20 July 2012
Predicting the behavior of small states has become increasingly difficult. One reason for this problem is that small states enjoy considerable freedom of maneuver in what is now a poly-centric international system.
By Dmitry Shlapentokh for Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College (SSI)
Editor’s note: To conclude our week-long coverage of the challenges small states face in the current international environment, today we feature excerpts from the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College. In particular, Dmitry Shlapentokh analyzes the recent history of Belarus to illustrate trends that he believes have characterized the behavior of small states in the post-Cold War era. He argues, for example, that in what is now a multipolar and poly-centric world, small states have the luxury to be politically entrepreneurial – i.e., they have the option to forge non-dependent alliances with a wider variety of other states. This represents a stark contrast with the past, when states were forced to rely on one 'big brother' or another to safeguard their interests and security.
The Role of Small States in the Post-Cold War Era: The Case of Belarus
Those who study foreign policy usually focus their attention on the role of the great powers. If attention is paid to small states, it is primarily to provide the framework for particular aspects of great power rivalry or to give details to the conflict. It is also usually assumed that small powers have limited opportunities to maneuver in the gravitational space of big players and can change geopolitical patrons only once. Needless to say, the victory of a small state over a big one is explained as a result of the backing of another strong power. This notion is overly simplistic, even for a period like the Cold War when the great powers seemed absolutely predominant, and is even less applicable when U.S. decline has not yet led to a clear replacement. Even China, if we assume its rise will continue, cannot be the dominant global center in the near future. The emerging global multipolarity makes the geopolitical scenario increasingly volatile and complicated.
In this environment, small states might well assume a new role. They might move freely in geopolitical space and change patrons comparatively easily or engage in flirtation with various partners—leading, on occasion—to a geopolitical gamesmanship. Their role in overall global policy could also be considerable. Finally, the role of small states in current geopolitical arrangements provides, retrospectively of course, a glimpse into the past and demonstrates that small states are not always just extensions of strong ones. They play an important role in shaping global policies even at a time of the seeming predominance of great powers. The study of small powers not only demonstrates the convoluted nature of geopolitical arrangements but also sheds light on the geopolitical posture of the various global players, which can be distinctly different. Belarus’s foreign policy in the post-Cold War era is a good example.
Regardless of possible changes [in Belarus’ politics since this study was published], the events of this study period—approximately 2006-11—demonstrates Belarus’s remarkable flexibility in foreign policy arrangements. It moved from sole dependence on Russia to flirtation with the West, mostly the Baltic States. On occasion, Lukashenko even proposed allowing NATO installations inside Belarus. Lukashenko’s vacillation between Russia and the West, or at least with different segments of the West, could still be similar to the pattern of the Cold War era. At that time, small states could, on occasion, maneuver between the Scylla and Charybdis of major global powers and try to take advantage of great power rivals. The success of the small states in dealing with superpowers, as Vietnam’s confrontation with the United States could be characterized, could not be attributed just to USSR backing; the role and significance of the backing of smaller states by the USSR and China during the Cold War was less than was often perceived.
Small players could have had a certain degree of flexibility and independence from the great powers even during the Cold War. Indeed, the Iran/Iraq War proceeded for 8 years despite the fact that neither the United States nor the USSR was firmly behind either side. But one could assume that the war would most likely have been over if both superpowers made strong efforts to stop it, and they would have most likely done this if they assumed there was a clear threat of global instability, or to be precise, instability not well controlled by the global powers. Indeed, controlled instability was likely one of the essential elements of the Cold War.
The story of Lukashenko’s Belarus is quite different in this respect, for he clearly defied both Russia and the United States, and in a way Europe, in dealing with Iran. Minsk was in conflict with both the United States and Russia, both of which had a serious problem with Iran. The United States regarded Iran as an implacable enemy, and Russia’s relationship also soured considerably toward the end of the Putin first-term era. Both powers were not shy in using force, and Lukashenko, of course, took into consideration the regime change policy implemented by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq and almost implemented by Russia in Georgia. But this did not deter Minsk from developing a cordial relationship with Teheran and helping upgrade its military capabilities. Lukashenko even said he saw no problem in Iran being a nuclear power—an idea not pleasing to the United States or even Russia—and hinted that it might help Iran do so. Thus, a major implication of this analysis is the demonstration of increasing disrespect of the great powers by smaller states. Small states increasingly pay little attention to the attitude of the great powers and their ability to use financial (“soft”) or military (“hard”) power in imposing their will. One might add that the U.S. departure from Afghanistan and Iraq, and its inability to dislodge Assad in Syria (at least as of May 2012), could be perceived as a signs of weakness of the great powers. This would provide additional rationale for small players such as Belarus to act in defiance of the interests of the great powers.
