19 August, 2022


The Security Of Small States – Part II

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

I decided to add a second part to my article in order to focus on the question of what might be done to ensure, or at least promote, the security of small states. According to conventional wisdom the answer would be that nothing, or precious little, can be done by the small states themselves because the hard reality is that international relations are governed by the powerful and the rich. The reason for that is that it is they who have the weapons, the money, and control of the media to coerce or influence the international community in their favor. Therefore the best that a small state can do is to behave circumspectly, if need be respectfully, towards powerful countries. Alternatively, the consequences could be dire. A striking illustration was provided by the fate of President JR. He thought that he could antagonize India with impunity because the Americans would stand by him. They didn’t. The rest is history.

Unfortunately, however, prudent behavior on the part of the small states won’t suffice to secure them against the powerful. Part of the reason for that is that power contains in it a drive to influence, control, dominate the weak, which can result in ill consequences for the latter unless there are countervailing factors in operation. That was seen in the building of empires in the past, the raison d’être for which was not always or only economic gain. Today, as empires are no longer in vogue, the small states that are most vulnerable are the ones that are in contiguity to comparatively powerful states. The latter may not have a powerful urge to dominate its neighbors, but it could be expected to have legitimate security preoccupations which could lead it to want to influence its neighbors or even dominate them. The traditional answer for legitimate security preoccupations was to allow the powerful countries their spheres of influence – consisting of contiguous states – which spelt unequal relations between the powerful and the weak ranging from a loose hegemony to outright domination. So, prudent good behavior on the part of the weak will not ensure their security against the powerful.

The argument that I have developed above is premised on the assumption that only hard power counts. Hard power was traditionally conceived of as consisting of military power and economic power, but later media power was added to them. It was not appreciated that there was a qualitative difference between media power – the power to persuade others – and the two other forms of hard power which were used to coerce, not persuade, others. Media power is really what has come to be known as “soft power”, and its emergence led to a tectonic shift in international relations. Significantly, in recent times, Joseph Nye’s theorizing about soft power has come much into vogue.

I will now provide some examples to show the importance of soft power in the contemporary world after 1945. Decolonisation took place for the most part peacefully. There were violent struggles for independence only in a few places – Vietnam, Algeria, and in the final phase in Angola and Mozambique. There was a notable independence struggle in India, for the most part non-violent, but hardly anything comparable elsewhere. In most Afro-Asian countries independence was not won but was conferred on them. The reason was that in Britain and elsewhere people had turned against imperialism. That was the consequence of the soft power of ideas. Today Gandhi, the international icon of soft power, has his statue outside Westminster Abbey in London.

I will cite a few other examples, without going into details, to show the power of soft power. The Soviet Empire suddenly started to self-destruct and quickly dismantled itself. No hard power was brought to bear on the Russians towards that end. A spectacular demonstration of the limitations of hard power was provided by the American withdrawal from Vietnam. The US had the power to blow up the world several times over but it could not subdue the Vietnamese people and had to withdraw in ignominy. The American Empire itself seems to be self-destructing: the times are gone when it could to bring to heel with a few short sharp orders the likes of Marcos and the Latin American dictators, and that is not the result of the deployment of hard power against the US. At the moment the US and Russia cannot end rebellions by bombing out Mosul and Aleppo because international opinion would be against it. But during the last War Dresden was subjected to fire-bombing and two nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan, and those crimes were perpetrated with total impunity.

So, it is incorrect to say that international relations are determined solely or mainly by the rich and the powerful states and the small states don’t count at all. The reason for this is that the wretched of the earth are arising and the world is going through a revolutionary process, a process that is not restricted to the poorer countries. The eruption into the White House of a Stone Age man, Donald Trump, is the symptom of a revolt against the Establishment and a desire for fundamental change among a substantial segment of the American people. We Asians should remember that the American withdrawal from Vietnam had behind it, as a substantial factor, mass demonstrations all over the West, including within the US itself. It is therefore a reasonable expectation that should the wretched of the small states arise against bullying and domination by bigger states, they could have considerable sympathy and support in the West.

What should the small states do? First of all there must be a recognition that imperialism is no longer in vogue, and therefore all small states are not equally in danger from the bigger states. As I have argued, the small states that are contiguous to big and powerful states should be placed in a special category. There is inherent in power the drive to dominate, and big states could have special security preoccupations that drive them towards domination over small neighboring states. That that is something that can spell danger for the whole world was demonstrated convincingly by the Cuban missile crisis of the early ‘sixties. The US believed that it had the divine right to place missiles In the Soviet Union’s neighboring states. The latter wanted to reciprocate by placing missiles in Cuba. The US would have none of it, and the crisis was resolved by the reciprocal withdrawing of missiles from Cuba and Turkey. It is only in recent times that the world has come to know that we were very close to nuclear war over that nonsensical problem.

