The Role of Small Countries in the International Politics


Small countries have often been viewed as puppet states under the thumb of other nations, lacking the means of conducting independent foreign policy or the means to protect their own sovereignty. After the 2nd World War and the decline of armed violence as a means of achieving geopolitical goals, small states have become much more independent and influential. This is associated with the shift of paradigm from realist politics towards liberal and neo-liberal agendas.

A small state is a relatively vague term that describes a nation that is considered “small” in one or more of the following prerequisites: territory and population, economic potential, or political and military influence. A nation that is strong in at least one of these has the potential to utilize that power in order to become “large” in international politics and push forward its own agendas. The concepts of soft power are now more prevalent than before, being seen as preferable to hard power due to the smaller potential for destabilization of the system and greater benefit towards the preservation and protection of human welfare. Qatar is an example small nation that utilizes its incremental, derivative, and collective tools to promote its interests in the international arena.


Throughout the history of humanity, there were large states and smaller states. The relative might or weakness of these entities was motivated by a plethora of factrs, ranging from geographic positioning to the availability of food and materials to sustain population growth. The mightiest states eventually formed empires and began waging a war of political, economic, and military supremacy, each eager and willing to fight for their own sphere of influence. The second half of the 20th century saw the dissolution of Nazi Germany, 45 years later, followed by the Soviet Union. These geopolitical events of grand proportions saw the reinstatement of numerous independent states back on the geopolitical map, bringing about the topic of importance of small states in international politics. This issue is not limited to Europe alone, as every continent on the map has large and powerful nations neighboring smaller ones. At the same time, the true definition of the “small state” has been an argued notion in the political academia. Historically, small states have always been influenced by larger and more powerful countries neighboring them. However, the 21st century has seen the rise of the concept of soft power, which can be used as a tool for small states to influence the political arena. With military power becoming less favored due to the damage it causes to the globalized economic system, other methods of pressure become available, putting larger and smaller countries in a position of relative equality.

Qatar has always been a state surrounded by powerful entities. It currently occupies one of the most dominant positions in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It fits the majority of the available definitions of a small state due to its relatively small population, territory size, and military strength (Wright 2013). Nevertheless, it has managed to put itself in a position of power utilizing diplomacy, economic leverages, and group power (Wright 2013). Qatar is often called upon to solve disputes between members of GCC as well as other countries in the Middle East, trusted by many sides to be an objective mediator (Fawcett 2016). It did so in the aftermath of Arab Spring, which saw the escalation of conflicts in the region following the toppling of several dictators (Fawcett 2016). Therefore, understanding what soft power is, how does it connect to the idea of a small state, and review its application by Qatar in the scope of domestic, regional, and global political settings is important to be able to implement the same lessons in the scope of one’s own international relations paradigm. The chosen research problem will revolve around Qatar and its implementation of soft power in order to achieve its personal goals as well as contribute to the overall stability and the economic success of the region its located in. In addition, the country’s position in the international arena will be reviewed and analyzed.

Purpose of the Project

The purpose of this project is to analyze and identify the instruments available to a small nation in order to acquire a degree of influence in the international community. For these purposes, the nation chosen to serve as an example would be Qatar. This country fits the majority of the requirements needed to be considered a small nation, while at the same time having a history of expanding its political and economic influence on its own and through participation in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Aims and Objectives of the Study

The aims and objectives of the study are as follows:

  • Provide a working definition of the “small state,” which is congruent with the majority of modern political science studies;
  • To study the history and role of Qatar in the unfolding problems currently occupying the Arabian Peninsula;
  • Highlight the main tools available to smaller states in order to strengthen their role in the political arena;
  • Analyze the history of the formation of GCC in relation to the countries-resources-political arena triangle;
  • Analyze Qatar’s foreign policy today and before, highlighting the important changes that have been made, and the greater emphasis on soft power;
  • Define what instruments is Qatar currently using in its diplomatic efforts across the globe;
  • Outline the role of energy diplomacy in shaping Qatar’s foreign policy in the modern period.

Significance and Relevance of the Study

The significance and relevance of the study can be quantified not only by the geopolitical realities of modern international relations but also by the prospects of future practice by students and scholars alike. Assuming an individual would work in a foreign relations office, they would either represent a small nation or have to deal with the representatives of such entities as an envoy of a larger nation. In either case, understanding the main motivations and tools available to these countries is invaluable to inform once’s practice.

