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When major powers clash, or grow more competitive, the historical record shows that small states are the first to be buffeted by the actions of their larger counterparts. Small states do not set the international agenda. This means that if the fears of a breakdown of the rules-based order are well-founded, it will have profound implications for their security. Thus, these actors must look within their own armoury – at the tactics and strategies available to them, within certain bounds – and consider how much leverage they can exert within the context in which they operate. What is the role of small states in the international order? Can small states do anything more than move swiftly to avoid being trampled when elephants collide? Some insight into these questions can be offered by tracing the development of autonomous small state strategies in the changing international order since the end of the Second World War. This paper will address three specific strategies within that vast subject: first, neutrality to circumvent conflict; second, strategic hedging and the vision of a ‘third’ way of operating when caught in the midst of great power competition; and third, the harnessing of multilateralism to bind great power behaviour and secure the national interest. Today, the rules-based system, which for half a century has suppressed predatory behaviour and allowed fairly equal access for large and small states to international markets and dispute resolution measures, is increasingly being challenged. Increasing antagonism between great powers is already creating serious dilemmas for smaller international actors, and this is likely to intensify in the near future. However, the ability of small states to strategically navigate risk means that they can be expected to adapt to these changes. As small states navigate a fading rules-based order, this paper will argue that they have several time-tested strategies in reserve.    

Dr Hillary Briffa is a Lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London, working primarily with the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom (the Royal College of Defence Studies and the Joint Services Command and Staff College)

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