Geopolitical Davids and Goliaths

Originally published at Project-Syndicate | September 23rd, 2022

The world’s largest and most well-established powers are all stuck in traps created by their own historical obsessions – be it memories of past humiliation, claims to greatness, or both. Meanwhile, some smaller countries are looking increasingly happy, resilient, and stable by comparison.

PRINCETON – New Yorkers have come to expect traffic chaos when the United Nations General Assembly meets every September. But this year, there is also paralyzing congestion in the minds of the attendees. It seems like everyone is frustrated and despairing, with representatives from around the world essentially competing to see whose country is faring the worst.

The United States, for example, is consumed with talk of incipient civil war. Large parts of the Republican Party won’t commit to accepting election results. Yet while inflation and recession fears should give the Republicans an advantage over the incumbent Democrats in this year’s midterm elections, the GOP has instead focused on mobilizing its small hardline base with a deeply unpopular agenda of abortion bans and the inhumane treatment of immigrants.

The United Kingdom, meanwhile, is wrestling with post-Brexit chaos and fiscal destabilization that will worsen as the new government implements its supposedly pro-growth agenda. Italy, having removed a capable and highly credible government headed by former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, is now poised to elect a far-right government that will do nothing for the country – other than deepening its divisions.

In France, commentators are despairing over President Emmanuel Macron’s inability to launch a new reform agenda. In Germany, a new government has boldly announced an epochal shift (Zeitenwende), but it is struggling to implement the most urgent part of its agenda: overhauling its defense policy. In Sweden’s election this month, the principal victor was a far-right party dedicated to attacking key pillars of the prior policy consensus. And in Europe more broadly, policymakers, intellectually exhausted by a decade of debates over the interactions between monetary and fiscal policy, are finding it almost impossible to devise a common energy strategy.

The world’s autocracies aren’t doing any better. In fact, they seem to be struggling even more than democracies when it comes to learning from recent disasters and reversing course. China has found it impossible to exit its increasingly costly “zero-COVID” strategy. And Russia serves as a terrible and terrifying example of how quickly unaccountable autocracies can fall into self-destructive folly.

All these countries are stuck in traps created by their own historical obsessions – be it memories of past humiliations, claims to greatness, or both. Charles de Gaulle famously began his war memoirs with the claim that France could not be France without greatness. But if greatness means imposing on your neighbors, it is not an attribute to which any country should aspire; and in today’s highly interconnected world, it is not even feasible. As Russian leaders are quickly learning, dreams of hegemony ineluctably lead to resistance, chaos, and self-destruction.

But while the big historical powers are desperate to find ways out of their political gridlock, some smaller countries are looking increasingly happy, resilient, and stable by comparison. To bring them together as a counterweight to the G7, the G20, and other sclerotic groupings, a new Swiss-based initiative is attempting to create a league of small states, known as the S8.

Four of the eight inaugural member states – Denmark, Finland, Ireland, and Singapore – have populations of 5-6 million, and the organizers might well have included other surprisingly resilient countries of the same size, such as Costa Rica, Norway, and Slovakia. In any case, the S8 represents the view that the obvious challenges to being small should be seen as an impetus for delivering productive solutions, rather than as an excuse for wallowing in despair.

Consider Ukraine, which is obviously highly vulnerable (albeit not small in the usual sense). It has managed to parlay its vulnerability into a remarkable series of responses to Russian aggression. While its political leaders have marshalled military and financial support from friends and allies around the world, its gifted software developers have been working around the clock to counter Russian cyberattacks and to launch their own.

For small, vulnerable countries that do not have a uniquely advantageous geographic position (as in Switzerland’s case), security threats create the need for strong alliances, which in turn can be politically and economically stabilizing. Moreover, a country that is focused on an acute external threat is far less likely to fall into domestic infighting. There is no easier prey for a larger aggressor than a small country that is politically divided. The politics of consensus in Switzerland and Scandinavia rest on foundations that were established in response to the threat posed by Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Because small countries harbor no illusions that they can impose their will on others, they share a readiness to embrace flexibility and change in a world that demands adaptability. Insofar as small countries are “great,” it is because they offer concrete and practical examples of how politics and governance can be improved. For example, while Estonia has reinforced democratic legitimacy with electronic voting, Colombia and Jamaica have both been ahead of the curve in adopting well-designed central bank digital currencies.

But if the world is moving away from multilateralism and toward a system of competing blocs, smaller countries will be under even greater pressure from the big powers. To avoid being ground between geopolitical millstones, they will need to continue to innovate, both in politics and in technology. They must make representative government real, rather than symbolic, demonstrating that it is better to lead by example than by strategic dominance.


Harold James: Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University. A specialist on German economic history and on globalization, he is a co-author of The Euro and The Battle of Ideas, and the author of The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle,Krupp: A History of the Legendary German FirmMaking the European Monetary Union,and The War of Words.

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