[Engelstalig boek]


‘All these little countries have to be made to disappear.’ These were the words of a German officer in early August 1914 to the mayor of a newly-captured Belgian town. 1/  Such ideas were not uncommon. At the turn of the last century it was widely accepted that only large states could survive; small ones were doomed. In his influential book Mitteleuropa, which appeared in 1915, the well-known German economist Friedrich Naumann argued that the major issues of the 20th century could only be dealt with by large states. Small nations would have to merge, under the leadership of large ones. 2/ Their time had passed.

Despite these doom scenarios for small nations, the course of the 20th century reveals a very different picture from what many had expected. In spite of two major wars of conquest (World Wars One and Two) and a Cold War that split the world into two camps, there was always enough room for small nations to survive. There were still 74 independent states in 1945, but by the start of the 21st century their numbers had jumped to 193. /3  They had succeeded in adapting themselves to ever-changing circumstances, withstanding many threats, even temporary disappearance. The past few decades have seen a globalising world, a time of European integration, of imperial foreign policy on the part of the us, but also of regionalism and separatism, and international courts of justice. At the same time, terrorism in the wake of 9/11 has led to a growing number of international security arrangements. What position do the world’s small states occupy in this new political, economic and cultural constellation? Given the major changes in the international arena, is the demise of small states close at hand?

In order to answer this question we need to ask what actually constitutes the power of small states. Small states, especially at first those in Europe, have been the subject of many studies in the past. Until the 1960s researchers were often concerned with the proper place of small states in the post-1945, bipolar world order. The decolonisation of the 1960s, which created many new states, led in the Cold War period to a renewed interest in the position of small nations. After 1989 this subject was once again a focal point of attention. Prompted by the successful struggle for independence of areas like the Baltic states that were formerly under Soviet influence, but also by the neo-nationalism that was making itself felt in the Balkans and the intensified pursuit of European integration in the nineties, the position of small states once again shifted into the academic spotlight. /4

It is in times of crisis and confrontation that relations between large and small states are at their most active and intense. These are also the times when the power of small states can best be studied. This volume is about small nations and how they dealt with crisis and war during the last century. Our focus is not only, as has long been customary, the well-known small European states, but also those of Central America, the Middle East and Central East Africa. How have they managed to hold their own among the large states?

What is a small nation?

In this book the term ‘nation’ is broadly interpreted to mean ‘nation state’ or ‘country’, a sovereign state. /5  Of course, the term nation also refers to a group of people who share a common language, customs and a ‘sense of unity’. /6 A nation need not by definition coincide with a state. The emphasis in this book is on small independent states, most of which are inhabited by a single nation, but some by several.

It is difficult to say precisely whether a nation is small, medium-sized or large. Does this depend on the number of inhabitants, the surface area, or even the GNP? In the 1960s, when the number of small nations was rapidly on the increase as a result of decolonisation, an attempt was made to define small states using a ‘notion of area, population, population density, accessibility, economic resources, market size, degree of political development’ – ‘all were apparently considered at length only eventually to be rejected.’ /7  The conclusion arrived at was that smallness ‘is a comparative and not an absolute idea’.

We prefer the following definition, borrowed from an early study of small European states during World War Two by Annette Baker Fox: ‘Small powers are almost by definition ‘local’ powers whose demands are restricted to their own and immediately adjacent areas, while superpowers exert their influence over wider areas. […] the power of the small state is narrow in ‘domain,’ however much or little may be its ‘weight.’’ /8  A small state is therefore not a scaled-down version of a larger one, but rather ‘an autonomous entity with its own unique psychological as well as behavioural characteristics and modes that distinguish it from larger states, let alone the superpowers’, as the historian Efraim Karsh, a contributor to this volume, has earlier emphasised. /9  However, these definitions do not provide a definitive answer as to whether a country is small or large. This lack of objective criteria has led some scholars of international relations to conclude that there is no definition of a small state and that the concept of a small state therefore does not lend itself to analysis. This should not stop us from talking about small states, however, because the same criticism applies to concepts like power, balance of power and national interest, all of which have been subject to analysis, as Karsh commented at the time. /10   Our concern is that ‘the smallness of the state, i.e. its limited power, generates a substantive difference between the problems and constraints, the alternatives and policy options faced by a small state as opposed to a large one.’ 11/

The key feature of small nations has perhaps been best described by the renowned Czech writer Milan Kundera: ‘Die kleine Nation ist eine, deren Existenz zu jedem beliebigen Zeitpunt in Frage gestellt werden kann; eine kleine Nation kann verschwinden, und sie weiß es.’ (‘A small nation is a nation whose very existence may be put in question at any moment; a small nation can disappear, and it knows it.’) /12

