Small States and the Role of the Military 

Small states are difficult to define. In terms of international law all states are equal, regardless of population size, form of political organisation, territory, economic strength, reputation or military capability. However, law may regulate political action and does not determine it. International affairs and politics are shaped by preferences. These preferences may have different sources, such as systemic considerations and conditions, societal interests, social values or individual ideas. The roots of political rationality at the state level are manifold (in theoretical terms). State interests can be pursued by different means, of course. Military and economic might are the most obvious resources for political manoeuvrability. Yet material means are not the only currency within an international arena which (might) be shaped by the (presumed) “subjects” of international politics (“great powers”) but is formed by its “objects” (of “smaller size”). The latter may utilise and promote  institutionalisation or influence discourses etc as “soft means”.

In other words, a state’s role within the international or intersocietal system, whether “small” or “big”, is hard to define – given political influence is the central facet, for example. However, “small states” display commonalities: As harsh as it sounds, a look at “state-formation” theorising reveals that “resource-poor” areas (men, food, productive capacity etc.) are generally absorbed by more potent (and/or influential) social units. In short, “small states” – in relation to other states – are limited in view of population size and territory (hence also natural resources). This limitation characterises their relative vulnerability (hence “small” or “weak” or whatever term one wants to apply within a categorisation of informal statuses of states). However, small states display an odd variation: they are highly diverse in terms of military and coalition policies. Some states are neutral whereas others form part of an alliance, for example. Some are highly militarised whereas others barely sustain an army, if at all. Small states are both anachronistic and highly modern phenomena since they resisted social integration and consolidation processes to the point where military, economic and legal developments (or rather shifts) offer new tools for state survival and (international) political action. Yet, their ongoing (internal) ‘consolidation’ and (regional as well as global) resilience does not appear to follow a single logic. Why is this the case? What are the forces behind such a diversity of policies? What does this tell us about ideas on social change, state-formation and changes in the international (or intersocietal) system?

The current conditions of the broader social environment of states (“international system”) may very well contribute to or even determine small state’s policies. But if one accepts that states are not merely legal “black boxes” but social entities within a continuous process of social structuration, internal and further factors equally demand consideration. They do not seem to share the tools for their resilience though within a supposedly unitary system determined by what has historically been presented as a central force in the formation of stateness, namely “power”. And instead of treating them as unitary actors caught in a power game in which some are more, others less “developed”, as if “full-blown-statehood” (“being powerful and efficient”) followed an inevitable logic of social structuration, not only is it important to reflect concepts of stateness (the “what”) and its historical depth (the “when”), but also differences and interactions between what could be called “tertiary” and “secondary” states, for instance. Having said this, the guiding question of the project is: Given that small states prove to be highly “resilient”, which factors influence their military policies?


Image: extract from

Since 2019 

Doctoral candidate:
Karl Hampel

Sonja Kmec

CET Members:
Harlan Koff

University of Luxembourg