Accessibility links

Breaking News

World: Analysis From Washington -- In Praise Of Small Countries

Washington, 9 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Compared to large states, small countries often provide greater opportunities for the development of balanced and just societies, for popular participation in democratic governance, and for moral leadership in the international environment.

That is the argument of a new book entitled "The Breakdown of Europe" by Sir Richard Body. A practicing Conservative politician and a leading opponent of British participation in Europe, Body thus becomes of one of the very few political figures of any hue to question the values of economic globalization and international political integration.

Because most people around the world view both globalization and integration not only as inevitable but as positively good things, Body's argument is unlikely to win many immediate converts. But precisely because it represents a challenge to assumptions few have examined, it deserves at the very least a careful hearing.

Body bases his argument on Aristotle's observation that overly large states often contribute to political and economic injustice. Writing in the "Politics," the Greek philosopher maintains that "to the size of states, there is a limit as to plants, to animals and to implements; for none of these retain their power of facility when they are too large."

In support of this general view, Body makes three specific arguments:

First, he suggests that smaller countries often guarantee greater prosperity to their populations. Body understands prosperity both in terms of material well-being and also with regard to social and political stability.

Even in terms of material measures, Body insists, small states often do quite well when they decide not to join larger groupings. For example, as Body notes, the Norwegians have done quite well since they voted against joining the European Union, despite predictions that this would lead to that country's impoverishment.

"The years have gone by," Body says, "and Norway is doing outstandingly well. It must be intensely irritating for the prophets of doom. And," he concludes almost with glee, "what a contrast to Sweden!"

But for Brody, material wealth is not enough. Societies must have sufficient "civic bonds" to govern personal behavior and provide moral authority to the actions of the government. Only a society with such bonds is likely to be both free and orderly. And such ties, Body insists, are far more common in smaller countries than in larger ones.

Specifically, he suggests that Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland are characterized by these values in ways that Great Britain, India, or the United States often are not. And he links this difference to the difference in size between the two groups.

Second, Body argues that smaller societies provide greater opportunities for democratic activism. In larger countries, the individual often feels powerless before large groups and thus withdraws from public life. But in small ones, any individual can have a profound effect.

In New Zealand, Body notes, "a single individual operating from his home at little expense can run an effective campaign about national issues," thus proving in Body's words that "the smaller the crowd, the smaller the voice need be" and that no one in a small country need feel "cut off" from political influence.

And while it will always be true that "majority opinion is almost certainly going to prevail" in smaller countries with democratic systems, "a handful" of people in them "can convert their minority into a majority," something far more difficult in larger states.

And third, he suggests that smaller and what he calls more "human-scale" societies can serve as a vital corrective to the drab uniformity, selfish materialism, and short-term greed that larger states and groups of states sometimes appear to promote.

Body decries the passing of local and national patriotism, of attachment to ones own immediate surroundings. He notes that despite claims to the contrary, no "European" or "global" identity has appeared to take its place. Instead, individuals are often alienated in a world dominated by big governments, big corporations, selfishness and greed.

Even more, Body suggests, as did Aristotle in classical times, smaller states can provide a welcome relief to the drab uniformity of larger ones. Like the great cities of ancient Athens, Renaissance Italy and Elizabethan England, smaller countries often can make a kind of artistic and even moral contribution that larger states sometimes cannot.

And consequently, if they remain open to one another, a large number of smaller and very independent countries may make a greater contribution precisely because of their diversity than would a smaller number of tightly integrated and homogenized communities of whatever name.

Many critics have already denounced Body as a reactionary, as a man who is fighting the flow of history. But unless arguments of the kind he makes are taken seriously -- even if only to be dismissed in the end -- the world is likely to be a poorer place regardless of whether the trends he espouses or those he opposes actually occur.