Why Small States Matter to Big Powers

August 10, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Tags: RussiaNATOGeorgiaMilitaryKosovo

Why Small States Matter to Big Powers

Washington does a good job of making and keeping its partners, but why settle for good when it could be great?

Nobody is bigger than the United States of America. No big power more appreciates small powers. No small state will find a better friend than the United States.

The Bigness of Smallness

In an era of great power competition, “small” matters a good deal. Little nations are not sand to be ground between the great wheels of major powers. They are made up of people, not pawns. Citizens in small states have the same hopes, aspirations and natural rights as those in world powers. These people have every reason to expect and demand a life of freedom, peace and prosperity.

Further, it is in the interests of bigger states to help small states flourish. Great powers, if wise, will support the best hopes of smaller states.

There are three reasons why the United States, in particular, ought to take small states seriously.

 

1. Geography Matters. In geopolitics—as in real estate—a critical consideration is “location, location, location.” To a major power, a country’s greatest asset might be its map coordinates rather than the size of its arsenal or bank account.

Geography matters when it comes to economic integration, transportation, energy distribution and physical security. Even in a digitized world, the freedom to move people, goods, and services across physical space is a valuable commodity.

Recognizing the importance of connecting dots on the ground is not an argument for hardened spheres of control (such as during the Cold War) or carving up the world (like seventeenth-century mercantilists). On the other hand, there is a case to be made for building bridges between like-minded nations that want to live together with surety in commerce and share peaceful borders.

Thus, a small state in the right place can be very important to a big power. Iceland is a case in point. Even though it has no armed forces, the island’s location makes the nation a lynchpin in transatlantic security. That’s the reason Iceland was included as one of twelve founding members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Without question, Iceland’s strategic location is of far greater importance to U.S. security than the state’s size and resources would suggest. Washington should be working hard to make that bilateral relationship even stronger.

Part of the reason NATO continues to keep the membership door open is because there are nations still not included whose accession would enhance collective security due to their location. These include Macedonia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kosovo.

And there are states in other regions where stronger bilateral relations would greatly serve U.S. interests. Closer ties with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, for example, would further U.S. efforts to sustain a free and open Indo-Pacific.

In the Middle East, few states are smaller than Jordan. Yet, a peaceful, prosperous Jordan is a keystone for regional stability, and regional stability is a vital interest of the United States—as important to this administration as it should have been to the last one. Similarly, Tunisia is an important state for extending an umbrella of regional stability in the greater Middle East to North Africa.

2. Freedom Matters. Like-minded nations make better partners. One of the reasons NATO works is because the alliance is a partnership of free nation-states.

The foundational rationale of the transatlantic alliance is that free states have the right to associate for the purpose of collective security. To close NATO’s open door would undermine what NATO stands for: the right of free peoples to choose their future.

Likewise, achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific requires an open door for like-minded states big and small that share that goal. So, for example, though the United States strongly supports the diplomatic initiative known as the “Quad” —an effort by Japan, Australia, India and America to foster freedom of the seas and respect for international norms—these strategic partners ought to roll out the red carpet for other interested nations to participate in the dialogue.

Furthermore, in the Middle East, the Trump administration has floated the notion of a more formal string of partnerships to which small nations could freely associate. In particular, the United States has reached out to the members of the Gulf Coast Cooperation Council, illuminating the value of freely cooperating nations banding together in the common cause for the good of the region.

3. Contribution Matters. Small nations can be net contributors to peace, security, and economic development. For instance, one recent painful reminder of that was the three brave Czech soldiers recently died in Afghanistan shouldering the burden along with their American allies.  

The administration’s National Security Strategy recognizes that America is a global power with global interests and responsibilities. Implementing that strategy requires a sure and steady effort to assert American interests and promote stability in three key regions: Europe, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific. Even with all its power, America can’t be strong enough in all three places all the time without firm friends, allies and strategic partners.