Characteristic problems   

Small states thus appear to be primarily distinguished by the characteristic problems that they share, which differ from those of larger powers. There is always the risk that a small nation will be overcome and will disappear. Whereas superpowers like to keep a free hand to some degree, small nations prefer to make agreements about collective security. After periods of violence, annexation and even genocide, the search was on for guarantees. The League of Nations after World War One and the United Nations after World War Two tried to apply international law to guarantee the sovereignty that small nations cannot physically or economically claim for themselves. As a result, periods of imperialism and occupation are interspersed with periods in which small nations appear to be protected. It remains uncertain, however, whether this support actually goes beyond moral assistance. In addition, there will always be underlying fears that the global powers may upset the scales by forcibly pursuing their own interests. In times of crisis these issues can mean the difference between life and death for a small nation.

It is therefore vital for small states to look for the best survival strategy. The historiography of small states also shows that researchers are constantly seeking to develop a model or draw conclusions based on the experiences of small nations. What is the best political or diplomatic course for small nations? What economic path should they take?

A key strategy in the 20th century was to opt for neutrality. Small nations thus hoped to keep out of hostilities during times of crisis and war. The literature also reflects the recommendation that small states should remain neutral. A good example is Baker Fox’s study of diplomacy in World War Two. /13 In her view the Second World War showed us that small states were very well placed to survive major crises. Many small European states survived the war or emerged even stronger from the conflict. Sweden, Spain, Turkey, Switzerland, Ireland and Portugal succeeded in remaining neutral, among other things, she says, because of the diplomatic actions of their governments. It should be noted, however, that these nations did not ultimately control their own fate. The Netherlands and Belgium, Norway and Denmark and of course the nations of Central and Southern Europe were caught up in the war, not because they chose to or because their diplomatic efforts failed, but because it was part of Hitler’s plans. Thus a small country’s neutrality had to be viewed by the superpowers as politically expedient if it was to have any chance of success.

Baker Fox believes, however, that small states have many more options than we tend to imagine. She views the stereotypical image of Machiavellian superpowers, for which neutrality is no more than political expediency, as inaccurate. This is because even the superpowers usually try to respect international laws where possible and because the leaders of small states skilfully succeed on occasions in putting the superpowers on the spot. /14  Even the superior military might of the superpowers has its limitations; force alone does not determine world politics. /15  For example, the leaders of the superpowers could be convinced that the use of force is counter-productive if, say, it would deprive them of valuable goods or services. Another risk is that the enemy might take immediate retaliatory measures that upset the existing balance of power or the neutral state might go over to the enemy. But, as Baker Fox concludes in her study which appeared at the height of the Cold War, World War Two was decided in favour of the West and the Soviet Union, without a single one of the small states she had studied getting a look-in: ‘in general the main boundaries of action for a small state were set by the relative military strength of the belligerents.’ /16

Other authors point to the limitations and dangers of neutrality for a small state. Just how effective is neutrality as a foreign policy instrument? In his study published on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Karsh argued that neutrality can by no means be seen as the typical political stance adopted by small states. Whereas superpowers can sell their neutrality at a high price, the same does not apply to small powers. In a time of conflict or crisis, neutrality renders small states vulnerable to both belligerents. /17  It sometimes makes more sense to enter into alliances, provided the right conditions are met – namely, that ‘membership in a politico-military alliance may aid a small state in time of war only if its independence and sovereignty are accorded great importance by its ally.’ /18

Of course the best strategy also depends on the international situation at the time: war or peace, crisis or détente. In a recent study of small states, international economists Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore conclude that small countries do well in times of ‘democratization, trade liberalization, and reduction of warfare’, whereas large states are better equipped to withstand the collapse of free trade, dictatorships and wars. /19   The great wars of the 20th century were followed each time by a period in which small nations flourished, however briefly. When the Allies won World War One, areas occupied by Germany during the war regained their independence, with Germany even losing some of its pre-war territory. Austria-Hungary, the old Habsburg monarchy, broke up into countless little states. American president Wilson’s promise that all peoples had a right to self-determination was fulfilled in this way. The problems created by drawing boundaries in ethnically mixed regions soon became apparent, however. A supranational body like the League of Nations was seen as the answer. All states were equal within the League and the international rule of law would be upheld. From now on border disputes would be resolved through negotiation.

