The World Around Us
May 19, 2020
Survival of the Smallest

In my last article, I quoted former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, who recently expressed concern about “a continued slow but steady drift toward international anarchy.” In response to this assertion, I made the point that for Caribbean countries, their small size and limited material power suggest that they have more to lose in a state of global anarchy. I also likened Caribbean countries and other small states to a herd of rabbits caught up in a stampede by a herd of elephants (the elephants of course being metaphors for large and powerful states). I was challenged by a reader who suggested that this picture was pessimistic and held out little hope for small state survival. I was therefore challenged to respond in terms of how small states can navigate what appears to be a changing geo-political and geo-economic world.

It is important to place in context the challenges facing small states, particularly small developing states. These states typically have small and narrow economies, narrow in the sense that there is an over-reliance on a limited number of economic sectors and activities. Small developing states are also generally militarily weak and lack the resources to wield extensive diplomatic influence. These are some of the factors that constrain their ability to influence global outcomes. However, this is not to say that there is no possibility for small developing states to shape the international community.

For starters, small developing states have history on their side when it comes to shaping global outcomes. In the 1970s and 1980s, at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, many small developing countries were influential members of the Non-Aligned Movement – an international organization that was committed to neutrality in the context of the then bipolar world. In more recent times, small states have been at the centre of efforts, such as the United Nations (UN) Millennium Goals (SDGs) and its successor, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), both of which have sought to create a blueprint for better developmental outcomes for the poorest and the weakest. On climate change, small developing states have also been at the forefront of efforts to reverse global warming as demonstrated by their active participation in the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

However, we now face a unique set of circumstances as the global order ushered in at the end of the Second World War seems to be tottering on the brink of collapse. Amid the worst pandemic in decades (the novel coronavirus pandemic) when ramping up global cooperation should have been the norm, countries appear to be going in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, the relevance of several of the international organizations that were created to secure a better world is now being questioned.

The smallest and weakest states cannot and should not resign themselves to learned helplessness in the face of growing threats to their survival. In the same way that these states have in the past coalesced around issues that were germane to their survival, they must now band together and direct diplomatic and other relevant resources to address issues in which they have a major stake. This would require more coordinated and deliberate issue-specific coalition building and influence peddling around areas such as climate finance; concessional funding for sustainable development initiatives; and pushing back against unfair tactics such as international blacklisting of their financial services sectors.

Small developing states should not shy away from using soft power to extract the outcomes they want. This would require consistent messaging in pushing back against any attempts to fragment or destroy the rules-based international order whilst simultaneously championing the causes that are important for their survival. In recent weeks, it has been pleasing to see the Prime Ministers of Barbados and Jamaica being featured on CNN and being beamed to an international audience. These features provided a timely reminder that the Caribbean is not a forgotten place and that we have the resolve and the leadership to be a force on the international stage.

At the time of writing, the Prime Minister of Barbados had just concluded her address to the World Health Assembly (WHA), one of only six other world leaders to speak, while the Ambassador of The Bahamas to the UN in Geneva was appointed as President of the Assembly. These developments again demonstrated the capacity of small developing states to rise to the challenge of global leadership. Of course, we cannot forget St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ own place on the UN Security Council, which is another reminder that small developing states can still punch above their weight.