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Analysis From Washington -- Small States Versus Large States

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 16 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Three widely-reported developments this week highlight the difficulties all powers -- from the largest to the smallest -- now face in their efforts to create a new world order in the post-Cold War era.

The first development was the failure of the threat of unilateral American sanctions to dissuade Turkey and other countries from trading with Iran. Along with many European countries and Japan, Turkey has made it clear that it would act in accordance with its national interests and not in response to the dictates of any other country.

The second was the as-yet-unsuccessful effort of Russian and American businessmen to create a uranium cartel that would regulate the sale of processed uranium on the world market. Although this cartel has not even been established, other countries who want to sell such uranium have already objected and announced plans to undercut any Russian-American cartel.

Third was India's at least temporary success in blocking a new treaty that would ban all nuclear explosions -- even though virtually all other countries participating in the 61-nation disarmament conference support the draft accord.

Each of these cases shows just how far power has been decentralized in the international system since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Each of them also shows how much independence some smaller states have gained at the expense of larger and more powerful ones. But each also shows how much greater the uncertainties and insecurities are for both.

Ten years ago, Turkey would not have defied the United States, and India would not have been able to stand against the entire world. Moreover, ten years ago, any Soviet-American accord would have been accepted, if not greeted by other, smaller powers.

Now, the Soviet Union is no more, and "the only remaining superpower" finds that the ability of the United States to influence events may be even less than before. Indeed, as ever more countries find that they can defy American wishes with impunity, the significance of superpower status is ever less clear.

That fact has sparked uncertainty, confusion and anger among many Americans who had become accustomed to the earlier pattern and who had expected American influence to expand even more after the disintegration of the U.S.S.R.

But the increased freedom of action that this situation has created for smaller powers, something that virtually all of them have greeted, has come at an enormous price, one that many of their leaders are now desperately trying to figure out how to pay.

They are coming to recognize that their new freedom of action, their ability to act on the basis of "national interests" alone, reflects less genuine freedom than real anarchy: While they can act independently, they can no longer count on any major power or international body to defend them when they do so.

As a result, these smaller powers too are looking for a way out, for a new arrangement that will maximize their ability to act independently while minimizing their insecurities when they do.

But because the interests and values of both large powers and smaller ones are so different and so varied and because some will benefit and others lose by any arrangement that is proposed, the search for order in the new international system is likely to prove extremely difficult, if not impossible.

As a result, tensions seem likely to increase among and between the great and smaller powers for the foreseeable future, a development few expected in the euphoria attending the end of the Cold War.