16 July 2012
Small states face distinct challenges when making and implementing security policy. What are their options and constraints?
By Alyson JK Bailes
[...] There may be some small states in the world that have few enough problems to be able to deal with them case-by-case on a purely reactive basis. There are probably more who have outsourced enough of their security provision – military and non-military – to be able to rely on someone else's guidance and assured help in a crisis. However, the majority of such states around the globe (and certainly in the larger Europe) face a complicated enough set of security challenges and responsibilities to need a conscious process of threat/risk assessment and planning. Under the modern understanding of "security" this needs to be a whole-government exercise, as just about every ministry and agency could be required to collaborate especially in an internal civil contingency. Nor can the process be confined just to government, given the importance of non-state reactions and contributions (from business, NGOs, societal organizations and ordinary people) [...]. Finally, a state that calls itself democratic needs to think about the demands of openness, a role for representative institutions in approving at least the key policy principles, and possibly some kind of wider consultation. It will give thought to checks and balances to ensure that citizens' essential rights and freedoms are not sacrificed for an over-stated, unchallenged security rationale.
All this is actually quite a steep challenge for any state, and – as Japan's agonies in March 2011 have illustrated – it would be hard to find any, even the richest and most conscientious, that has achieved a state of perfect preparedness. Many of the typical problems arising do not distinguish between states of different sizes. To start with, assessing threats and risks is anything but a cool scientific process. Even when the utmost effort is made for objectivity, the findings may be skewed by missing or incompatible data sets; the complexity of linkages and chain reactions between different dimensions; the unpredictability and rapid evolution of the environment; and a natural human bias towards giving extra weight to the most familiar, most recently experienced, and most visible or acute dangers. Disagreements can then easily arise over how far the definition of "security" should be extended, and which dimensions should be prioritized within it. In a small state just as a large one, ideological and political starting points (such as the taste or distaste for military matters, pro- or anti-business stances and nationalist or internationalist leanings) can generate such differences; but so can departmental interests within the administration, the pressure of special interest groups, and the vagaries of public opinion. Even if these problems can be surmounted to arrive at a balanced threat/risk analysis and a rational set of policies for prevention, mitigation and emergency response, many further obstacles can get in the way of implementation. Shortages of funds and perhaps of personnel are almost inevitable, as it is only human to grudge spending too much on an insurance policy. Coordination may be too weak, allowing departments and agencies to go their own way and perhaps delegating too much to the local level; or it may be too strong, destroying local initiative and favoring ill-informed, heavy-handed intervention.
If these are universal challenges, where does smallness make a difference? It can be helpful to the extent that a small nation may have a correspondingly restricted threat and risk spectrum, and one that does not vary too much across its territory. On the other hand, the specialized and non-typical security profiles of many small states make it harder for them to pick up ready-made models of response from elsewhere, while small elites also imply limited homegrown expertise. A limited cast of players should make communication and coordination easier in a crisis; the downside is that it can make it too tempting not to bother with formal and systematic coordination at all, but to rely – that is, to gamble – on improvisation. Rational exploitation of knowledge, skills, equipment and response capacity from the private sector and volunteer organizations is especially important for small states with limited government structures; yet over-reliance on this kind of help could mean starting down a slippery slope towards the privatization of state authority and "capture" of government by special interests. Similar or even more diverse risks attach to bringing in foreign experts, even those with apparently high-minded agendas.