The significance of small nations is further enhanced by the gradual decline in the use of force by larger countries, which had been happening since the end of the 2nd World War. This allowed for the implementation of economic and political instruments that are more accessible to smaller nations. In addition, the gradual evolution of technology and the growing demand for natural resources to be used in transportation, manufacturing, and high-tech production, in addition to the growing rates of globalization, offered many smaller nations to use these newfound advantages to add weight to their positions in the international arena. Thus, the scope of the study is relevant, significant, and useful in the broader scope of understanding international politics.

Research Questions

The research questions to be answered in the proposed study are as follows:

  • What is the definition of the small state?
  • What is the definition of soft power?
  • What tools did Qatar use before and after adopting its present stance in local, regional, and international politics?
  • What is the historical role of Qatar in producing and solving the problems of the Arabian Peninsula as a separate entity and as the part of GCC?
  • How did Qatar’s foreign policy progress after the Arab Spring of 2011?
  • What tools are available to smaller states that could be beneficial in international relations?
  • What were the geographical, economic, and political predispositions to the formation of GCC?
  • What is the role of energy diplomacy in Qatar’s modern foreign policy?

These research questions are congruent with the aims of objectives of the study and should be answered as part of the proposed research.

Review of Literature

For the majority of the world’s history, large nations and empires were at the spotlight of political activity. Small states were not viewed as political players, only as satellites to exert influence on, territories to be conquered, or colonies to be exploited (Ripsmann et al. 2016). Nicola Machiavelli, one of the most prominent thinkers and the founder of realist school of political thought, once quoted that small nations cannot compete with large nations, and small economies cannot hope to best large economies (Ripsmann et al. 2016). Likewise, small nations could not support armies big enough to defeat those of bigger nations. As such, many political thinkers dismissed the potential of smaller nations to aspire to anything beyond mere survival and a hope of prosperity under the protectorate of a bigger state.

However, the liberal and neo-liberal theories of international relations found that small states have a distinct role to play in international cooperation (Dunne & Reus-Smit 2017). With the emphasis on military might fading away in favor of a globalized economy, former satellites found themselves in a position to project and exert their own political influence. Some conglomerated into blocs and alliances, while other exploited their preferable geographic position or cultural significance (Dunne & Reus-Smit 2017). Therefore, small states now play a more important role in politics than ever before, as the paradigm of IR shifted from achieving dominance and combating fears to striving towards mutual cooperation and prosperity. Another reason why the number of military confrontations between powerful countries ceased was the invention of the nuclear bomb, which effectively stopped all major direct escalations of conflict like those of the First and Second world wars, at the threat of mutually-assured destruction (Dunne & Reus-Smit 2017).

Researchers in the field of international politics have always struggled to provide a clear-cut definition of the “small state.” For the majority of history, the relative strength of the country was largely determined by three things – the number of its population, the geographical position of its lands, and the of its military (Maas 2009). However, those definitions became outdated a long time ago, as modern economics and politics influenced the position of the countries typically considered powerful, in relation to other states. Maas (2009) highlights the important criteria that make a “small state,” while claiming that no singular country fits the list of criteria specifically, due to a wide range of variables involved. The identified criteria are as follow (Maas 2009):

  • Population size (typically below 15 million);
  • Geographical size;
  • Military strength;
  • GDP;
  • Natural resources;
  • Geographical positioning.

That list of criteria is not exhausted, however, as the perspectives of what a small state actually is constitutes economic, political, and scientific definitions. While the criteria provided by Maas (2009) constitute a scientific definition, they lack several important dimensions of power. From a political perspective, a small state does not require its population to be big or small, or its territories to be vast or minuscule. What matters the most is the capacity of a state to conduct independent foreign policy and affect the diplomacy of other states (Handel 2016). While population and territory size are important, they do not necessarily have the potential to guarantee political power. An example of a large small state is Ukraine. It is one of the largest countries in Europe with an abundant population, rich resources, and the potential to become a prominent power on its own. However, from a political perspective, it is a small state with limited capacity of projecting its own power, sandwiched between Russia and the EU, both being much powerful in geopolitical sense of the word (Handel 2016).

Vatican, on the other hand, is a minuscule state with no economic value whatsoever, no standing military, and a tiny population (Handel 2016). Nevertheless, it remained a prominent power throughout history due to its cultural-religious value. It is the residence of the Pope, who is considered the primary authority of the entire Catholic world, and commands immense power on those populations worldwide. Historically, Vatican had been the center of European politics and the birthplace of many Crusades to the Middle East as well as Eastern Europe (Handel 2016). This demonstrates how political power does not always coincide with economic or geographical positioning, making the definition of a small state a very obscure matter.

