The end of Cold War and the emergence of a unipolar world made the Grand strategy process elaboration difficult for great powers. The debates around the way in which the new Grand strategy of the US should be designed are still very active and spirited among both practitioners and scholars. However, a fact is certain: a great power must have a Grand strategy in order to preserve its role and to pursue its national interests.
The aim of this post is to explore the question of whether small countries need a grand strategy or not and what are the advantages and disadvantages of having (or not) a grand strategy. Also, I would like to identify some general patterns of grand strategies for small countries from the perspective of geographical position and the proximity of great powers.
To be able to answer these questions, first we have to define what a small country is and when a state is to be considered small? There are several criteria and indicators which may help us to identify a small country: population, GDP, military assets and seize of the country itself. However, smallness should be examined under the theory of relativity: it is small compared to what? Thus Belgium according to these criteria is a small country compared to France but it is bigger than Montenegro. That is why physical measurement is not enough to determine if a country is small or not. A crucial moment for determining how big a small country is the distribution of the state power in the country, in the region (among its neighbors) and how it acts on the international arena. From this perspective, a country is to be considered small if it is suffering a shortage of autonomy, so that it has no influence on other states and depends (economically, militarily etc) on other countries. Taking into account this definition and all particularities of small countries, a natural and legitimate question arises: Does a small country need a grand strategy?
The “yes” answer: According to the definition above, a small country would lack human, industrial and military capability, thus we can presume that even if a small country will design a Grand strategy it will lack the resources to implement it. Therefore, it would seem that small countries do not need a Grand strategy. However, a country that fits the criteria presented above still has its national interests. Of course, these interests will be very minimalist in comparison to a great power strategy; mainly they will focus on national survival as an independent and self-governing country. And as long as Grand strategy provides the linkage between national interests and actions to be undertaken to achieve these ambiguous interests, taking into account the methods (ways) and resources (means) that might be employed in pursuit of those interests, it is a useful tool that a country must design. Effective Grand strategies provide a unifying purpose and direction to national leaders, public policy makers, allies and influential citizens in the furtherance of mutual interests. As result a Grand strategy reduces the risks of chaotic decisions. This systemic and calculated approach towards the national interest helps consolidating the efforts of all interested actors and might have a significant impact in the case of small countries: it helps to save the country’s limited resources by supervising their distribution. Thus, the probability of the achievement of its national interest under the grand strategy scenario is more likely then in its absence.
The “no” answer: At a first sight, a strategy might not seem absolutely necessary for a small state which lives in benign and stable security circumstances, without too much to fear and threats and with no pressing wants to remedy, especially if its system of governance is efficient and capable of rapid consensus based action. Unfortunately, this seems to be the case only of few small countries which are typically outliers from the general rule (Monaco, Luxemburg, Norway). So the situation when a country does not need a security grand strategy because it is secured enough is possible but very unlikely for the most of small countries.
Second: Grand-strategic decisions are difficult because they deal with intangibles; they require leaders to think conceptually and to visualize the effects of a series of seemingly unrelated actions. To present a functioning grand strategy, the national political process must achieve consensus amongst the polity that will implement it.
This political mature approach seems to be less possible in small countries with unstable domestic political systems. And an overall view to small countries (especially in Africa or Eastern Europe) shows that political instability is one of the most preeminent features of a small country. That is why a small country under the conditions of instability will be just unable to follow the course designed by its strategy; so the efforts and resources used to elaborate such a strategy will be wasted in vain.
And finally, grand strategy requires great discourse. A small country needs prominent leaders that know how to use words to transform strategic reality. And because words speak to the emotions, there tends to have to be an identity component in the magic. It is enough to point out the impact on the grand strategy of the country of Fidel Castro, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, Oscar Arias Sanchez, Ariel Sharon. Unfortunately, just very few countries are lucky enough to have this kind of leaders.
