Research Background


One of the most enduring divides in international relations is that between ‘small states’ and ‘great powers’. It was formally established at the 1814 Treaty of Chaumont, which did away with the notion that states were equal and divided them into two categories: great powers, the main drivers of the international system, and small states, too insignificant to influence the shape of the international environment.1 Since then, scholars have debated what sets apart small states from great powers: are they really different, and, if so, how? Increasingly, scholarship has focused not only on the problems and costs associated with being ‘small’ – such as having a less diversified economy or limited military capabilities – but also on the opportunities and benefits of ‘smallness’, including the ability to play off larger powers against each other and influence international bodies to work on their behalf. But no consensus has emerged on what a small state is or does.2

By contrast, our common project takes as its starting point the crucial notion that ‘small’ is not a rigid and static category, but the result of internal discourses, which change over time. In our view, self-identifying as small is prescriptive: when a country considers itself ‘small’, it will act ‘small’. We will therefore focus on small state self-identifications as the result of processes of historical contingency and social construction. Specifically, we will highlight the connections between shifting ideas about a state’s (relative) size, competing notions of national interest and mission, and concrete foreign policy actions. This approach highlights the conditional nature of a small state’s international outlook and underscores the need for a historicized and comparative perspective.

We aim, therefore, firstly to analyse the individuals or groups articulating these competing views: who are chiefly responsible for creating these narratives, where do they find their audiences and when are they successful? Secondly, we will compare and contrast the different discourses on ‘smallness’: how are they connected to specific notions of a country’s history or destiny? Are they between these discourses on small state identity and specific practices of ‘smallness’. Can we connect shifts in international activity to changing notions of small-state self-identity? And, if so, are these shifts recognised as part of a change in status in the international system?3

In doing so, we intent to establish a new research agenda for small state studies and a structurally embedded network to refine, test and disseminate its core concepts. Together, the network members will build upon the methodological outline presented above, present comparative historical case studies illustrating its use, and jointly prepare a grant application to further expand the scale and scope of the network’s activities.

Importance, added value and urgency

Currently, the field of small state studies is heavily fragmented. The lack of an agreed definition of ‘smallness’ results in tensions and contradictions in the existing scholarship, preventing comparison and innovation. By creating an international network of small state research institutions and experts from a wide variety of countries and intellectual traditions, we aim to connect divergent strands in small state studies and point a way out of the intellectual quagmire the lack of a positive definition of ‘small state’ has created. Our common methodological endeavour will serve as the bedrock for the common research agenda of our international research team as well as for a joint research grant proposal for the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (Horizon2020). We will also investigate other grant opportunities to expand the geographical and temporal scope of our research and allow for in-depth cross-case historical analyses of small states in history.

A renewed focus on small states is both timely and urgent. The number of smaller political units is large, and continuously increasing through secession and irredentism. Meanwhile, larger political entities break up and disappear. It is therefore remarkable how little we understand of what sets these small states apart from self-proclaimed ‘great powers’ such as nineteenth-century Imperial Britain or the contemporary United States, or how being ‘small’ (and feeling ‘small’) affect statespolicies.4 Our joint research into the changing shape of discourses and practices surrounding‘smallness’ and foreign policy practices since the nineteenth century promises to significantly contribute to our understanding of the evolving roles of small states in the international system. Moreover, by historicising our conception of ‘small states’, we will also allow for a fuller understanding of the fluidity of terminology and changing determinants of ‘smallness’ in international relations, from its invention in 1814 to the present day.