However, the 1930s demonstrated the weakness of the League of Nations, with many small countries once again seeking to withdraw from the increasingly perilous international arena. Neutrality became the magic word: small states would do best to remain aloof and not become involved in quarrels between the superpowers, all the while hoping that any armed conflicts would pass them by. After World War Two small nations were viewed favourably by the Western victors: they had been the victims of superpower politics and deserved independence. Because decolonisation was also now underway, the number of small states increased rapidly. But the Cold War also posed a threat for small nations. In Eastern Europe, countries were forced to stay together and in other parts of the world too, the East-West chasm ensured that existing regimes were supported by either the us or the Soviet Union. Internal tensions did not break through to the surface until the Cold War had ended. It became possible once again for small nations to gain their independence. This is reflected in the fact that thirty new states have since come into being.

Thanks to pluralism and diversity, the existence and emergence of small nations became prized once again after 1989, provided that ethnic tensions and war could be avoided. The wars in former Yugoslavia have swept away the optimism in Europe that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the disintegration of Yugoslavia has also led to the expansion of the European Union towards Central and Southeast Europe. The threat of terrorism since the attacks of September 2001 has further intensified the perceived need for international cooperation in the field of security and combating terror. At the same time, the focus in many countries turned inwards: in this precarious world people sought reassurance in the familiar, which often coincided with the ‘small’ view of a nation.

In the past 100 years the world has become both larger and smaller. Economic studies of small states clearly reveal these divergent forces. According to Alesina and Spolaore, [e]conomic integration and trade liberalization lead to an increase in the number of countries in the world. As world markets expand, states are able to shrink in size. /20  The perfect example is of course the city state of Singapore. But these economic developments also assist decentralisation, federalism and the greater independence of regions within an existing country. At the same time, smaller states are increasingly working together, especially in the economic sphere. One example of this is European integration. The common market has made it possible for the relatively small member states to compete globally. In this way European integration can even trigger further separatism within existing national borders: ‘if linguistic, ethnic, and cultural minorities feel that they are economically viable in a truly European common market, they can safely separate from their home countries.’ /21 

If we follow this line of reasoning, this means that existing nation states are facing pressure from two directions: from above because of the need to develop supranational judicial and economic institutions, and from below through a host of regional movements. /22  For this reason Alesina and Spolaore believe that, despite projects such as European integration, the days of small nations are far from over. Instead, they are going from strength to strength.

Approach and content

Our aim in this book is to examine small nations from a cultural, historical point of view. As well as the issues discussed above (the international position of small nations and their room to manoeuvre), the focus is on the perception and self-perception of small nations during times of crisis and conflict in the 20th century. It is particularly at such moments, when the superpowers seek to interfere with the position of small states in international political relations, that the issue of national identity is raised. What exactly constitutes the essence of national identity? And what legitimises self-determination? Questions like these are at the very heart of the security and independence issues that time and again confront small nations during major international crises. Security and independence are not just a question of internal consensus; the global powers have to agree that the sovereignty of a small nation is both justified and necessary. Unlike the superpowers, small nations cannot use language, geography and other matters that come under ‘Reason of State to lay claim to someone else’s territory. Forced into a defensive position, they are constantly guarding against not only the deployment of force by the superpowers, but the emergence of a fifth column of separatists or groups wishing to merge their country with a foreign power.

If we think of the problems facing small nations, Central and Southeastern Europe spring almost automatically to mind. The term ‘balkanisation’ is even a direct reference to the latter region. But the issues facing small nations are very definitely not just European in character. In the second half of the 20th century in particular, other parts of the world gained many new small nations, for example through decolonisation. Clarke and Payne, whose study of small states came about in response to the us occupation of Grenada in 1983, observed that the initially positive view of small states during decolonisation was turned on its head in the 1980s. Whereas smallness had been a merit in itself, they now concluded that ‘small-state vulnerability cannot be dismissed as being of negligible significance’, irrespective of whether the new small states succeed in developing a strong sense of nationhood. /23 