Economic definitions of small states, on the other hand, focus on economic levers available to these countries. In that regard, smaller but more efficient economies may allow relatively minuscule countries (from a geographic perspective) to have more influence on the regional or even global economy than their larger and more populous counterparts (Dunne & Reus-Smit 2017). The city of Singapore is an example of a tiny nation being an economic powerhouse (Handel 2016). Despite being the size of a single city, Singapore is the economic capital of Malaysia, controlling one of the richest trade routes from China towards Europe. Such a position makes the country one of the largest economic players in the region and a mecca of investment and finance. It exemplifies how relatively small states can be large through economic prowess (Handel 2016).

The formation of GCC as a union of pan-Arabic states was a move that

allowed the relatively small countries of the Arabian Peninsula to gain a collective voice in the international arena (Sandwick 2019). From the perspective of the classical countries-resources-politics triangle, the nations that made up the economic-political union were natural to form an alliance. First, all of the members have a close geographical, economic, and cultural proximity to one another, essentially being neighbors in the geo-strategically important region that is in the scope of both the US and Chinese interests (Sandwick 2019). In terms of resources, nearly all members of GCC have access to oil, which is one of the most important energy producers on the planet (Sandwick 2019). Being united allowed the otherwise small states to pool their influence and provide a joint position on the issue of oil prices, to the benefit of the countries involved. Lastly, the formation of GCC allowed its members to present their interests in the international arena without being pulled apart by internal struggles (Sandwick 2019).

Qatar, as an example of vigorous international activity and foreign policy, has been a part of GCC since its foundation in 1981 (Scheldrup 2014). This moment coincided with the development of the oil industry in the region and the increasing influence of the countries found in the Arabian Peninsula. According to Scheldrup (2014), Qatar was involved in nearly all large and small decisions and conflicts that happened in the last 38 years, including the mediation of the Lebanese crisis of 2008, the support of various political formations during the Arab Spring, and constant tensions between itself and Saudi Arabia, as Qatar sought to become the more dominant force in the Middle Eastern political landscape (Scheldrup 2014). At the same time, the ongoing political crisis between Qatar and GCC that started in 2017 was caused by the country’s dealings with the supposed opponents of GCC interests, such as Iran (Naheem 2017).

The tools available to small nations such as Qatar, in the modern political landscape, can be classified into three large groups. Long (2016) identifies intrinsic, derivative, and collective tools for power projection of the smaller states. Intrinsic tools are those particular to a country alone. In Qatar’s case, such powers include its geostrategic positioning, oil supplies, and the reputation of a small neutral power, which allowed the country to serve as a mediator in various crises (Long 2016). Derivative powers come from relationships with stronger nations, thus providing political leverage to their allies by extension. Saudi Arabia, one of the important power brokers in the region, has a close relationship with the US, which makes it a leading nation in the GCC as well (Kamrava 2013). Lastly, there are collective bargaining powers to be used in international politics. These come from being part of a larger union. If European countries and their interests are represented by the EU, for Qatar, it’s the GCC, through which the country can project its ambitions into the outside world.

Research Design and Methodology

Due to the intrinsic nature of international relations studies and its grounding in politics, sociology, and history, qualitative research design would be the most suited to the subject (Taylor, Bogdan & DeVault 2015). It will follow the methodology of a literature meta-analysis, relying on primary and secondary sources in order to derive answers to the questions highlighted above. This type of methodology relies on rigorous information search and methodical dissemination of findings (Taylor, Bogdan & DeVault 2015). The primary sources would include various documents and recordings of negotiations, which would allow to analyze the implementation of various methods and tools in practice. Secondary sources would include journal articles and books, which would enable the researchers to analyze the context of issues and negotiations, as well as rely on peer-reviewed academic accounts of the results of such negotiations. The method of analysis of primary sources is the contacts method, which stands for analyzing not only the content of the message, but also its IR connection with different people, events, and political agendas.

Sampling Method

The literature collected for meta-analysis would be extracted from various publicly-available databases, including Questia, Proquest, Literature Resource Center, CQ Researcher, the local electronic libraries, and many others. All sources would need to be recent (published within the last 10 years), peer-reviewed, and pertaining to the selected subject (Taylor, Bogdan & DeVault 2015). The samples would be searched for using specific keywords and word combinations. The primary ones include (but not limited to) the following: Small state, small nation, small country, international politics, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arabian Emirates, Kuwait, Gulf Cooperation Council, Middle East, oil, economy. As outlined by the research design and methodology, primary sources would need to be acquired as well. The recordings, documents, and transcripts would be acquired from various government sites that provide access to such as well as publicly available recordings and videos of official negotiations. Mass media is to be used sparingly, mostly to provide context to whatever is going on, at the point of time, from the perspective of respective countries entering negotiations. Some of the primary sources to be used in this research are media interviews of important officials, public speeches, such as the speech of the Amir of Qatar at the UN, and all pertaining foreign office announcements for the last 10 years.

