Missing: the smallest states are absent in international political economy analysis

Small Island Developing States and Small Vulnerable Economies are not present in the academic literature on international norms. A new two-part blog will consider why.

Broadly speaking, small states have made significant contributions to global norms in international relations, meaning, they have contributed to establishing standards of expected behaviors for countries to adopt. However, except for a few scholars looking at the influence of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) – many of whom are Small Vulnerable Economies (SVE) – in discussions on climate change at international fora, prominent scholars in the area of small states and norms tend to engage almost exclusively in a Euro-centric, generalized view of small states and their contributions to global norms. They neglect a subset of small states – some so tiny they are referred to as micro-states – that are unique in comparison to their European counterparts that receive most of the attention in the literature. Indeed, states such as Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are small by continental European standards, but are in many ways distinct from such other small states as Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean.

This post makes a justification for the need to highlight the absence of the sub-category of small states that make up the SIDS and SVE groups within the broader study of small states and norms. This is important because there is little research done to investigate whether these states contribute to global norms, attempts they make to shape existing norms, and how successful they are in their efforts.

This post also highlights the need to bring the area of study into the field of international Political Economy (IPE) by applying norms to global trade politics. As it stands, the two are treated as mutually exclusive: on the one hand, where norms are applied to small states it is predominantly fixated on issues of climate change, arms trade or the environment. On the other hand, the IPE literature on SIDS and SVEs does not discuss the issue of international norm setting. Moving the literature toward incorporating SIDS and SVEs, and examining how they relate to global norms outside of the climate change discussion, will unearth new thinking and analysis. This will not only advance academic knowledge on the issues affecting them, but also advance policy discussions as it relates to their participation in international relations. This is especially true when combined with the application of norms to the area of IPE, which will allow for analysis into whether SIDS and SVEs are having an influence on international political economic norms, particularly as it relates to global trade where they are disproportionately marginalized. 

There is no universally agreed definition of what constitutes a small state. Scholars and policy makers have used definitions ranging from population size, square miles or usable land area, GDP, and share of international tradeOne scholar even applied a definition of subjective criteria based on how small states perceive and understand themselves. While this constructivist way of looking at small states is becoming more widespread, population size has remained the most common, if very amorphous, definition. The Commonwealth Secretariat defines a small state as having a population of 1.5 million or less. There is however a tendency for scholars to adjust the numbers to suit their empirical and analytical agendas. Hence, in the academic literature the definition of small states ranges anywhere between 1.5 million or less to 14 million.

What is certain however is that small states are not created equal, and European small states and those in the Caribbean and Pacific are not the same. Non-European small states, especially the vast majority that fall in the SIDS category, are distinctive. Not only are many unique in the history of their engagement in international relations, being former colonies and comparatively young, factors which still affect their development in the shape of dependency and social and cultural inequality,  they face structural issues not encountered by the larger small states of Europe. To elaborate, unlike small states such as Sweden (population 9.5 million, total land areas 449,964 sq. km.), the majority of SIDS and SVEs have populations below 1.5 million, are remote from larger markets, are islands, have small (usable) geographic land areas (for example, St Lucia, total land area 616 sq. km), have limited human and natural resources, high levels of vulnerability to economic shocks and natural disasters, are extremely open and dependent on external economic factors for trade, capital and technology, and even more dependent on external markets great distances away for their narrow export base. Their problems extend further: their size and remoteness incur heavy costs of doing international business due to high freight rates, air travel, and the cost of ICT communications. These issues have clearly defined negative effects on their ability to engage in international trade in a manner similar to larger states. This is still the case even if a handful of them such as Barbados and The Bahamas have managed to achieve higher levels of development than others within the groups, and have Gross National Incomes (GNI) higher than some larger countries (population wise) that are in the low income threshold; they still suffer significant diseconomies of scale. These are not characteristics typically associated with small states of Europe.

It is therefore necessary to highlight the general hypocrisy in the literature on small states and norms whereby scholars preach about the strength of small states and their ability to influence international norms, disagree that they are too small and structurally handicapped to shape international behavior, but then proceed to use such countries as Sweden, Finland or Malta to prove their point. Part II of this post will address this gap in the literature on small states and norms by incorporating SIDS and SVEs. Specifically, it will apply the area of small states and norms to the area of IPE to investigate whether this sub-category of small states have successfully created norms in the area of multilateral trade.