Historic Conflicts Teach Us About Current Small-State Leverage

For centuries, tiny nations have exploited their status with promises of steadfast support to their larger allies

Historic Conflicts Teach Us About Current Small-State Leverage
Weeks before the outbreak of war in 1914, the Serbian ambassador to Russia, Miroslav Spalajković, receives a standing ovation on the streets of St. Petersburg / Karl Bulla / ullstein bild via Getty Images

The so-called Thucydides Trap, popularized by Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, underscores the security dilemmas that arise from the contest between emerging and extant great powers. Drawing its central conceit from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ recounting of the cataclysmic war between Athens and Sparta, Allison’s framing postures China and the United States as the central protagonists in such a contest. However, this conceptual shortcut tends to neglect the substantial points of leverage that smaller, less powerful states have at their disposal. Whether by dint of inertia — or worse, calculated maneuver — this leverage can incentivize escalation and render broader conflict into an existential imperative. As tensions heat up around Ukraine and Taiwan, it is worth considering that small states can wield much more leverage than they get credit for, and larger powers neglect this fact at their own peril.

An overzealous young Serbian diplomat posted to the Russian capital of St. Petersburg in 1914 was emblematic of this fact. An underexamined figure who struck a pivotal note in the prelude to the Great War, Miroslav Spalajković showed a relative inexperience and overexuberance that were — far from being a detriment — key to securing Russian backing for Serbia. Spalajković spared no effort in convincing St. Petersburg of the strategic wisdom in such a move. Beyond mere allusions to the immorality of the opposing Austro-Hungarian Empire, Spalajković took great pains to outline to his benefactors how alliance simply made good practical sense — assuring Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov that Russia could count on Serbia “in any eventuality,” that Serbia would never “do anything against Russia’s will … and will patiently wait for the day of score-settling.” Serbia could be considered an appendage of the Russian forces, “our front … an extension of the Russian front.”

Russia’s own eventual binary choice was implicit in Spalajković’s message: secure its interests in the Balkans against geopolitical rivals or stand idly by as those very foes — be they Ottoman, British or Austro-Hungarian — edge Russia out of a strategically vital arena. This would, of course, mean a loss of power. But perhaps more critically, a Serbian defeat would symbolize for Russia a catastrophic loss of prestige.

Here St. Petersburg wrestled with a conundrum all too familiar to international observers today: Can a purported great power maintain that aura if it fails or refuses to provide safe harbor to a supplicant, particularly one that stands to augment that great power’s strengths? Would rivals perceive restraint — rational or otherwise — as anything short of weakness? Moreover, as the self-styled heir to Byzantium, self-appointed protector of Orthodox peoples and self-anointed patriarch of the Slavic nations — on what basis could Czar Nicholas II justify forbearance?

Spalajković appears to have grasped the young monarch’s predicament and played it expertly to Serbia’s favor, cabling to his superiors in Belgrade that “the present moment is unique because Russia is determined to go to the very end and perform a historic act. … In my opinion, we are facing a splendid opportunity to use this event wisely. … It is desirable, therefore, that Austria-Hungary should attack us. In that case, ahead in the name of God!” Spalajković thus shifted the mantle of confrontation from the supplicant state onto its great-power patron. The rest is (tragic) history.

While historians may debate over the degree to which Russian support for Serbia was genuine or overstated by Spalajković, his machinations signify the perverse turning point at which an expanded war came to be in the Serbian national interest, as the galvanizing factor that might secure its longer-term viability. Such an unpalatable predicament for smaller states may receive less attention than Allison’s formulation demands of larger ones, but it is no less relevant to the contemporary geopolitical environment.

Indeed, in 433 B.C. Thucydides himself documented the same gambit used by Spalajković. The protagonists back then — Athens, Sparta and the beneficiary city-states that would make up their respective allied leagues — all wielded diplomacy to profound effect, their emissaries shuttling to and fro in a furious effort to mitigate the burgeoning tensions. At issue was the small colony of Corcyra and its need for a patron to protect it against rivals. The outcome would either ensure peace or topple the first domino in favor of combat.