In addition to the ‘traditional’ small nations of Europe, this book also looks at countries in the Middle East, Central America and Central East Africa, thereby highlighting differences and similarities in their positions. Czechoslovakia is an example of a small nation that invented itself in the 20th century when Austria-Hungary fell apart after World War One, although earlier in the 19th century the Czechs and Slovaks had each discovered and given voice to their separate individual character as small nations. The Netherlands and Belgium are examples of states that could look back to older cultures when developing their identity in the 19th and 20th centuries. /24  They have a well-defined self-image as small nations and in the first half of the 20th century they developed an identity tailored to this notion. Together with Portugal, both countries are small states that became embroiled after 1945 in a complicated process of decolonisation, a process which put the nation’s self-image to the test and in which the superpowers played a significant role. The small nation of Switzerland is viewed through the eyes of Great Britain during World War Two and the Cold War. It is an example of how a small power can play a particular role for a large one and be recognised by that superpower as having a right to independence – prompted in part by a traditional perception of special British solidarity with Switzerland. During the Cold War the small states of Central America were the arena par excellence in which the superpowers fought out their battles, but which reinvented themselves after 1989 as small nations conjoined in economic solidarity. The Middle East is an example of a region of small states which the superpowers have never been able to come to grips with. This fact has had a powerful impact on the self-image of these states. Both Albania and Rwanda are examples of small nations where different ethnic groups inhabit the same political space; we see how this can lead to ethnic tensions or worse. We also see the limited extent to which the superpowers have been able to determine the political course of these countries. Since 2000 both countries have secured their own regional position and are building on their own national identity.

Czechoslovakia: prototype of a small nation?

Carlos Reijnen opens this book with an analysis of how Czechoslovakia has perceived itself throughout the 20th century. He highlights three functions of the self-image of small nations: 1. as a form of self-criticism 2. as a strategy of national self-defence, and 3. as a foundation for the Czech national mission in Europe and the world. He examines how realistic and functional this self-image is.

In the Czechoslovakia that emerged after World War One the debate about the Czech national character was part of a broader European cultural discussion in the 1920s on the right of small nations to independence. What was it – so the question went – that justified the existence of countries like Czechoslovakia? Nazi Germany put a temporary end to this discussion when it annexed Czechoslovakia into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Ideas about a small nation with a special mission disappeared altogether from Czech discourse after 1945, surviving only in underground culture during the communist years. At that time, and still today, we see the perception of Czechoslovakia’s smallness widely reflected in the national culture: in children’s literature, children’s films and animation (the small nation as a small child), or in the representation of Prague as a Mater Urbium (the small nation as a woman). Not until 1993, when the Czech Republic and Slovakia each went their separate ways, did the Czech self-image as a small state finally coincide with reality. Now part of the European Union, the people of the Czech Republic have lost all interest in a moral mission based on the perception of a small nation.

Two small European nations and World War One: the Netherlands and Belgium

In many respects the self-perception of the Netherlands during World War One is akin to that of the Czech nation at that time. The Netherlands was spared the horrors of the war thanks to its policy of neutrality pursued since the 19th century and the prudence of the belligerents. After 1919 the country joined the League of Nations and embarked on a cautious policy of independence. The Netherlands saw itself as a large colonial power, a perception at odds with that of the superpowers, which saw it as a harmless nation. And even before World War One there were voices suggesting that the Netherlands could take advantage of its smallness as a moral force in foreign policy, albeit for its own self-aggrandisement. This all changed after 1918. The question of national character was also being debated in the Netherlands at that time and the small size of the country was seen as a legitimisation of forays into the international arena now that the superpowers had completely forfeited their claim to moral superiority. In particular Dutch scientists set themselves up as peacemakers in the years after World War One, writes Geert Somsen. They saw themselves, internationally esteemed scientists par excellence, as representatives not just of a small nation but – mindful of the Dutch Golden Age – of an exceptional culture. They therefore felt qualified, more so than other small European nations, to play the role of mediator on the international political stage. This was not a question of working together with other small nations, but of competing for the status of model nation. In the post-war years they argued for the inclusion of scientists from the former Central powers in the relevant international scientific organisations, positions that were occupied exclusively by the victors. It is against this background that physicist and Nobel Prize winner H.A. Lorentz earned his reputation as an internationalist.

The small state of Belgium, which like the Netherlands pursued a policy of neutrality after 1840, was overrun by the Germans in the very first days of World War One. Added to that, the war crimes committed by German soldiers during the invasion in 1914 made Belgium in the eyes of the Entente a small nation that had bravely resisted the Germans on behalf of justice. After all, on 2 August the Belgian government had flatly refused the German army’s demand for free passage. However, since the country remained occupied throughout the war, Belgium’s status in the discourse of the Entente changed from that of hero to female victim, as Sophie De Schaepdrijver reveals in her contribution. Representations of Belgium as a violated woman were commonplace and proved stubbornly persistent. But the mobilising power of images from the early months of the war faded as Belgium remained occupied (and hence relatively passive) for longer and as the Entente, faced with its own enormous losses, could muster less and less sympathy for the country. In spite of the memories of all the horrors Belgium had experienced at the start of the war, people felt that nothing could compare with the sacrifice that France and England were obliged to make. The post war-discussion of this ‘sacrifice’ gathered momentum in the 1920s. Belgium’s response was to reject war altogether.