Data Collection and Analysis

After the initial sampling stage would provide the sources to be used in the meta-analysis, data collection procedures would begin. All articles would be coded based on their relevance to the questions and the availability of answers provided in them. The validity of answers would be established by using triangulation methods, where several sources would be investigated in relation to particular conclusions and events that would take place (Taylor, Bogdan & DeVault 2015). The analysis of primary sources would also have to focus on content, but the data extracted from them should be put to a more rigorous analysis, as primary sources inherently reflect only the described position of the negotiating parties rather than the objective view of the matter. This information would enable the researchers to see first-hand accounts of soft power and other methods of diplomacy being used to further Qatar’s goals and diplomatic positions as identified in secondary literature. The acquired data would be then subjected to content analysis, which is one of the most common means of analyzing qualitative data. The conclusions would be derived separately by several individuals and then crosschecked, in order to ensure a lack of bias.

Expected Outcomes

It is expected that the research will provide ample evidence of soft power being an effective tool of foreign diplomacy as used by Qatar and a useful example for other states to follow. The majority of tools utilized to shape foreign policy to its benefit would be identified as well. The role of small nations in large-scale politics as exemplified by Qatar is to ride the waves of political fluctuations and find balance between larger powers, in order to ensure safety, security, and economic prosperity. It is likely that the literature will find Qatar’s collective bargaining power to be the strongest tool available to the country, as it allows its own might to combine with those of close allies, creating a more stable and strong collective entity. Finally, working definitions of small states and soft power would successfully be provided to be used in the scope of this research as well as many others.

Suggested Research Strategy

A research strategy is a detailed step-by-step plan that would enable the researchers to produce their work in an orderly and timely fashion. Since this paper follows a meta-analysis framework, the proposed research strategy for it would be as follows (Badke 2017):

  • Preparation. The first step of the research is to create a plan of action, identify all the necessary materials needed to produce the research, and deal with any paradigmatic issues that may arise in the scope of the research (ethical issues, for example) (Badke 2017). During this stage, the researcher will acquire access to various online libraries, get all the necessary permissions, and run the research proposal by the reviewing committee, before getting to work.
  • Data collection. During this stage, the primary and secondary data from various sources is to be collected, reviewed, and compiled in accordance to its content. Ideally, each source should be reviewed independently by 2 members, with a 3rd party member involved in case of a disagreement on relevancy or quality of the source (Badke 2017).
  • Data analysis. During this stage, the information found in the articles, recordings, speeches, and other sources is to be disseminated, triangulated, and presented in an orderly manner (Badke 2017).
  • Relevant conclusions. Based on the data analysis, a synthesis of knowledge is to be completed, with the purpose of producing knowledge pertinent to the research questions, which could later be used by other researchers and interested parties (Badke 2017).
  • Dissemination of information. The framework, data presentation, analysis, and conclusions, are to be presented in an article form and reviewed with due academic rigor. After that, it should be published in a place accessible to other scholars (Badke 2017).

This strategy follows the standard procedure for most meta-analysis articles, and should be appropriate for this paper as well.

Reference List

Badke, W 2017, Research strategies: Finding your way through the information fog, iUniverse, Bloomington, IN.

Dunne, T & Reus-Smit, C 2017, The globalization of international society, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Fawcett, L 2016, International relations of the Middle East, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Handel, MI 2016, Weak states in the international system, Routledge, New York, NY.

Kamrava, M 2013, Qatar: small state, big politics, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

Long, T 2016, ‘Small states, great power’ Gaining influence through intrinsic, derivative, and collective power’, International Studies Review, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 185-205.

Maas, M 2009, ‘The illusive definition of the small state’, International Politics, vol. 46, pp. 65-83.

Naheem, MA 2017, ‘The dramatic rift and crisis between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of June 2017’, International Journal of Disclosure and Governance, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 265-277.

Ripsman, NM, Taliaferro, JW & Lobell, SE 2016. Neoclassical realist theory of international politics, Oxford University Press. Oxford, UK.

Scheldrup, M 2014, ‘Lilliputian choice: explaining small state foreign policy variation’, UH thesis, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Taylor, SJ, Bogdan, R & DeVault, M 2015, Introduction to qualitative research methods: a guidebook and resource, Wiley, New York, NY.

Wright, S 2013, The transformation of the Gulf, Routledge, New York, NY.

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1. DemoEssays. "The Role of Small Countries in the International Politics." January 4, 2023.


DemoEssays. "The Role of Small Countries in the International Politics." January 4, 2023.