Obviously the relations between big and small neighboring states require special attention. What seems to be necessary is the working out of a regimen regulating those relations that comes to be accepted by the international community. A solution through the traditional “spheres of influence” is today unacceptable because it spells unequal relations. The regimen could be based on the two fundamental principles of Non-Alignment: the true independence of states as distinct from merely formal sovereignty and peaceful co-existence. The latter would mean that a big state should refrain from interfering in the small neighboring states of another big state. That would amount to peaceful co-existence which would eliminate security preoccupations allowing untrammeled freedom for small neighboring states. A group of small states should move in this matter through the Non-Aligned Movement and the UN. It is a matter on which the Sri Lanka Government could take a special interest for reasons that are too obvious to be spelt out.

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Latest comments

  • 4

    Izeth Eelam would be a small state and yes it needs full protection when it’s born.

    This is where your article miserably fails.

    You have completely ignored the protection of small
    states/nations in waiting to be born.

    East Pakistan, was given protection by India and the IC, before it was born as Pakistan.

    DO you think the same protection should be given to the future state of Eelam.?

    • 4


      “East Pakistan, was given protection by India and the IC, before it was born as Pakistan.”

      Its not true.

      IC, Pakistan’s all weather friend China and strategic protector USA (Pakistan was a member of SEATO, members include Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States) never protected Bangalis when they were being butchered by mad generals of Pakistan.

      By the way, JR also contemplated the idea of joining SEATO and ASEAN. Hindira Gandhi clipped his ears and made this island remained in its historical orbit.

      • 0


        Thanks for the correction

    • 0

      correction …before it was born as Bngaladesh

  • 3

    The question is about Badagini not about how powerful your neighbour near or far America is.

    Whether you like it or not. Today America is the main importer of Sri Lanka goods from Apparel to commodities not the Arab countries who have fleeced the very being of Sri Lanka via their Muslim brothers at Lanka from the days of President Terror Nasser of Egypt.

    The policy setting is that we need to have a lot of scrutiny. Mosques should be monitored completely, vetting should be taking place. … I am totally for profiling. If you need to profile, what is the fuss?

  • 3

    “The reason was that in Britain and elsewhere people had turned against imperialism. That was the consequence of the soft power of ideas. Today Gandhi, the international icon of soft power, has his statue outside Westminster Abbey in London.”

    There is another aspect of the Indian Freedom Struggle people fail to see. The Indian Freedom Struggle speaks, as much as of Ghandi, the society he “struggled” against. At the time British society – willingly or unwillingly – had evolved to a point where they could not have squashed Ghandi like a fly. In other words, Ghandi and his struggle wouldn’t have lasted 2 minutes in China, Cuba, former Soviet Union, ………….. or if your prefer Sinhala-Buddhist-Sri-Lanka. :))

    “The eruption into the White House of a Stone Age man, Donald Trump, is the symptom of a revolt against the Establishment and a desire for fundamental change among a substantial segment of the American people.”

    The assent of Trump – irrespective of popular scapegoats and other bogeys bandied around – is purely due to economic hardship felt by the common/workingman. History of the world goes around in cycles and visits different societies at different stages. The good old Führe, Duce, Rajathumano……. comes in with the promise of solving all the problems man has/is/will ever faced/facing/face and leaves leaving nothing but disappointment and destruction. Well, until the next Messiah who is going to pull rabbits out of a hat while walking on water comes along …….

    ” the American withdrawal from Vietnam had behind it, as a substantial factor, mass demonstrations all over the West, including within the US itself.”

    Pure unadulterated bull crap. America has never cared for any “opinion;” including their own, but pure self-interest. They just got their asses wupped by the lil’ Vietnamese. They were just looking for an excuse to get out. Read how Lyndon B Johnson were begging them to take his monetary/aid bribe and allow them to leave. Any patriot still remember how our leaders were falling at Sun Dog Prabakaran’s feet for “Peace-Treaty/solution/whatever?” Ah, what wonders short-memories have done for human-happiness!

    ” What should the small states do?”

    Pakistan is not stronger than and has other baggage, America is lily-livered and jelly-spined to come to our aid. The only thing an uncouth, uncultured, uncivilized, pre-historic ……… (pardon the hyperbole) country like India will understand is fear.

    The only way we can defend ourselves is a defence treaty with China. And be bold about it. No amount of falling at India’s feet will do it; the collective Indian mental-makeup is not conducive to it. Well, to put it mildly.

    The Rajapakses had the right idea but the love of themselves upended their “love” of the country.

    Well, 18 billion (so they say) can do that to a man.

    Do you know how long it took Warren Buffett to reach 18 billion?

    They say geniuses are not appreciated at home! Tsk tsk

  • 0

    Izeth gets only six comments for his superficial analysis of small states. Small states can do nicely by playing off big states against each other. Cuba, Maldives and Singapore are examples. There are lot of factors to be taken into account like strategic significance, natural and other resources, the vigour of leaders who can carry the community with them (as with Castro in Cuba or Lee in Singapore) etc. There cannot be simplistic generalisations.

    He should get back to Tamil bashing. He will at least get more comments for his rubbish.

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