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Featured Review | A Small State’s Guide to Influence in World Politics

Tom Long (2022). A Small State’s Guide to Influence in World Politics. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 9780190926212, 240 pp. (hardback), £19.99.

The academic literature on small states has come a long way since Annette Baker Fox published her seminal study The Power of Small States: Diplomacy in World War II in 1959. Whilst still too often marginalised in favour of studying great powers, at times pioneering works such as Peter Katzenstein’s 1985 economic treatise Small States in World Markets and the launch of Small States & Territories journal in 2018 have sought to explicitly centre the study of small states as distinct actors in the international system. To date, much of this work has focused on advancing singular or comparative cases, but with some noble efforts to construct wider theory, including Lino Briguglio’s studies of vulnerability and resilience, and Baldur Thorhallsson’s work on shelter seeking. Similarly, Tom Long’s A Small State’s Guide to Influence in World Politics is a trail-blazing effort to build new theory in the discipline of small state studies – as persuasive in its conceptual development as it is dazzling in the genuine internationalism of its case studies.

The work opens by tracing the development of the study of small states, largely a peripheral and Eurocentric undertaking. The book addresses the perennial challenge of defining small states, outlining material and ideational approaches that long dominated the debate, before clearly situating its approach in the recent ‘relational’ turn. This is important because the conceptual foundation of the book involves understanding small states in terms of their relationships – specifically, as the weaker part of an asymmetric relationship. Departing from the focus on structures in international relations or domestic relationships definitive of foreign policy analysis, the centring of asymmetry enables Long to ask his core research question: ‘can small states shape outcomes in their asymmetrical relationships and under what conditions?’ (43).

In response, Long first establishes that asymmetry will shape how states define and pursue their interests, but it is not determinative of those interests, nor prospective outcomes. He has designed a ground-breaking typological theory to recognize the conditions favourable to overcoming asymmetry, based on the degree of prevalence of three criteria: policy divergence (do the asymmetric powers diverge in their goals?); relational issue salience (how much attention is given to the policy shift by each state?); and preference cohesion (how much consensus is there within the state about how to address the issue?). Depending on how high or low the confluence of these factors plays out in different temporal contexts, windows of opportunity may arise for small states to engender policy shifts.

Consequently, Long establishes twelve potential scenarios, requiring different strategies. For instance, ‘red’ cases that score high on all three criteria leave little room for manoeuvre and small states may need to bide their time for more auspicious conditions; conversely, ‘green’ cases demonstrating low policy divergence, high relational issue salience, and high preference cohesion enable small states to offer mutual benefits, propitious to policy change. The blue ‘extraversion’ strategies are particularly interesting for demonstrating how small states can take advantage of great powers’ limited knowledge and stereotypes to advance their own ends. Where Jack Corbett has written of the ‘competent performance of vulnerability’ by small states turning their weaknesses into strengths, one could argue that Long offers us the ‘competent leveraging of inattention’ by small states, who understand the rhetorical buttons they need to press to encourage great powers to change.

Following the establishment of the theory, the book turns to case studies. In this balanced account, Long devotes a chapter each to strategies seeking change in bilateral relations with asymmetric powers or supranational organisations in the spheres of security; economics; and institutions, laws, and norms (in the latter, elevating the analysis from bilateral to multilateral engagement on climate, human rights, regional organisations, and global public health). These chapters each present eight cases: a success story and failure from Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. For instance, the success of ‘donor darling’ Rwanda is contrasted with donors ‘running the show’ in Zambia (118). The global empirical scope and deft treatment of such diverse cases is remarkable. Not only does Long expand the purview of small state studies into understudied regions such as Latin America, but he does so with aplomb, presenting a convincing application of his theories to each case in turn.

At last, here is a theory that helps explain similar strategic approaches deployable by countries in wildly differing geopolitical locations, with success founded upon an effective understanding of how to deploy intrinsic, derivative, and/or collective power to achieve goals in asymmetric negotiations. The book is engaging, despite its complex subject matter, and its broad remit will make it a practical and useful tool for policymakers from any of the 108 members of the Forum of Small States at the United Nations.

Methodologically, the work is comprehensively researched, with the footnotes reading like a ‘who’s who’ of leading scholars in international relations. However, the book may have benefited from engaging further with literature on leadership within foreign policy analysis. Many successes and failures delineated often seemed down to savvy strategizing by leaders – such as Morales improving Bolivia’s gas profits and Havel promoting Czech protection of international human rights – as contrasted with the leadership failures epitomised by Hernández sacrificing Honduran autonomy for American facilities, and Tsipras presenting Greece as bad-faith negotiators to the EU Troika. Valerie Hudson’s actor-specific theory reminds us that relations between states are decided by human decision makers, so some explicit reflection on leadership theory in relation to strategies for success may illuminate how actors’ personal characteristics can assist in shifting strategies from one restrictive colour code to a more enabling one.

Still, the rich theorisation in this book is a watershed moment that has significantly advanced our theoretical study of the strategies of small states. The author is clearly a Bob Dylan fan (56) so it seems apt to borrow his words to conclude that this book is “gonna change [our] way of thinking, make [ourselves] a different set of rules” in understanding how small states pursue foreign policy over the years to come.

Dr Hillary Briffa, King’s College London

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