Another outcome of this analysis is the potential implications of Belarusian policy on various centers of power. This influence can be manifold and often contradictory. In Russia, Belarus clearly played a considerable role in the solidification of the post-Soviet elite regime in its early, most vulnerable period. The creation of the union state with Lukashenko’s blessing helped the regime solidify its power by creating the illusion that the good Soviet era would be back. By transforming Belarus into a new edition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia would increase its power in East/Central Europe. On the other hand, the same Lukashenko continued to be praised by various segments of the Russian opposition as a leader Russia needed. His role in Russian political life in the event of a major crisis should not be discarded. Belarus attaching itself to the West would diminish Russia’s clout in Europe and improve the position of the smaller states of East/Central Europe. Belarus’s relationship with Iran helped Teheran avoid a sense of diplomatic isolation, improve its economy, and possibly upgrade its military capabilities, even its nuclear ambitions. Belarus could also be an important launch pad for spreading China’s influence far from its Asian home.
One could, of course, state that there was nothing peculiar in these arrangements, and find similar phenomena in the past, in which a comparatively small country could change the balance in particular regions or plainly defy major powers. Nicolae Ceausescu could defy Moscow by keeping a warm relationship with China, and at that time be the USSR’s mortal threat. Still, if Ceausescu were to exit the Warsaw Pact, or worse, proclaim he would allow NATO or China to put a military base in Romania, Moscow’s response would be prompt: It would immediately send troops. Yet, post-Soviet Russia, which clearly entertained the thought of removing Lukashenko by force, did not dare do so. Belarus’s relationship with Iran also has specifics quite different from those of the comparatively small states in the Cold War and early post-Cold War eras.
It goes without saying that small states have engaged in various relationships with each other, and the leaders of those states might claim that they could opt out of the superpower rivalry. That was the point of the non-alignment movement. But these states did not develop their relationship as a counterbalance to the great powers; Yugoslavia, for example, one of the leaders of the movement, plainly noted that it had no desire to engage in superpower rivalry and would like a good relationship with both. The Iran/Belarus relationship is quite different. The informal alliance of the two countries was built in a way as a counterbalance to both the United States and Russia—countries much stronger than Iran and Belarus. Moreover, small countries such as these can be an important source of know-how and scientific knowledge. This is also novel, at least in comparison with the Cold War era, when it was believed that only the superpowers could possess advanced technological knowledge.
What was the reason for such an increasing role of small states in the global arrangement? For Belarus, this role could be understood by looking at the general geopolitical scenario. During the Cold War, the USSR and the United States dominated the global arena. In the immediate aftermath, the United States emerged as the unquestioned global leader. During this time, the superpowers also built a well-defined system of alliance and dependence, with clear systems of reward and punishment. It was also assumed that only superpowers/great powers could possess essential scientific/technological know-how. None of this exists at the present time. The USSR is gone, and the United States is losing its position as the global center. The emerging arrangements are not actually a multipolar world. Indeed, this notion implies that instead of an orderly geopolitical structure of one or two superpowers, there would be an orderly construction of several great powers. Some elements of this possible construction are emerging, but it is not the only one. There are signs of unbalance and instability, in which no clear, orderly arrangement is emerging. In this case, one could see the existence of such a state as Belarus, which is not firmly attached to any of these groups, acting as a sort of “free radical”—a free agent that moves from one geopolitical structure to the other. Since none of these constructions are strong enough to dispose of the others, this small country’s position and actions could have serious international implications. Such a scenario certainly requires a new approach to the prognosis for international relationships in the future.
In the Cold War era, especially the Leonid Brezhnev era, predictions about the roles and capabilities of countries were comparatively easy, in the sense that in most cases they could be quantified. It was the job of demographers and economists to define the general capacity of the United States and gauge the USSR’s potential in the future. It would be wrong to assume that this approach is not applicable now; for example, demographic trends can be predicted with some accuracy for long periods of time. But there is much more uncertainty in general, and not everything can be translated into statistical data. It is impossible to provide quantitative descriptions of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and to gauge their potential impact before actual terrorist acts. The same could be said about small states, such as Belarus, whose impact, in present political conditions, could be quite serious. The presence of free radical agents does not preclude long-term planning and prediction. But it can make it much more difficult, and a variety of often quite bizarre scenarios must be taken into account.
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This text is an excerpt from "The Role of Small States in the Post-Cold War Era: The Case of Belarus" published by SSI as a monograph. The publication is in the public domain.