How small states navigate great powers

The Nansen Professorship at the University of Akureyri invites you to a symposium on the role of small states in a changing global order.

On November 18th, the Nansen Professorship at the University of Akureyri invites you to a symposium on the role of small states in a changing global order.

Time: Thursday, 18 November 2021 13:00-14:30
Place: University of Akureyri, Norðurslóð 2, 600 Akureyri and Zoom


  • 13:00 Introduction to Small State Symposium
  • 13:05 Trust in the Nordic Arctic?

Gunnar Rekvig, Nansen Professor, the University of Akureyri, Akureyri, Iceland

  • 13:15 Revisiting a Cold War Paradigm: Iceland, the United States, and Arctic Geopolitics

Valur Ingimundarson, Professor, University of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland

  • 13:25 Small state leverage in the presence of Power

Desmond Molloy, Adjunct Professor, Pannasastra University, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

  • 13:35 Which side are you on?  United States’ Unconditional Exit from Afghanistan and Its Effect on Global and Regional Polarity

Kenji Isezaki, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Tokyo, Japan

  • 13:45 break
  • 13:55 Discussion and Q&A
  • 14:30 Symposium ends

A paradigm shift is moving the global order from post-Cold War unipolarity dominated by the United States to a system characterized by bipolarity, in which a rising China is the primary challenger.[1] Russia has aligned itself even more with China than before since the Ukrainian Crisis of 2014 worsened its relations with the West. In this emerging system, a Cold War type bipolar dichotomy of incompatible political systems is compounded by multipolar competition for resources and power, with dissimilar states aligning with each other. The global system thus undergoes a transformation in which stability and predictability are weakened. An increasingly fragmented West stands against a Sino-Russian bloc. This division is discernable both in the Arctic and in Asia, with small states facing the difficulty of navigating between the powers.

Nordic Arctic Perspectives

In this global order, small states can be vulnerable to their larger neighbours. This was the case for Finland in the Cold War when it had to act alongside the interests of the Soviet Union despite not being politically aligned. Finland found itself between East and West and therefore acted as a vehicle for balancing the superpowers. Except for Finland and Sweden, the Nordic States were NATO members. Yet, they also worked to balance NATO and the Soviet Union. Norway instituted several policies that built trust and created good relations with the Soviet Union. These policies, alongside those of other Nordic countries, created a region of relative stability and low tension. These policies laid the groundwork for the post-Cold War Barents Euro-Arctic Cooperation which was implemented with relative ease after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are lessons to be learned from the Cold War period for how trust can be built, and how negative developments can be turned around to reduce tensions in dangerous times.

As tensions increase today, the Cold War lessons relate to how the small Nordic states that were either in the Western sphere in NATO (Norway, Iceland, or Denmark), or neutral and non-aligned (Sweden and Finland), all balanced military deterrence with reassurance policies. These policies, and the competencies that created them, may now be disappearing, leaving deterrence without reassurance. The Arctic is moreover marked by the arrival of new actors, above all China. As Russia and China are aligned, the divisions of the Cold War are reemerging and with this development, the Arctic is again becoming militarized. We need to reexamine the policies of small states in the Cold War to bring back the competencies that existed in a time of much higher tension than today.

Asian Perspectives

In reviewing the roll-out of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Asia, questions arise regarding the competency of smaller states to take advantage of investments without being taken advantage of, as the great power pursues its own security and economic strategic interests. Perceptions of asymmetric contracts and dept-traps organized through bilateral negotiations with leveraged elites not necessarily addressing national interests in an absence of transparency, abound. Whether in Asia or East Africa, a crux contributing to exposure is that China insists on negotiating with its client countries on a bilateral basis, allowing savvy Chinese negotiators to exploit individual weaknesses or predilections in closing a deal. If the small states of the Arctic, that are not a part of the evolving competing global order, are to ensure mutual and shared benefit and avoid over-exploitation, mechanisms of collective bargaining, of management and governance of the evolving Arctic routes, particularly the North Sea Route and Central Arctic Route, must be considered.

While the Arctic Council includes competing great powers as members or observers, it will not offer the basis for such a mechanism. Lessons may be drawn from the Cold War competency of Trust as exercised between Norway and the Soviet Union in protecting mutual local interests, despite competing global treaty positions. These lessons may then be compared with the efforts made by Central and South Asian states to readjust their policies after the Western failure in Afghanistan, and by ASEAN countries to accommodate a rising China while at the same time opposing its assertiveness in the South China Sea.  China’s influence in Southeast Asia may now be affected by the crisis in Myanmar, which casts a shadow over the preparations for the grand commemorative celebration of China-ASEAN cooperation that Xi Jinping plans to host on 22 November in Beijing. Asian developments will also impact the Arctic. The state system remains global and regions as well as regimes are not static entities.

A panel of academics and practitioners will address, reflect, and discuss these issues.


[1] Though some argue that the US-Sino bipolarity is a western concept and that we are instead heading toward “heteropolarity”, in which alignments are more fluid and the relative power of states comes from a variety of sources, which include economic, societal and cultural factors in addition to military ones.