Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed arrives for an underwater meeting of the Maldives' Cabinet (AP Photo/Mohammed Seeneen).
Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed arrives for an underwater meeting of the Maldives' Cabinet (AP Photo/Mohammed Seeneen).

The financial crisis accentuated the impression that big countries have enormous privileges in international relations. Not only have the bigs held onto their traditional status through the retention of features such as the Permanent 5 in the UN Security Council and the top jobs at the IMF and the World Bank, but the tilt towards informal institutions notably the G20 accent the image of an accentuated unequal world. Big countries — whether from the old establishment of the G7 or the up-and-comers in the BRICS — have consolidated their position in the global hierarchy. Small countries, especially the so-called tax havens but also the members states on the periphery of the Eurozone, are outsiders to this sort of concert authority.

Yet small states have not been completely passive to this reinforcement of power politics. Several have tried to push back — albeit with mixed results.

Flying back a few weeks ago from the Second Global Biennial Conference on Small States, organized by the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, my mind was on the willingness — and the constraints — of countries in this category to try to shake up the global system in innovative ways. So I again watched a documentary that up to a point serves as testimony to the push back of small states in a world of the bigs — The Island President. This documentary offers a compelling narrative about President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, a leader who (after emerging as the "up Mandela of the Maldives" from years in jail and exile) showcased the threat of climate change in a manner that was bold and creative. Viewing climate change as an issue that threatened the physical safety of his country (the Maldives being a string of low lying islands with fragile ecosystems) Nasheed lobbied hard for a global policy breakthrough in the run-up to the December 2009 Copenhagen UN climate change conference. In doing so, he tapped into academic expertise, the network power of environmental NGOs, and the use of his own ample PR skill — for example, holding a cabinet meeting underwater in October 2009 as a means of grabbing global attention. Unlike other leaders of small countries he showed no hesitation in taking on the bigs of the world whether in the old establishment or among the BRICS.

The only flaw is that in a sober post-script to the documentary, Nasheed was forced out of office at gunpoint in February 2012. Such an outcome of course shows a fundamental paradox: that a leader of a small state, remote from the apex of global  power, can become a well-known international figure (appearing on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart in April 2012) but stripped of power at home.

If small states are really going to shake up the global system then they are going to have to apply innovative diplomacy in a collective fashion. Signs of a new, sophisticated willingness — if not immediate capacity — to do so is the push initiated in April 2012 by a grouping calling itself the Small Five that presented a draft resolution aimed at improving the "working methods" of the UN.

Although stymied on this controversial reform attempt by quick indication from the P5 that it would block it, this initiative — unlike President Nasheed — cannot simply be swept aside. The countries in the Small Five — Costa Rica, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Jordan and Singapore — combine impressive reputational abilities, diplomatic skill and deep resources. Thus, as demonstrated in other issue-specific initiatives, such as the 3G coalition that came into being in reaction to the G20, these diplomatic efforts will have staying power as shown by the statement at the UN on September 30 by Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Unlike the traditional reliance on votes and voice in the UN, the key lever that small states have begun to use is ideation. This focus is highlighted by the lobbying effort of the 3G to link the G20 summitry process more explicitly to UN universalism and general tenets of global governance. And although still subordinated to power politics, concepts such as "responsibility not to veto" — supported by committed components of civil society — will gain traction as a result of gridlocked situations such as the UN’s response to Syria.

Small states will always have to struggle in a system that favours and rewards big countries. But for every Maldives in a fragile situation, there will now be a robust and confident Singapore (or other members of the Small Five grouping) or 3G countries such as Qatar, Chile and New Zealand that need to be taken seriously – and will be. The weight of a top-down structure has not been torn away in the 21st century. Nonetheless the power of a bottom-up diverse agency cannot be ignored. 

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