A whole further layer of complication arises from the fact that few states build their national agendas in isolation. To start with, all are supposed to obey the orders of the United Nations regarding arms and trade embargoes, other sanctions against individual states, and generic directives such as those established by UN Security Council Resolutions 1373 on terrorist financing and 1540 on the illicit handling of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The legislative, even more than the administrative, steps needed to give full force to these norms within national jurisdictions can be extremely burdensome for small states and this has often retarded implementation even of politically unexceptionable measures. Secondly, the majority of states today, including a clear majority of small ones, have obligations (as members or associates) towards regional organizations claiming one or another kind of security competence. The more developed this regional cooperation, the more likely it becomes that any given state will be obliged to adopt collective security priorities, and perhaps quite heavy commitments, that reflect the aggregate concerns of all its partners. In Europe for example, Nordic states have to comply with measures designed to deal with Southern-style organized crime and with elaborate anti-terrorist policies developed by NATO, the EU and OSCE, while these problems rarely if ever affect their own territories directly. Some Central European states meanwhile may see the same measures, but also the Nordic insistence on environmental security and gender rights, as a vexatious distraction from their continuing more basic worries about territorial security and subversion. German taxpayers recently have been notoriously reluctant to "bail out" Southern member states facing problems of economic and financial security; and so on.
At least where these problems are being tackled in a formal institutional framework, a small state can participate in the policy-forming process, learn the rationale for the measures that will impact on it, and – as a last resort – campaign against or even veto an aspect it finds especially damaging. It has also, however, been quite common for small states to look for their security protection to one or more individual larger states, and this has a double or even triple significance for the composition of their national security agendas. First, the big state may ask something directly in return for offering shelter, such as access to the small state's resources and/or use of its strategically placed territory as a base. Secondly, the small partner may be expected, or may choose itself, to adopt large parts of its sponsor's general security philosophy and the priorities that go with it, even though –just as in the case of institutions with diverse membership – these could be far removed from the small state's "natural" profile. If so they may not only bring new burdens, including strains on domestic consensus, but also distract from local issues that deserve more serious attention. Finally, the large state may call for specific actions in support during a crisis or international contention where it sees its own interests at stake, and in some cases could even mobilize the small state as its proxy.
One further trend that has been clear in recent years, driven by general global conditions as well as institutional and protector relationships, is the expectation of greater outgoing activism at least by more prosperous small states. The most altruistic forms of such action go back at least a century, including the pioneering roles of some individuals and NGOs from small states in humanitarian and medical aid (think of Fridtjof Nansen from Norway), the above-average contributions of several small European states to international development assistance, and – especially since 1945 – the frequency of small-state contributions to UN-led peace missions. Up to the end of the Cold War, however, such activism was truly voluntary (aside from the case of states that still had far-flung colonies to protect) and reflected the values, more than the strategic self-interest, of the donors concerned. As the threat of "real" war receded from the Northern hemisphere after 1989-90, NATO and the EU - but also larger, more inclusive organizations like the OSCE – moved conflict management for other people's conflicts more into the center of their agendas, and placed increasingly specific obligations on all their members to prepare capacities for, and contribute to, such missions in accord with their ability. Similar trends could be marked elsewhere in the world as regional or sub-regional organizations in Africa, the Caribbean, South-East Asia and the West Pacific were drawn further into the peacekeeping business.
This was a significant shift for small states, especially those that had been peripheral to the Cold War's geography and so had been expected to do little for "real" defense except make some show of guarding their own territory. No-one was "peripheral" for the new interventionist agenda or exempt from contributing on the new "fronts" that could be opened by political choice – literally anywhere in the world. As already noted, small states might indeed have an above-average motivation to contribute if they wanted to please some larger sponsor who was pushing for the operation; but many were driven also by loyalty to the institutions that they relied on as their own "shelters", both for "hard" and other security purposes. The consequences for national security postures could be quite serious, including not just the burden and risk of the operations themselves, but the bleeding of scarce resources away from home defense and civil emergency response, and also the danger of rifts in national consensus since the grass-roots would generally be slower to grasp and accept the logic of such unfamiliar ventures than the more internationalized politico-military elite. [...]
Alyson JK Bailes is a Visiting Professor at the University of Iceland, Reykjavik. From July 2002-August 2007 she was Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Bailes' former career was spent largely in the British Diplomatic Service.
This text is an excerpt from the paper "Non-Military Security Challenges for Small States: A Framework for Policy Analysis" presented at the 6th General Conference of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) in Reykjavik, August 2011. Republished with permission.