The New Today

Commentary

Small states in the global arena: Navigating survival and sovereignty

In the international arena, small states consistently grapple with existential threats. The structures of the global economy, finance, and trade not only sideline them but are deliberately skewed against their favour.

Despite these formidable challenges – including the acute threat posed by climate change – small states continue to persevere, albeit in grave circumstances.

For over five decades, since their emergence from the remnants of European empires, small states have faced several inherent disadvantages: limited land, small populations, and restricted access to development capital. These factors have often relegated them to a dependency on aid from larger, more influential nations.

However, it is crucial to note that apart from emergency relief during natural disasters, aid is generally extended either to ensure continued dependency or to secure allegiance, serving the strategic interests of the donor country in the global arena.

Confronted with internal pressures for economic and social development that their limited resources cannot meet, governments of small states often find themselves with little choice but to accept this aid. In some cases, they actively seek it.

This reliance on external support comes at a significant cost: it compromises their sovereignty and forces them to align their policies with those of their benefactors.

However, without a global structure that responds to the development needs of small states by providing affordable financing based on objective criteria—like building infrastructure, enhancing climate resilience, and creating fairer trade terms – small states will continue to be compelled to accept aid under conditions set by donors.

Some of these conditions are explicit, as seen in the agreements between the EU and African, Caribbean, and Pacific states, while others are continuously applied by donors. It should be noted that some small states provide backing to donors simply because they fear losing existing benefits.

This narrative of survival and adaptation forms the core of this discussion. As we delve deeper into the resilience and strategic manoeuvres of small states, we continuously face the question: How can these nations not only survive but thrive in a system so heavily stacked against them?

According to the World Bank, there are currently 50 small states worldwide, with significant concentrations in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Attempts to forge unified positions among small states have occurred but within groups of larger developing countries, whose interests sometimes conflict with those of smaller states. Consequently, these efforts have not proven to be effective vehicles for their aims.

Global crises have profoundly affected small states and continue to do so. The World Bank notes that “the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated already high fiscal imbalances and debt vulnerabilities in many Small States.”

Moreover, the recent surge in fuel and food prices due to geopolitical tensions has further undermined their post-COVID recovery efforts. High inflation has also led to higher international borrowing costs, disproportionately affecting highly indebted Small States.

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From the Pacific to the Caribbean, small island states are on the frontlines of climate change impacts. The threats they face are varied—from sea-level rise threatening low-lying areas to increasingly severe storms devastating the economies of island states.

In recent years, small nations have found a voice through the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which operates from the UN in New York. It has played a crucial role in developing collective strategies and negotiating positions.

If AOSIS can be maintained, broadened, and strengthened, it has the potential to become a compelling and irresistible voice for small states. However, this would require AOSIS to expand its footprint outside the UN structure and the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) on Climate Change.

For instance, AOSIS could have served itself and all its member states well had they collectively joined Antigua and Barbuda and Tuvalu in securing an Opinion from the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), regarding the specific obligations of States to prevent, reduce, and control marine environmental pollution stemming from climate change.

Only 7 other member states of AOSIS joined the two founding countries. Nonetheless, the Opinion has now set a benchmark in international law from which all small island states can benefit in global negotiations.

The Opinion can also help in insisting that the polluting countries and the financial institutions that they control, implement the plan which emerged from the 4th UN Small Island Developing States (SIDS) Conference, which recently concluded in Antigua and Barbuda.

The conference produced a Declaration for Renewed Prosperity that sets out an ambitious pathway for SIDS’ sustainable development, addressing the crippling debt crisis many face, and recognizing their frontline position in the global climate crisis. The declaration calls for international pledges to support SIDS in developing their adaptation and mitigation efforts.

However, for small states to advance, they require visionary leaders with the resolve and political acumen to champion their causes globally. Their strategy must be sharp and well-defined, supported by a clear set of objectives and a credible plan that highlights tangible benefits not only for their own nations but for the global community.

In the face of overwhelming global challenges, small states cannot afford to wait passively; their success in the international arena will not come from the existing global architecture’s benevolence but from their own concerted efforts to advocate for change and justice.

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS. The views expressed are entirely his own