Thus World War One forced the Czechs to reflect on their country’s character and position as a small state. The neutral Netherlands constructed in that period an active mediator’s role for itself as a small state, based on its neutrality during the war and its supposedly outstanding scientific culture. In the meantime Belgium, a small state par excellence which had enjoyed the sympathy and support of the Entente at the start of World War One, sought to ally itself with a superpower like France after the war.

A small nation in the Balkans: Albania in the 20th century

In his article on Albania Raymond Detrez shows how dependent the small Balkan states were on outside circumstances while at the same managing to manipulate these skilfully for their own ends. Perceptions and self-perceptions – self-image and self-awareness – of smallness, helplessness and dependence were cleverly combined with an unshaken belief in the justice of their own national cause.

The Balkans is exclusively made up of small states, with each one viewing itself and its neighbours as small. Unlike France or Russia, none has a continuous history of national independence. Each is aware of the value of alliances to ensure its own continued survival. And all feel constrained by the knowledge that they should in fact once again form part of a large nation. This feeling lies behind the powerful irredentism in the Balkans – based not only on region, but ethnicity. This irredentism has deep cultural roots. Until today none of the Balkan states has attained the ideal of a correspondence between national and political unity. The feeling of being small, helpless and vulnerable is reinforced by ethnic questions. Detrez shows how, by provoking atrocities, the states have succeeded in manipulating the attention of the superpowers, thereby turning superpower intervention to their own advantage. Previously used during the resistance to Ottoman rule, this strategy continued to prove successful in the 1990s in provoking an international outcry and diplomatic and military intervention.

Albania’s development as a small nation can be understood as part of this pattern. Like the Czech nation, Albania invented itself over the course of the nineteenth century. In the case of Albania there was not even a cultural or linguistic basis for an Albanian state to call on. The first nationalist demands were presented at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and a true Albanian nationalist ideology was formulated around the turn of the century. Only the recognition of Albanian independence at the London Conference of 1913 prevented the country from being divided up amongst the other Balkan states. Austria-Hungary and Italy had a particular interest in doing so, the former to keep Serbia in check and the latter to thwart Greece. As a result of all these foreign interests Albania fell victim to a six-fold invasion during World War One. However, it regained its independence from the superpowers after the war, although large areas to which it laid claim remained outside the Albanian state – something which the country, in its weakened state, was powerless to do anything about. Once again Albania came under growing foreign influence, this time mainly from Italy, which eventually occupied and annexed the country. During World War Two a promise was made to Albania about the formation of a Greater Albania and the annexation of Kosovo and other areas inhabited by Albanians. After the war, however, with Italy as one of the losers, this territorial expansion was once again cancelled. Strategic choices made by the communists, who then came to power (against Tito and for Stalin, and later independent of the Soviet Union and allied to China) ensured that the dispute about Kosovo with neighbouring Yugoslavia (later Serbia) was put on hold. Following the death of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha in 1985, his successor supported the Kosovo rebels, recognising the independence of Kosovo in 1991. The ‘uprising’ incited by kla soldiers in 1998 brought such reprisals from the Serbians that, once again, the eyes of the world turned to the Balkans. Foreign intervention ensured that Kosovo did not become part of Serbia. This typical Balkan strategy had worked yet again.

Small nations and decolonisation: the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal

A wave of decolonisations swept across the world after 1945. Within this process, did small states respond to events in the colonies any differently from the superpowers? And were they confronted with different decolonisation problems than superpowers?

The circumstances under which the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal let go their colonies varied enormously. Indonesia became independent in 1949, the Belgian Congo not until 1960, and Portugal granted its three colonies independence even later – Guinea-Bissau in 1974, and Angola and Mozambique the following year. Because of the different ways in which decolonisation came about, memories of the process in the respective mother countries also differ immensely, as Remco Raben demonstrates in his article. In the Netherlands, whose colonial past is deeply anchored in the national memory, this memory is associated above all with the suffering of the Dutch in Indonesia under the Japanese occupation (1942–1945). In Portugal, on the other hand, the debate about the country’s colonial past has yet to take place. As in the Netherlands, people prefer to think back with nostalgia on the earliest periods of colonisation. In Belgium too, there is no post-colonial debate in progress that can compare in intensity with the one in the Netherlands.

