie Simpson, A Theory of Disfunctionality (Delaware and Malaga: Vernon Press, 2021), pp. 7-8.
It is important to note that the 1 million population threshold is “approximate” and not “precise.” Thus, the 1 million population threshold should not be regarded as an absolute cut-off point but instead as an approximate guide. This is because populations are in a state of continual flux as birth rates, death rates, and migration to and from microstates are not fixed. For example, Qatar was once regarded as a microstate, with a population of around half a million people at the start of the 21st century, but now has a population of 2.9 million. It is possible that some microstates like Swaziland in Southern Africa and Cyprus in Europe are possibly close to a million people but they can currently still be regarded as microstates. It is also notable that many microstates are island (or partial island) states, including all of those in the Pacific and in the Caribbean. The vulnerability of microstates caused by their small size is, in many respects, more precarious for the island microstates.
The study of microstates offers insights into the workings of the contemporary international system. This includes insights into what statehood entails, the nature of self-determination, and how microstates emerged in the post-war period as decolonization occurred. The argument in this article suggests three criteria are useful in defining microstates. These relate to international law, membership in the UN, and an approximate population threshold of one million. Collectively, these criteria can be used to identify 41 microstates in the contemporary international system. These criteria are coherent and understandable, in addition to providing a means of further analysis in political science. The criteria also, importantly, fall within the domain of small state studies. Furthermore, the criteria offer a sufficient and logical means in identifying microstates. Duursma writes that “microstates are special entities of public international law” and as such, definitions are not strictly necessary. However, in political science, there is a need to fully explain as best as possible what is being studied and why. This means that for students and scholars of microstates, the identification and definition of microstates becomes a meaningful, relevant, and useful process to help in future analysis.
 Thomas Eccardt, Secrets of the Seven Smallest States of Europe (New York: Hippocrene Books Inc, 2005), 1.
 Marcin Lukaszewski, “Research on European Microstates in Social Science, Selected Methodological and Definitional Problems,” Ad Alta Journal of Interdisciplinary Research 1, no. 2 (2011): 74-77.
 Jorri Duursma, Fragmentation and the International Relations of Micro-States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 145.
 Bridget Coggins, Power Politics and State Formation in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 5; see also Mathias Maass, “Small States: Survival and Proliferation,” International Politics 51, no. 6 (2014): 709-728.
 Article 1 of 1933 Montevideo Convention of the Rights and Duties of States. See also Bridget Coggins, Power Politics and State Formation in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 30.
 Max Weber, from Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1967), 78; see also Bob Jessop, The State: Past, Present, Future (Cambridge and Malden: Polity, 2016), 20-27.
 Max Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1978), 56.
 Frank Hinsley, Sovereign Statehood, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 1, 26.
 James Der Derian, International Theory: Critical Investigations (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995), 150.
 Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (London: McGraw-Hill, 1979). See also Georg Sørenson, Changes in Statehood (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001).
 The term “peace loving states” was originally used when the UN was established in 1945 and it was essentially a code for the Allied powers of the Second World War.
 The Turkish Republic of Cyprus, or Northern Cyprus, is only recognized by Turkey as being a sovereign state. There is some ambiguity regarding being recognized in international law, as there is no minimum requirement. For more discussion, see Coggins, 2014; Bob Jessop, The State: Past, Present, Future (Cambridge and Malden: Polity, 2016), 37.
 Kosovo membership in the UN is unlikely in the immediate future, as Russia would veto such a move. Similarly, Taiwan is also unlikely to gain UN membership due to the Chinese veto.
 Bridget Coggins, Power Politics and State Formation in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 9.
 Archie W. Simpson, “Revisiting the United Nations and the Micro-State Problem” in The United Nations: Friend or Foe of Self-Determination?, ed. Jakob Avgustin (Bristol: E-International Relations, 2020), 144-156.
 Sidiropoulos George, “Geography of Micro-States: Main Arising Issues,” Regional Science Inquiry Journal 1, no. 1 (2009): 45-57. See also Archie W. Simpson, “The Security of the European Micro-States” in Small States and International Security (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), 172-173.