In this regard, Corcyra’s plight was not dissimilar to that of prewar Serbia: Neither was independently capable of fending off advances absent the patronage of another great power. Even so, both still had qualities at their disposal that could prove useful to solicit that support: cultural, military and economic incentives that, in aggregate, could potentially alter the balance of power in their respective regions. For instance, Corcyra’s own significant naval power could prove a boon to Athens; Serbia’s location and shared Slavic roots were naturally alluring to Russia.

Corcyra deployed obsequious entreaties similar to those used by Spalajković centuries later: “You may search all history without finding many instances of a people gaining all these advantages at once, or many instances of a power that comes in quest of assistance being in a position to give to the people whose alliance she solicits as much safety and honor as she will receive.” By concentrating diplomatic pressure on lobbying their prospective patrons — vice overtures toward their menacing adversaries — these smaller states’ degree of success would become directly proportional to the degree of insecurity cultivated among the great powers of their day.

Consider how the patriarch of realist theory in the modern era, Hans Morgenthau, characterized the practice of diplomacy: ranging from persuasion to coercion, confrontation to compromise. The Serbian and Corcyraean experiences relied heavily on the former: appealing to one prospective great-power patron to levy an indirect, threat-of-force-by-proxy on the vassal of a second, great-power rival — lacking sufficient leverage for an alternative. Morgenthau’s contemporary, self-described realist Henry Kissinger, would later dub this approach “the tyranny of the weak,” an asymmetrical advantage skillfully deployed by less powerful states against stronger ones.

Kissinger would later outline how tensions between the leading powers in 1914 had been brewing since the Concert of Europe nearly a century before, when Vienna’s policies had begun to free Russia “to conduct its own policy strictly on the basis of geopolitical merit.” This freedom meant Russia was bound to clash with others over the future of the Balkans, where it sought greater freedom of maneuver, he noted. These opportunities included access to key maritime straits in the region as well as the distinction of being the arch-Slavic state. “To withdraw from the struggle to unite and lead the Orthodox and Slav cause was to deny Russia’s destiny and thus call into question the principles on which the Russian ‘church-state’ and Russian society rested,” according to Barbara Jelavich, an American expert on the Romanov dynasty. As she examined in her 2004 book, “Russia’s Balkan Entanglements, 1806-1914,” such aspirations had long distracted and bedeviled the Russian monarchy — a tendency that Belgrade would prove only too willing to exploit.

Like the Peloponnesian and Delian leagues of Thucydides’ day, “the nations of Europe had permitted themselves to become captives of reckless clients … to be dragged along by the paranoia” of shifting alliances, per Kissinger. As Serbia’s great-power patron, Russia feared that any perception that it had tolerated the bullying of a brotherly Slavic nation would prove irrevocably damaging to its prestige. Thucydides chronicled three primary motives in the wars of the fifth century B.C.: fear, honor and self-interest. Both Serbia and Corcyra find parallels in each other’s experience: a smaller state’s ability to trigger the fear within a great-power antagonist is largely confined to its ability to appeal to the honor and self-interest of a competing great-power benefactor. Within this triangulation lies a key competitive advantage.

To examine how weaker states deftly navigate otherwise damning power imbalances with stronger states is to disabuse ourselves of the notion that great power competition is narrated primarily by hegemons at the expense of weaker states. Political theorists have likewise warned against indulging the fallacy of a strong-state/weak-state dichotomy. Thucydides may have given us the mainstays of fear, honor and self-interest as drivers, but the far more obscure figure of Spalajković attests that the greatest capacity to leverage them often belongs to the small.

The United States has no shortage of experience with smaller powers seeking to triangulate and bargain for position against their larger rivals, complicating policy formulations around “credibility,” “resolve” and “deterrence.” As Washington considers its strategy in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, a myopic focus on the pursuit of primacy and a fixed emphasis on competition with other great powers presents more than one kind of trap.

Ultimately, few would dispute the accuracy of Thucydides’ dictum — “the strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.” However, one need only reference the exploits of a young Serbian diplomat — or the history of a small polis on the Ionian Sea — to be reminded that the maxim can operate conversely as well.

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