But regardless of what decolonisation entailed, in none of these three instances was the size of the state of decisive importance. What distinguished the decolonisation process from that of, say, Great Britain was not the self-image of the various small states, but the way in which these states adapted to the international situation.

Both diplomatically and financially the small states had less room to manoeuvre than large ones during the decolonisation period. In its dealings in Indonesia, the Netherlands was obliged to act in accordance with us and un demands. The Belgian Congo, for which the us had felt an enormous interest since 1945, became a stage for the Cold War. Portugal also came under increasing international pressure, although it was not until after the regime change in Portugal that its colonies succeeded in gaining independence. Dissatisfaction at home about sending troops was a further factor.

The perception of a small nation by a great power: Switzerland and British policy

We can deduce from the previous articles that there is no specific form of foreign policy that is typical of small states or clearly the best strategy. Nor is there a ‘mechanistic, or predictable’ power politics on the part of superpowers towards small states, as shown by Neville Wylie’s contribution describing the attitude of superpower Great Britain towards little Switzerland in the period around World War Two.

Even though Britain always spoke out in support of the right of small states to independence, it did not always do so equally vociferously. After all, the principle sometimes clashed with its own national interests. Nevertheless, London was not governed solely by the rules of power politics, leading Wylie to conclude that: ‘There was nothing intrinsic then, about Britain’s attitude towards small states.’ He argues that Britain’s readiness to accommodate small powers was dictated by how London perceived the role of these small states within the European system of states. Were there predominantly advantages to the independence of these states? The answer to this question helped shape the attitude towards countries like Norway and the Netherlands. It also influenced London’s attitude towards Switzerland in World War Two.

During the ‘phoney war’ London began to think more critically about the neutral states. Now that various such states were occupied by the Germans, the summer of 1940 even saw a sea change in British attitudes. Britain too was entitled to intervene if it felt this was necessary. After 1939 Switzerland could play an important role for Britain in only a few areas. It turned a blind eye to many foreign activities, such as British espionage, and tried to operate as impartially as possible in the areas of humanitarian and relief work. Swiss neutrality thus had its advantages for Germany too, which the British were well aware of. Wylie argues that British appreciation of Switzerland’s neutrality was due to the fact that the advantages continued to outweigh the disadvantages and that Switzerland was perceived as a small nation with a lengthy history and hence a historic right to independence. This perception of small, neutral European states, even in times of crisis and conflict, led to a sympathetic attitude on the part of Britain towards Switzerland and the other small European states during both World War Two and the ensuing Cold War.

Three small states outside Europe: in Central America, the Middle East and Central East Africa

The small nations discussed in the last part of the book – Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala in Central American, the small Middle Eastern states, and Rwanda in Central East Africa – illustrate how relations between the superpowers and small nations are shaped far more by local circumstances than by abstract theories about what constitutes ‘the best strategy’ for small countries.

Central America

The two superpowers – the us and the Soviet Union – adopted a textbook stance in Central America, a small region with a long history of conflict and violence. Military dictators had ruled in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador since the 1930s, sowing fear and wielding arbitrary power.

In his article Dirk Kruijt reveals the enormous impact of the Cold War on this region. In each of these three countries, from the 1960s until the late 1990s, guerrilla fighters waged a civil war against the dictatorship in their own country and across the border in the other countries. The rebels were supported by Cuba (therefore indirectly by the Soviet Union), whereas the us, for fear of communism, lent its support to the dictators. After 1989 the Soviet Union’s influence in the region fell away rapidly, with the Americans also distancing themselves. From now on the us argued in favour of democracy in Central America. Following a lengthy negotiation process involving many international players, peace talks were finally held, putting an end to the three wars in the first half of the 1990s. In the years that followed, there were complete regime changes in all three countries. More recently we have even seen the beginnings of a process of regional economic and political integration, also involving Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and Belize.

The Middle East

Contrary to the analysis presented by Dirk Kruijt, who argued that the Cold War has had an enormous impact on internal political developments in small Central American states, are the views of Karsh, who points to the ultimately limited influence of the superpowers, this time in the Middle East.

