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Small States Suffer When Big States Bark

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Doha, Qatar © YmPhotos

September 06, 2017 00:30 EDT

The examples of Qatar and Nepal show a true reflection of the struggle between small countries and big powers.

The Qatar crisis raises two issues in the field of international relations today. The first is to disprove the mainstream Cold War-era view that small states cannot play a significant role in global affairs. The second is that big powers always use hard means to take control of ambitious, small states in order to preserve the status quo.

Realists in international relations theory argue that politics is regulated by those who have power, and it is this multidimensional power of states that defines what is right and what is wrong. To put it simply, it is the power that defines both the truth and the perspectives to look into the truth.

For realists, small states have a limited choice between the “bandwagon” or “balancing” approach. In international politics, hegemony is perceived as a threat to other nations, which makes these states group together politically, economically and militarily in order to check the concentration of power of one particular country. This is popularly known as the balancing approach. In the bandwagoning approach, small states realize that the cost of opposing an adversary is more than cooperating with them and, therefore, smaller countries tend to take a risky decision to join the bigger power.

This perspective resembles Cold War literature of international relations theory, which assumes that the survival of a small state depends on the security its neighbors provide. Many geostrategic thinkers during that time stressed the importance of a country’s defense and strong foreign policy in order to protect its sovereignty and independence. Realist literature written after World War II also asserts that the sovereignty of a small state would be threatened if a great power saw a strategic interest in interfering and violating that nation’s territorial rights.

This perspective changed after the Cold War ended. With the erosion of merely superpower politics, small states adopted a diplomatic practice that not only became limited with the realist choices of bandwagoning and balancing, but also the one that influenced regional and international politics. With the heyday of globalization, small states can be economic and political hubs as trade liberalization and foreign direct investment have provided them opportunities for speedy growth. The anarchic self-help system of international politics forces any state to defend itself instead of relying on others. Tommy Koh, a Singaporean diplomat, also argues that a small nation state must develop the capacity to defend itself. Even though many such states are improving their position in international politics, they are still far behind the leading pack.


Indeed, international politics is still led by the same traditional powers that pursue their own national interests and foreign policy objectives, which sometimes results in security crises for smaller nations and the violation of international law. This is the situation with the Qatar crisis.

Since June, Qatar has faced an unexpected crisis as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen severed diplomatic and economic relations with it. Just like in international relations theory where states contest to sustain their favorable status quo, the Saudi-led coalition expressed its concern over Qatar’s ambitious foreign policy and tried to preserve the status quo, which has been unshakably led by Saudi Arabia. For Riyadh and Co., it is they who decide whether Qatar’s soft power and its economic success can challenge the status quo in the Middle East and beyond.

Following the palace coup of 1995, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani — unlike his father who kept Qatari foreign policy in check according to Saudi interests —built an ambitious and innovative foreign policy ranging from stiff improvement through economic reforms, universal suffrage and the political reforms that helped develop Qatar’s soft power in global affairs. Fast forward to today and the current emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, has continued with his father’s ambitious foreign policy goals.

Beyond Qatar, the Gulf crisis is a strong message to Iran and its allies in the region. Saudi Arabia and Iran, as the two elephants in the room, have repeatedly clashed as the leading Muslim nations of Sunni and Shia Islam. Both nations have an abundance of oil reserves and have engaged in proxy wars in the Middle East. This Gulf split over Iran has isolated Qatar, and this has led to Doha building on its diplomatic relations with Iran and Turkey.

In 2014, following another diplomatic fallout in the Gulf, Qatar signed the Riyadh agreement and vowed to end all support to non-state actors such as the Muslim Brotherhood, but Doha failed to implement the policy change. This made Saudi Arabia and other regional powers question whether Qatar was challenging the status quo of the Gulf.

The end result to the whole saga has led to one of the worst diplomatic crises the region has ever seen.


Nepal has a similar story of being trapped between competing regional powers. The country is a key example of how small, landlocked states struggle to maintain their territorial sovereignty and independence.

In 1962, Nepal suffered when two of its neighboring nuclear giants, China and India, experienced a diplomatic fallout. A border clash between India and China resulted in Nepal losing Kalapani when the Indian army set up a base on Nepalese land. Despite many high-level talks, India has failed to relinquish control of the territory.

Similarly, after the promulgation of the constitution in 2015, Nepal faced an “unofficial” border blockade by India that resulted in a humanitarian crisis in the country. The fact that the Nepalese constitution did not suit New Delhi saw India take the sledgehammer diplomatic approach.

These are not the only during diplomatic crises that Nepal has suffered. In 2015, New Delhi and Beijing released a joint statement to expand their trans-border cooperation through the Lipulekh Pass during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China. Despite being a tri-junction point between all three states, Nepal was not part of the India-China talks.

The realist school of international relations assumes that state interest is the determining factor of bilateral and multilateral communications. This means that all states, irrespective of their size and power, are rational actors that seek to defend their interests similarly. This is why many small countries become a ground of competition for these bigger countries. Nepal, for example, is squeezed between the geostrategic rivals of China and India, meaning that Kathmandu struggles to build an independent bilateral relationship with its neighbors. Nepal, therefore, has become a ground for these two giants to show their presence and to peruse their strategic interests.

Power politics not only shows the real color of international relations, but it also questions the recognition of international laws and the notion of sovereignty. The examples of Qatar and Nepal show a true reflection of the struggle between small countries and big powers. Small states strive to be heard in international politics, while big powers aim to maintain their dominant position in global affairs.

Article 2 of the UN Charter preaches the “principle of sovereign equality of all its members.” Yet these two cases show how nation states have a tendency to ignore the UN when their national interests are at stake. This poses a serious question of when and whether the international system functions by the rules of the game — the rule that nation states made for themselves to regulate international relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: YmPhotos /

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