In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Small State Diplomacy

  • Introduction
  • Classical Literature
  • General Overviews
  • Multilateral Diplomacy
  • Bilateral Diplomacy
  • New Diplomatic Challenges
  • Journals
  • Online Resources

International Relations Small State Diplomacy
Anders Wivel
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0321


Small state diplomacy is typically defined in the context of and sometimes opposition to great power diplomacy. Until the end of the Cold War, small states were typically viewed as rule-takers, not rule-makers, and as security consumers, not security producers, in both the academic literature and in diplomatic practice. Since the end of the Cold War, this has changed. Today many studies of small state foreign policy and diplomacy analyze how and under which conditions small states succeed in influencing international affairs and contributing to the maintenance and development of international society. Like great powers, small states seek diplomatic goals reflecting the direct interests of the state such as the maintenance of territorial integrity, advancing prosperity, and protecting citizens abroad in combination with goals aimed as shaping the international environment, e.g., creating peaceful and rule-based international orders and protecting the global commons. However, small states have by definition more limited means than great and middle powers to pursue their diplomatic goals. They have smaller populations leaving them with a smaller tax base for financing diplomats, embassies, and the armed forces. Small states can rarely pursue coercive strategies but must rely on negotiated outcomes. Small domestic markets and the inability to defend themselves against both conventional military threats and threats to societal resilience make small states dependent upon bi- and multilateral agreements. At the same time, they have few resources to influence those agreements. Three characteristics of small state diplomacy reflect how small states seek to meet the challenges following from this predicament. First, small state diplomacy tends to rely heavily on regional and global institutions. International institutions help level the playing field by increasing transparency, creating common rules of behavior for all member states, and giving voice for opportunities. Second, small states tend to focus their diplomatic efforts in narrow diplomatic agendas. They seek to influence selected niches of special importance to the state rather than affecting overall structures and power balances. Finally, small states compensate for their lack of material capabilities by pursuing ideational strategies such as status seeking aimed at increasing their international standing in general or with selected great powers, and norm entrepreneurship aimed at promoting norms of importance to the small state.

Classical Literature

Many studies of small state foreign policy and diplomacy cite ancient Greek historian and general Thucydides’ dictum that “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” However, the study of small state foreign policy and diplomacy developed only in the 19th and 20th centuries in tandem with Diplomatic History, International Relations, and Foreign Policy Analysis. Much of the early literature is inaccessible to non-native speakers of the small states studied as they were aimed at the national community and rarely translated into English. Even today, many debates on small state diplomacy and foreign policy remain detached from international debates and the single case study discussing the peculiarities of a particular small state (of which the author is typically a native) remains a prominent research strategy. Overall, the literature remains biased with authors mainly from Europe and the United States and case studies predominantly on Europe (although increasingly also on South Asia and the Indo-Pacific). From the mid-20th century scholars such as Annette Baker-Fox (Fox 1959), Robert L. Rothstein (Rothstein 1968), Erling Bjøl (Bjøl 1968), Robert Keohane (Keohane 1969), and Michael Handel (Handel 1981) made a number of important and generalizable observations on small states. These authors shared an appreciation of the small state as limited by its material capacity and power deficit vis-à-vis the great powers, while analyzing the effects of these limitations and exploring how to overcome them by foreign policy strategy and diplomatic competence. After the end of the Cold War, a number of scholars from around the world has built on and debated these classical insights leading to important theoretical and conceptual innovations.

  • Bjøl, Erling. “The Power of the Weak.” Cooperation and Conflict 3.2 (1968): 157–168.

    DOI: 10.1177/001083676800300201

    Bjøl explores how geographic location, technology, political constellations among great powers, small state solidarity, international norms, and the status of small states affect their ability to influence international affairs.

  • Fox, Annette Baker. The Power of Small States: Diplomacy in World War II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226834863.001.0001

    In her pioneering book, Fox analyzes the diplomacy of small European states during World War II and develops a number of theoretical propositions on the nature of their security problems as well as the reasons for small state diplomatic success and failure.

  • Handel, Michael I. Weak States in the International System. London: Frank Cass, 1981.

    Handel’s book examines the diplomatic opportunities and challenges for small states in the different types of international systems and for small states inside and outside the spheres of interest of great powers. Examples include small states from Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the Indo-Pacific.

  • Keohane, Robert O. “Lilliputians’ Dilemmas: Small States in International Politics.” International Organization 23.2 (1969): 291–310.

    DOI: 10.1017/S002081830003160X

    Keohane’s much cited book review essay (discussing among others the books Rothstein 1968 and Vital 1967) expertly identifies the state of the art at the time and famously defines small powers as states considered by their leaders to be unable to make a significant impact on the international system whether acting alone or in a small group.

  • Rothstein, Robert L. Alliances and Small Powers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

    Rothstein’s book analyzes the policies and roles of small states in international security since 1815. While well aware of historical and contextual peculiarities and the constant interaction of many variables determining the diplomacy of small states, Rothstein argues that small states face a number of shared challenges that are different from those faced by great powers.

  • Vital, David. The Inequality of States: A Study of the Small Power in International Relations. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.

    Focusing on non-aligned states as a paradigmatic case of small states, Vital emphasizes the limitations for small state diplomacy and security following from military, economic, and political power disparities.

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