The finger of suspicion customarily points at the superpowers as being responsible for the problems in the Middle East, from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in World War One to the war in Iraq. This is wholly in keeping with the idea of small powerless states that are victims of the manipulations of external forces. Karsh argues that this picture is incorrect. Events in the Middle East during the 20th century as a whole, and in the Cold War in particular, are more the result of ‘indigenous trends, passions, and patterns’ than of a diktat imposed from outside. Rather, developments in the Middle East show just how asymmetrical the relationship between superpowers and small states tends to be. A small state is better able to respond to circumstances in its own region than a large one, which is obliged to take account of global interests and can never concern itself with a single region for very long.

The limited hold of the superpowers on developments in the Middle East was already apparent in World War One. The creation of the modern Middle East was not the result of a covert diplomatic game to divide up the region, but rather the consequence of the Ottoman leadership’s decision to take the side of Germany, an alliance which ultimately ended in defeat.

After World War Two both the Soviet Union and the us had difficulties keeping Middle Eastern leaders within their sphere of influence. Major breakthroughs or escalations originated from local factors, Karsh argues. The overtures that Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made to the us, despite pressure from the Soviets, emanated from him, not from the Americans. Similarly, the warm relations between Iran and the us in the 1970s, before the fall of the Shah in 1979, were prompted more by Iran than by the us. In particular the enormous boost in trade relations ensured that Iran was an issue of ongoing concern for the us, the biggest arms exporter to Iran. When the Shah subsequently established diplomatic relations with Moscow, this expanded his room for manoeuvre. Neither the Russians nor the Americans foresaw the fall of the Shah. His successor Ayatollah Khomeini confirmed the limited influence of the superpowers on the political dynamics of the Middle East.

Even the Camp David accords forged in September 1978 between Egypt and Israel were not primarily the result of us actions, but were due to the determination of Sadat and the Israeli president Menachem Begin. The us believed that the negotiations could only be successful if the peace process had a multilateral foundation, which meant the involvement of Moscow. However, the leaders of the small Middle Eastern states had seen through the logic of the Cold War and knew all too well that warmer relations between the superpowers would mean less room for manoeuvre for the region’s small nations. President Begin therefore arranged an opening to Sadat, who in that respect shared the same interests. The us and the Soviet Union had no choice but to follow the process. In 1993 not Clinton, but Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon were the architects of the Israeli-Palestine peace treaty. There is nothing to suggest, Karsh concludes, that the logic of the power relations between the small Middle Eastern nations and the superpowers has changed since 9/11.

Rwanda after 1989

Rwanda, which had been independent since 1962, did not play any role of consequence at the time of the Cold War. The decolonisation process had been accompanied by considerable violence against the ruling Tutsi oligarchy. Violence against Tutsis would recur regularly in the years ahead, whenever Tutsis in exile made attempts to attack the ruling Hutu regime in Kigali. With the coming of the new world order after 1989, the political opposition pinned its hopes on liberalisation. But instead, a radicalisation took place in Rwanda, directed against the Tutsis. This led in the spring of 1994 to a genocide that cost the lives of 800,000 people in the space of just three months. In July of that year the Rwandan Patriotic Front, following an incursion into the country, put an end to this. The international community had in the meantime done nothing to halt the genocide. On the contrary, the majority of the un peacekeepers stationed in Rwanda were withdrawn fourteen days after the start of the slaughter. For the superpowers Rwanda was and has continued to be an insignificant small state beyond their comprehension.

Prompted in part by feelings of guilt about their faint-heartedness, the superpowers placed Rwanda high on their political agenda during the 1990s. The considerable international attention given to the country, says Gerd Hankel, went hand in hand with far-reaching changes in Rwanda itself: the regime change meant a complete reform of state and society. The government wanted to join the globalising world and put colonial oppression and postcolonial paternalism behind it once and for all. The once inconsequential and insignificant Rwanda has developed into a state which in recent years has come to regard itself as a pioneer among the states of this continent.

However flawed the new Rwanda of the 21st century might be when it comes to the administration of justice and democracy, today the country is highly regarded in the West as a stabilising element in this part of Africa – certainly in comparison with its neighbours Congo and Burundi. Hankel shows that it is not Rwanda’s geopolitical situation that will decide its future but the country’s economic development. If Rwanda can develop into a modern information and service society, it will have a chance of survival. The current authoritarian government policy has focused with considerable success on this process of modernisation.

Concluding remarks

We have wanted to show with these case studies of small nations from different parts of the world and in different periods in the 20th century the concrete options and dangers facing small nations. A surprising outcome of these articles is the discovery that small nations are particularly shrewd when it comes to justifying their existence. Despite the recurring fear of ‘national decline’ or foreign influence, representatives of the small nations have time and again demonstrated their ability to unite their compatriots behind a story that was convincing for the time and circumstances. For example, the ideology of the small nation has enabled the Czechs and the Czech state after 1989 to build a stable democracy and participate in European integration. In the first half of the 20th century the Dutch associated smallness with disinterestedness and moral superiority, while paradoxically Dutch internationalism became a matter of national pride. We see therefore that there is no lack of a sense of identity among small nations.

