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East European Perspectives: September 19, 2001

19 September 2001, Volume 3, Number 16

By George Schopflin

One of the major paradoxes of European politics is that Europe is a diverse region of large and small states, with just a few medium sized ones, yet despite the small state being the European norm, the rules are made up by the large states. There would be no paradox at all, of course, if power were the sole determinant. Large states do have a higher capacity to condense power and can better impose their will on others than small states. But the European tradition, both pre-modern and modern, has been quite clear in providing space and voice for small units, has accepted diversity, and has created a complex set of rules to regulate the rights of states, which definitely favor small entities. State sovereignty clearly favors small states, as it formally gives them the same rights as large ones, at least as far as international law is concerned.

For my purposes, any state with a population smaller than circa 25 million counts as a small state in today's Europe, because it is too small to generate the critical cultural mass and condense sufficient cultural power to be more autarkic than not -- not autarkic in the economic sense, of course. Small states, being the expression of numerically small cultural communities, are necessarily more exposed to the outside world, to the conscious and, even more, the unconscious actions of large ones (over circa 50 million).

Given the complexity of late modernity, they find it harder to create elites to fill all the niches in culture, politics, the economy and so on than large ones do. They do not have access to the same networks of information and their pool of talent is inherently more limited. Nor can they take their languages for granted. The problem of language requires far greater analysis than large states care to admit. Often, the anxieties of small states on this score is dismissed in purely material terms -- the "unnecessary" costs of translation -- without the remotest understanding that every language is the bearer of unique values that contribute, indirectly rather than directly, to the wider European community. The underlying banal universalism could hardly be clearer in this context.

The problem of culture has other ramifications. If, as argued, small communities find it difficult to condense the same intensity of cultural power as larger ones, then they are necessarily forced to be open to external cultural currents that large states can ignore. They have to rely on external models and at best construct syntheses between their own domestic value systems and the ones from outside. When the emphasis on domestic values spills over into excess, the outcome can easily turn into populism or even xenophobia. Central here is the knowledge that small states have that their values, their norms, their moral worth can never aspire to universality.

They are, therefore, more aware of their size and that awareness plays a role in their attitude to questions of power and the nature of the state system. They have a sense of the need to protect their values in ways that would never arise in large states, not least an ongoing quest for recognition. This quest goes on, sometimes overtly, sometimes tacitly, in spite the of the greater firmness of the international institutional architecture that has been put in place since 1945. Nevertheless, instances of pressure (undue pressure?) by large states do come to mind -- the boycott of Austria in 2000 being one -- together with the sense that somewhat different criteria are applied to small states than to large ones. Pressure or insensitivity can thus give rise to anxieties that large states do not really comprehend.

Small states have a genuine problem of voice, a problem that is made worse by being unrecognized. They have to shout louder, as it were, to make themselves heard, something that irritates large states because they are unaware of this problem. Being ignored in my sense then raises questions, usually implicitly, about the moral worth of small communities. Is the existence of a small state community valued and accepted in the same way as a large one? Clearly not, and that in itself constitutes the difficulty. From this perspective, the sense of unease is a source of cultural insecurity that structures the attitudes and behavior of small states.

It is clear enough from the history of modern Europe that large states have been repeatedly ready to ride roughshod over the rights of small ones, which they tended to regard as somewhat dubious areas, and which -- if not in their sphere of interest -- should not be allowed to slip into another's. Misha Glenny's history of the Balkans is structured around this proposition (Glenny, 1999). The entire history of Europe up to 1914 can be read through this perspective. The proposition that small states might have different interests of their own and might not actually want to be subordinate to the political, cultural, or military power of large states seems quite frequently to have escaped the elites of large states. This attitude has not yet disappeared entirely. One still encounters a certain patronizing superiority that large states adopt, occasionally, towards small ones. Yet, at the same time the imperial idea that small entities should be grateful for being incorporated in the large imperial project with its superior culture -- an axiology that the Soviet Union happily adopted, albeit with a different legitimating discourse -- has never been the unanimous view. The fact that there were always several large players with competing interests helped to secure a space for small ones. Belgium and Austria would not have come into being otherwise.

All the foregoing seems to imply that there have been two countervailing trends in Europe and these have successfully kept one another in check or at least maintained a kind of equilibrium. My own reading is, however, that in the 21st century -- while large states in Europe have begun to come to terms with the reduction of their cultural reach as a result of globalization -- they are still a long way from treating small states as fully equal in terms of esteem. The cultural arrogance of the large states lives on in various types of dismissal, patronage, paternalism, or marginalization, and this can have political consequences. The really major difference, however, has come with the EU, which has given small states a position, a sense of esteem and prestige that they would never otherwise have attained. Large states are willy-nilly forced to listen to small ones while they hold the presidency, for example.

What large states seem reluctant to recognize is that size matters where questions of condensing power and sustaining coherence are at issue. The very criteria of security, defined as they have largely been by the U.S., are in fact culturally determined and do not recognize that small states have qualitatively different security needs. Central here is the sense that large states can take far more of their security -- in the widest sense -- for granted, whereas small states cannot. While large states can make mistakes, for small states this can be devastating, like ending up on the wrong side at the end of a war.

Where small states differ qualitatively from large ones, then, is that they cannot take their existence for granted, at any rate not in the configuration of their choosing. Large states can often ignore the outside world and make their dispositions without reference to the views of others, within the broad norms of international expectations. Despite the far-reaching changes in practice since 1989 and the significant dilution of state sovereignty through a variety of instruments like the European Convention on Human Rights, these figure less prominently in the perceptions of large states. Small states, on the other hand, are inherently weaker and more exposed to pressure, as the case of massive international pressure already mentioned over the inclusion of the nationalist far right in the Austrian coalition in early 2000 demonstrated.

Although that pressure set an important precedent -- that human rights normativity was applicable to West European states and not just the post-communists -- it must be demonstrated by practice that it can be applied to large states as well. Furthermore, human rights normativity had a distinctly left-wing bias in the 1990s. The two most visible instances, Pinochet and Haider, were both left-wing initiatives. This is not necessarily reprehensible, but it can only be regarded as universally valid if it is demonstrated, in symbolic as well as concrete terms, that violations committed by self-styled left-wing regimes are similarly vulnerable. Is Gorbachev responsible for the killings in Lithuania in 1991 (before his fall)? Are the Stalinist torturers from the ex-communist states liable? We do not know, but small states would certainly feel more comfortable with the application of the principle if there were demonstrable consistency in this area.

Finally, the weakening of state sovereignty impacts quite disproportionately on small states -- logically so. Globalization may be exciting for some in large states, being seen as an opportunity for innovation, but smaller ones fear for their cultural integrity and, more apocalyptically, for cultural survival. As the modern democratic nation-state erodes, the diminished capacity to condense power on the part of small-state communities and to provide the security of continuous cultural reproduction has consequences that will intensify insecurity and often enough leave smaller states with the sense of indeterminacy that can become the root of behavior that large states will dismiss as aberrant. Recognition of the different needs of small states would offset this.

The author is Jean Monnet professor of Political Science and director of the Centre for the Study of Nationalism at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.


Glenny, M., 1999, The Balkans 1804-1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers (London: Granta).