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I almost stopped reading “The power of small and smart states” at the first sentence: “The publication of my book, The Small States Club: How Small Smart States Can Save the World, has provoked a much-needed discussion on small states.” Are you really going to plug your own book by claiming it has started a conversation, and of course not providing any evidence of such a conversation? But I read on, because I am interested in small states. After I got past the first part of the article, which is filled with buzzwords like “agile” and “smart power,” it did have some interesting things to say.

Small states are an indicator of an advanced diplomatic system. When empires struggle for all-out power, small states cannot exist for long unless they are in marginal lands (such as mountains — think of how Armenia survived between Rome and Parthia, or Georgia surrounded by hostile Muslim states). But Belgium has survived for 200 years on prime land surrounded by much bigger countries.

The article asserts that there were 400 small states in 1648, which is absurd. He is clearly counting all the German estates, down to individual freeholds. It is reasonable to consider larger estates (Bavaria and Prussia down to Hesse and Hanover) as “states,” but the smallest and most numerous did not meat that definition in any meaningful sense. Today, there are nearly 200 countries, over half of which have a population under 10 million, and nearly a quarter have a population under 1 million. Clearly, the smallest of them only exist because no one bothers to conquer them, but the reason that doesn’t happen is that diplomatic repercussions would not be worth the gains. For those countries that are both small and have hostile neighbours, diplomacy is an ongoing necessity. Consider Georgia again, or Finland, a country of 5 million that shares a very long border with Russia.

The diplomatic system in early modern Europe was not nearly so well developed nor so focussed on rules; small states did get challenged and absorbed. (Those in Italy provide the clearest example.) The ones that survived, such as Savoy, had to balance carefully between the neighbouring powers to avoid being taken over.

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