 In many regards, the study of microstates is subsumed into small state studies. As a general approach, small states can be said to being sovereign states with a population of approximately 20 million people or less. For the purpose of this article, microstates can be considered as being the smallest of small states.
 Kabilan Krishnasamy, “Bangladesh and UN Peacekeeping: The Participation of Small States,” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 41, no. 1 (2003): 24-47, 25.
 Niels Amstrup, “The Perennial Problem of Small States: A Survey of Research Efforts,” Cooperation and Conflict 11 (1976): 163-182.
 Raimo Väyrynen, “On the Definition and Measurement of Small Power Status,” Cooperation and Conflict 6, no. 2 (1971): 89-94.
 Baldur Thorhallsson, “The Size of States in the European Union: Theoretical and Conceptual Perspectives,” Journal of European Integration 28, no. 1 (2006): 7-31, 8-9.
 Yoko Ogashiwa, Micro-states and Nuclear Issues (Suva, Fiji: University of the South Pacific, 1991), ix.
 Jeff Richards, “Micro-states: A Specific Form of Polity?” Politics 10, no. 1(1990): 40-46, 40.
 Elmer Plischke, Microstates in World Affairs: Policy Problems and Options (Washington DC: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1977), 18.
 Dag Anckar, “Why are Small Island States Democracies?,” The Round Table 365 (2002): 375-390.
 Michael Gunter, “Liechtenstein and the league of Nations: A Precedent for the United Nations Ministate Problem?,” The American Journal of International Law 71 (1977): 110-124; Sheila Harden, Small is Dangerous: Micro-states in a Macro World (London: Francis Pinter, 1985); Jeff Richards, “Micro-states: A Specific Form of Polity?” Politics 10, no. 1 (1990): 40-46; Edward Warrington, “Lilliput Revisited,” The Asian Journal of Public Administration 16, no. 1(1994): 3-13; A.J. Christopher, “Decolonisation Without Independence,” GeoJournal 56 (2002): 213-224; and Archie W. Simpson, A Theory of Disfunctionality (Delaware and Malaga: Vernon Press, 2021).
 Ali Naseer Mohamed, The Diplomacy of Micro-States (The Hague: Netherlands Institute of International Relations, 2002).
 Harvey Armstrong and Robert Read, “Western European Micro-states and EU Autonomous Regions: The Advantages of Size and Sovereignty,” World Development 23, no. 7 (1995): 1229-1245; Harvey Armstrong and Robert Read, “Microstates and Subnational Regions: Mutual Industrial Policy Lessons,” International Regional Science Review 26, no. 1 (2003): 117-141.
 “The World Bank in Small States,” World Bank, accessed January 24, 2022, https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/smallstates/overview#1.
 Anders Wivel and Kajsa Noe Oest, “Security, Profit, or Shadow of the Past? Explaining the Security Strategies of Micro-states,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 23, no. 3 (2011): 429-453, 434.
 Wivel and Oest, 434.
 Sidiropoulos George, “Geography of Micro-States: Main Arising Issues,” Regional Science Inquiry Journal 1, no. 1 (2009): 45-57, 45-46.
 Sidiropoulos, 47.
 Sidiropoulos, 47.
 Yoko Ogashiwa, Micro-states and Nuclear Issues (Suva, Fiji: University of the South Pacific, 1991).
 Thomas Eccardt, Secrets of the Seven Smallest States of Europe (New York: Hippocrene Books Inc, 2005).
 Jorri Duursma, Fragmentation and the International Relations of Micro-states (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
 Duursma, 2-3.
 Wouter Veenendaal, Politics and Democracy in Microstates (London and New York: Routledge, 2015).
 Veenendaal, 2-4.
 P. Christian Klieger, The Microstates of Europe, paperback ed. (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington books, 2014).
 Klieger, 57.
 For more on “necessary and sufficient” conditions, see Tim May and Malcolm Williams, Introduction to the Philosophy of Social Research (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 200.
 “Qatar population,” Worldometers, accessed June 9, 2022, https://www.worldometers.info/worldpopulation/qatar-population/.
 Jorri Duursma, Fragmentation and the International Relations of Micro-states (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 2.