Because a grand strategy must be sufficiently ambiguous to allow for broad interpretation, informed resource distribution and finally, when implemented, it must ultimately leave the nation more rather than less secure, the task of the leaders and policy makers is even more difficult. That is why sometimes the absence of a grand strategy is a strategy itself, especially for a small country. The absence of the commitments allows the country to be flexible, to adapt the country security strategy according to the agenda of great powers, to seek for more forthcoming benefits, to change the course of the it’s decisions according to the changes of the international arena.This being said we can conclude that small countries are different, and these differences make them act in different manner. These distinctive patterns derive from their geography, natural resources, political institutions, and proximities to great powers, demographics and historical precedent. It is within the unique context of particular circumstances that each nation designs or not its grand strategy. However a small incursion in the history shows as three different grand strategy scenario to which small countries recourse in order to ensure its national interests. The small number of alternatives (only three) also implies a general characteristic of the strategy: it cannot be aggressive and the country cannot expect to take a leading role.
The strategy of neutrality: For centuries, neutrality was seen as the alternative to military alliances, a safety belt if collective security failed. In realist accounts, neutrality was determined by exogenous and material forces – imposed by great powers, or dictated by geography or small power status. The harshest criticism to the strategy of neutrality was claimed by the realist theory, and has dominated mainstream understanding of neutrals as small, weak, amoral and passive actors in the international system. The strategy of neutrality is not working without the recognition of great powers: ‘necessity of war’ meant belligerents readily violated neutrality (Belgium and Norway examples during the WWII) and the ability to stay neutral was dependent upon geostrategic considerations rather than rights. However, the successful story (in a post World War II era) of Switzerland, Finland, Austria, Sweden, Denmark might be a powerful argument to undertake this grant strategy perspective. The neutrality is often chosen as an answer to the proximity of two great powers (the example of Republic of Moldova, which is sandwiched between Russia and NATO).
The strategy of joining strong alliances: The European Union probably is the best example how a joint alliance of 27 seven countries, many of them being small countries (for example Nordic bloc: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland) can help such countries to pursuing their national interests in preserving their autonomy and self-government. The benefits of joining European Union are even greater for a young small country with less experience in self-governance: the process of integration is supported by very well elaborated political prescription and systematic control over their achievement. A small country can go further and join more than one alliance for example EU and NATO (if it is not a military neutral country of course) or other economic oriented alliances. This strategy requires commitment to certain values shared between the member countries of the alliance, or even some concession over the traditional state power. However, this strategy seems to be one of the most attractive to many small countries and the competition to become one of the member in a strong alliance as European Union or NATO is, is still very tight.
Seeking protection from or partnership with one great power strategy: In the last two decades most of European small countries emerged as result of collapse of Soviet Union or Former Yugoslavia. The burden of independence, the systemic lack of self-government skills determined some of them to seek protection of the former ruler (for example the case of Belarus) but being a satellite to a great power can cost more in long-run perspective: other countries can avoid any kind of economic, diplomatic etc. relations with such a satellite just because of its relations with that great power.
As it was said before there are many factors which might influence a small country to develop a grand strategy. The strategy itself is dependent on a range of factors: from the geographical point of view it is more plausible that a small country with a great power neighbor will choose to be a satellite of that power. This choice might be even more plausible if that country had some historical precedents of collaboration with that great power. The same geographical location might determine a country to declare its neutrality, if for example it is an insular country. For some small countries, there is a conflict of such factors – e.g. where the proximity of great powers and the economic interests of joining an alliance conflict – such as the situation of EU-bordering countries in Eastern Europe that are fundamentally split in their internal and external politics between east and west.
In my view, the argument that a small country needs a Grand strategy just because it would help it avoid chaotic decisions and save its scarce resources, is a decisive one. It is definitely more substantial than the assertion that a small country does not need such a strategy due to its lack of capacity and resources to implement it. It is the Grand strategy that answers this very question: how to achieve your goal when you have few resources and low capacities? So keeping in mind the realistic possibilities of one's country (the possible outcome of all factors described above) there is a good chance to design a small grand strategy for a small country.