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The unexpected power of small states

One of the baffling aspects of international power politics is the unexpectedly major influence exercised by particular small states. Professor of International Studies and Global History Isabelle Duijvesteijn discovered that peace missions and development aid help generate power. Inaugural lecture 6 November.

Effective instruments

Duijvesteijn thought it was time to take a critical look at one of the most persistent ideas in international politics: the law of the strongest. 'People often think that, because of their size, small states have less influence in international politics,' she says.  'Yet we see that some small states are able to make big improvements in their position in international politics, and not only through diplomacy. There are particular instruments in international politics that prove to be much more effective than we would expect.' 

UN Security Council
The UN Security Council monitors security and safety worldwide. The Council has 15 members, 5 of whom are permanent. The others are elected for a period of two years.

Conscious choices

How is it, for example, that some small states manage to be elected as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council while others do not? According to Duijvesteijn, this is because these countries have made conscious political choices that have had a direct influence on their standing in the international political system. 

Effective campaigns

For her research on the relative inequality in power exercised by different small states Duijvesteijn looked at such areas as their participation in international peace operations and investments in development aid. Her research showed that both these activities had positive outcomes in such areas as elections for important decision-making bodies such as the United Nations. 

Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan, who comes from Ghana, was Secretary-General of the United Nations for almost ten years.

Between goodwill and power

So, are development aid and peace missions still a matter of good intentions and altruism? Duijvesteijn: ‘I have no doubt on that score. But I also have no doubt that small states are well aware that goodwill can be converted into a more powerful position. The small state of Ghana endorses international peace and security in both word and deed; it's even included in the country's constitution. This attitude made sure that the country - however small - was listened to: as a result, Ghana provided a UN Secretary-General - Kofi Annan from 1997 to 2006 - and was elected as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. That demonstrates an interesting pattern that calls for some explanation.'  


There is another example closer to home: in the 90's, following a successful campaign, the Netherlands was elected to the UN Security Council. At the time, the Netherlands was a figurehead in development aid; the country was the biggest financial donor to the UN's development programme. Duijvesteijn: ‘This aid wasn't intended in the first instance as a strategic attempt to gain power. But I talked to a former ambassador who said that this commitment to development aid did play a major role in the election of the Netherlands to the Council.  The fact that it also brought us greater power was a side-effect.' 

Professor by special appointment

Isabelle Duijvesteijn is professor at the Institute for History and works mainly in the International Studies programme. She gives most of her lectures within International Studies, but also regularly teaches in the International Relations programme.

(Julia Nolet)

Isabelle Duijvesteijn's inaugural lecture entitled Machiavelli and the Minor States; Power Politics in the International System will take place on 6 November at 16.00 hrs in the Academy Building at Leiden University. 

Please register if you wish to attend

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