What Is a Small Power State?

Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, a nation that can be categorized as a small power state.
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, a nation that can be categorized as a small power state.

What Is a Small Power State?

Independent nations around the world have varying degrees of power within the international community. The degree of power held by a particular country is generally based on its economic size, population size, military resources, or land size. However, the most commonly used measurement factor is population size, although there is not agreed upon by all scholars. Some experts claim a small power state is one with a population size of less than 15 million, while others claim the designation should be applied to states with less than 30 million residents. Regardless of which factor is used to determine the power of a nation, the result is that the world has only a few large power states and a significant number of small power states.

Shared Traits of Small Power States

Despite the difficultly defining which countries should be considered small powers, medium powers, or large powers, many commonly accepted small power states share a number of the same traits.

Small power states often have limited resources, be that natural, political, financial, or military. This lack of resources limits their ability to act independently and influences the establishment of their domestic and international policies. Therefore, small power states are forced to act within the regulations set by large power states.

Small power states are also dependent upon large power states for more than just established norms of international relationships. These nations are unable to provide their own political, economic, and social protections and therefore must look to international alliances. This dependency causes small power states to act as assistants to larger countries in an attempt to avoid military punishment.

International relationships actually offer more potential disadvantages than advantages to small power states. Given this increased risk, the governments of these countries often operate cooperatively rather than attempt to create new foreign policies. These governments operate under the fear of retaliation from large power states, which influences their approach to conflict resolution. Small power states are more likely to establish compromised solutions to conflict, rather than act militarily.

Small power states often work together to establish greater power in foreign policy making in an attempt to reduce the potential costs associated with these policies. This type of collaboration often results in the foundation of international organizations.

Unique Position of Small Power States

Although the majority of nations are categorized as small power states, they have much less power than the smaller number of large power states. This position is unique and has led small power states to seek unique alliances in terms of international relationships. The governments of these countries choose their alliances very strategically. According to general political theory, this alliance building is believed to be aimed at preventing aggressive treatment from other large power states. Many questions arise about the possible advantages and disadvantages of small power states committing to these alliances. Additionally, small power states also work to specialize in very specific issues in order to increase their perceived power on the international playing field. In other words, small power states are primarily focused on survival, whereas large power states are able to focus on other aspects of their existence.

The International Relations of Small Power States

Although domestic policies play a large role in the identity and daily activities of small power states, many researchers believe that international policies have a much larger impact on the inner workings of these nations, and are therefore more important to small power states than large power states. This is explained by the fact that these international policies may work against small economies, exploiting their goods, services, and people. Additionally, since these countries are small, the losses resulting from unbeneficial trade agreements have a much greater impact on the economies of small power states than they do in large power states. In contrast, large power states place more importance on their own domestic policies when creating international policies than small power states do.

Vulnerabilities of Small States

Political scientists have developed a number of theories to explain the domestic and international behaviors of small power states. Most of these theories are framed around the concept that small power countries operate and exist under a more vulnerable state than large power countries. These vulnerabilities lead small power states to seek protection (referred to as shelter in political discussions) from alliances of either international organizations or with larger power states. Negotiating these alliances can be difficult for small power states because the agreements must be beneficial to all parties involved and any costs associated with the alliance will have a greater impact on small power states. These costs are often dictated by the large power countries entering the agreement, and in many cases these costs restrict the actions that small states can take both internally and externally.

Shelter Theory

Examples of the types of protections sought by small power states include economic, social, and political.

According to economic shelter theory, small power states seek assistance in becoming involved in the global economy. This assistance may come in the form of loans or, more simply, the opportunity to participate in the open market. The very nature of small economies means they tend to have less diversified production practices than other countries, which increases their need to take part in international trade. Economic protections for small power states may come from international organizations or from large power states.

According to social shelter theory, small power states seek recognition at an international level. This desire to have a recognized identity is motivated by the fact that small power states with no global interactions may suffer from inactivity. Change drives economies and societies toward growth, and without international recognition, small power countries risk being excluded from the international exchange of people, ideas, and information in general. Each of these items is necessary to promote change and growth within a society.

According to political shelter theory, small power states are primarily concerned with gaining political and/or military power in the international scene. In international politics, the size of a country's military often determines its level of power in international relationships. Many small power states have small or nonexistent militaries, which drives them to seek access to larger militaries. In order for large power states to offer military protections, small power states must often agree to the guidelines set forth by these larger countries.


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