How Can Small States Stay Relevant? Ask Ireland.

The water in the fountain on the North Lawn of the White House in Washington DC, dyed green for Saint Patrick's Day. Wikimedia Commons/The White House

Ireland wouldn’t be anywhere without the lobbying power of Irish Americans.

The last three hundred years of international-relations history were characterized by the struggle between major powers to extend their spheres of influence in different parts of the world. The main objects in the framework of that competition were the small nations and peoples that could not afford the luxury of independence and, therefore, have always been in the orbit of influence of the great powers and empires. History shows that small nations in larger states’ zones of interest have often been threatened with complete annihilation. The consequences of Britain’s colonization of Ireland led to the Great Famine, which killed more than one million people. Contradictions in Europe led to the two world wars, resulting in the genocide of the Armenian people in Ottoman Turkey, as well as the Holocaust of European Jews conducted by Nazi Germany.

Natural Competition

After the defeat of the Third Reich, certain illusions arose about a new realism that would take into account the lessons of the tragic war. However, neither the establishment of the United Nations with principles of international law nor the decolonization process could change these tough rules of struggle between great powers. During the Cold War, small countries became an arena of ideological battle between the American capitalist and Soviet communist systems. The wars after 1945 once again led to massive destruction and annihilation. Ideological contradictions imposed by competing states resulted in large-scale civil wars in Vietnam and Korea. Political models of communism and democracy turned out to be more important than national identity for the inhabitants of different parts of these countries. For many centuries, empires created internal contradictions and manipulated them to extract benefit. The nations that were able to learn from their own history and study the behavior of major powers recognized the need to strengthen their identity and lobby their interests by various means and methods.

Political realist theory says that a state can be independent if the heads of the world’s leading countries consider its opinion. After the two world wars, the decolonization process and the collapse of the USSR, many new states appeared that were trying to find their place in the international system. Some countries, such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, joined the European Union and the NATO military-political bloc, receiving the patronage of the United States. The leaders of these nations made a reasonable decision to surrender their sovereignty in favor of focusing on the supranational level. They understood well that lack of resources would prevent them from creating their own political tools that would allow them to keep a balance between the different centers of power. In that respect, the Baltic countries were lucky enough, because their choice did not meet much resistance from Russia, which for centuries has considered these areas an object of its national interests. Other small states have been less fortunate. On the one hand, Moscow did not seek to intervene in the internal affairs of those “younger brothers” that announced their own foreign policy priorities. On the other hand, the Kremlin drew red lines that these small countries could not cross.

Russia did not oppose the dialogue of Tbilisi with NATO, but it clearly explained that joining the military-political bloc would mean the end of the Georgian state. Nowadays, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are not able to take a political decision to join the EU or NATO, recognizing the dire consequences for their countries and peoples. As a major nuclear power, Russia is seeking to demonstrate its determination and force its competitors to recognize its own spheres of influence. Therefore, if there is a need to sacrifice the interests of small countries and peoples, Moscow will do it without any doubt or regrets. In general, the United States will behave in a similar way if Cuba, Nicaragua and Costa Rica decide to become members of a military and political union supervised by Russia. Fierce competition has not disappeared; it is just diplomacy that creates illusion of softness, equality and respect for small states. Thus, many small countries are objectively deprived of any possibility to avoid the collision of different interests on their land.

Transnational Political Nations

There are also states without any natural resources or favorable geographical configuration, whose interests are nevertheless taken into account by great powers. For decades, countries such as Ireland and Israel have actively deployed the potential of their sizable diasporas around the world, forming unified transnational political nations. Many experts often mistakenly equate the concepts of diaspora and transnational political nation. In the scientific world, there are hundreds of opinions about what a diaspora is and how it differs from a community and lobby. In general, a diaspora is a group of people united by common national, religious or cultural traditions. As that definition suggests, a diaspora does not have to bring together the representatives of particular ethnic groups.

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