What also stands out is that the superpowers do not necessarily outdo small powers in all areas. Particularly when it comes to complex local issues that are almost unfathomable for outsiders, small nations (who simply have to puzzle it out) can sometimes make things very tough for superpowers (who have to keep an eye on international interests). Examples of this are the small Middle Eastern and Balkan states. However, when it comes to really fundamental shifts in the balance of power (decolonisation, for example), then small nations have very limited room to manoeuvre, as the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal have discovered.

Finally, this book demonstrates clearly that the era of the small nation is far from over. Instead of a policy of neutrality as the standard means for small states to assert themselves, it would appear that the economic integration that is happening in different places in the world is making it easier for small nations to hold their own and to create a modern self-image for themselves. This proposition is illustrated in this book through the examples of the recently initiated process of economic and political integration in Central America and the new political and economic course taken by Rwanda. Without such a supranational politics of integration, small states do indeed appear to be vulnerable entities, which – as Milan Kundera has commented – can be swept from the map at any time, should a larger power choose to do so.


1/  Commission d’enquête sur les violations des règles du droit des gens, des lois et des coutumes de la guerre, vol. 1, parts 1 and 2, Rapports sur les attentats commis par les troupes allemandes pendant l’invasion et l’occupation de la Belgique (Brussels and Liège 1922) vol. 1, part 1, 14–15, cited in John Horne and Alan Kramer, German atrocities. A history of denial (New Haven and London 2001) 155–156.

2/  Friedrich Naumann, Mitteleuropa (Berlin 1915) 1.

3/  Alesino and Spolaore, The size of nations (Cambridge and London 2005) 1. Since 2006: 194.

4/  For literature, see: idem

5/  Idem, 2–3.

6/  See amongst others Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities. Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (London, New York 1983) 15: ‘In the anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign’.

7/  Colin Clarke and Tony Payne, Politics, Security and Development in Small States (London 1987), 1987, ix and x. See Burton Benedict, Problems of smaller territories (London 1967).

8/  Annette Baker Fox, The power of small states. Diplomacy in World War ii (London 1959) 3, footnote 3.

9/ Karsh, Neutrality and small states (London and New York 1988) 4.

10/ Idem, 3.

11/ Idem, 4.

12/  Milan Kundera, Die Tragödie Mitteleuropas. Quoted in: Busek, Erhard and Gerhard Wilfinger. Aufbruch nach Mitteleuropa (Vienna 1986) 133–44; quotation on 141. See also Detrez’s contribution to this volume.

13/  Baker Fox, The power of small states

14/  Think for example of the actions of Egyptian president Nasser or of his Indonesian counterpart Sukarno during the Cold War.

15/  Baker Fox, The power of small states, 2.

16/  Idem, 183.

17/  Karsh, Neutrality and small states, 4.

18/  Idem, 194.

19/  Alesino and Spolaore, The size of nations, 15.

20/  Idem, 2.

21/  Idem, 201.

22/  Idem.

23/  Clarke and Payne, Politics, Security and Development in Small States, 227.

24/  Belgium was created out of the merging of the older Flemish and Walloon cultures. Although it had not existed as a state before, forebears were nevertheless found in ancient times, even as far back as Julius Caesar’s description of the battle against the brave Belgians.


- Madelon de Keizer and Ismee Tames, Introduction  
- Carlos Reijnen, ‘Small, but ours’. Czechs and the mission of a small nation
- Geert J. Somsen, ‘A small people but a great nation’. Scientific prestige and international mediation in the Netherlands
- Sophie De Schaepdrijver, A Signal Service. Neutrality and the limits of sacrifice in World War in Belgium
- Raymond Detrez, Self-image and self-awareness. The small nations in the Balkans
- Remco Raben, Small nations, large decolonizations. The Netherlands, Belgium, and Portugal
- Neville Wylie, Switzerland and the United Kingdom during the Second World War and the early Cold War
- Dirk Kruijt, Small States and large wars in Central America, 1960s–2000s
- Efraim Karsh, The Middle East and the Cold War. The tail that wagged the dog
- Gerd Hankel, Rwanda. A small nation in Africa
- Summaries
- The authors


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