A little history of the world: the importance of small states in global politics

International historian Mark Mazower talks to Rob Attar about the importance of small states such as Greece, and the lessons Britain can draw from their experiences

A vintage map of Europe. One of the hardest things for small nations to accept is that they're not in control over their own destinies, says Mark Mazower. (Getty Images)

This article first appeared in the November 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Why do you believe that the histories of small states have been neglected so far?

The historical profession developed in a way where people were encouraged to specialise in the history of this or that great power. European history was therefore really identified with the history of Britain, France or Germany. If you were very adventurous you might look at Italy or study the Spanish Civil War, and because of the Cold War some people also got interested in Russia. The numerous other small countries didn’t get much of a look in, although that is changing now.
I remember a rather acerbic study of the top 20 history textbooks of the 20th century, which analysed them in terms of how much they talked about this or that country. From the analysis it turned out that Britain, France, Germany and Russia received about 80–85 per cent of the coverage, whereas some quite important countries such as Finland, Hungary, Poland and Turkey were scarcely ever mentioned. I think that this is one of the reasons that when I got interested in European history I determined not to write in that way. I thought the histories of these other countries were just as important and had just as much to tell us.

What can we learn by studying the histories of these smaller states?

A small country (small in the sense of power, not territory) never feels in control of its own destiny. In fact that is the hardest thing for people in those countries to accept. They know that great powers and other factors have an enormous influence over them. I think it’s useful to be reminded of that now when we live in a globalised world, where even the greatest powers are no longer masters of their own destiny. That’s something that they, including Britain, are coming to realise. So in that sense I think the history of a small country can be very pertinent for our times.

What strategies have small states used to avoid being dominated by those around them?

There is the Albanian strategy [while a communist state during the Cold War] where you have as little to do with your neighbours as possible, pursue self sufficiency, mine your borders and stop people coming in or out. I suppose North Korea follows a strategy like that today as far as it can. Yet this approach is difficult to achieve and has become almost impossible in the 21st century, as global circumstances have changed.
Another option is to try to manipulate the great powers against each other. A large part of the history of the Balkan states or the Middle East is of attempts of the political elites, perfectly rationally, to try to play one great power off against another, often quite successfully. That goes on all the time.
In today’s world there is also a third option where you turn yourself into such a valuable, economically prosperous and efficient economy that everybody respects you and nobody wants to touch you. That’s sort of the Singapore option. But it rather depends on your resource endowment, the state of your economy and workforce and so on.

Have small states gained from uniting, as, for example, in the case of the European Union?

Well I think the European Union was an illustration of what happens when even relatively large states realise that they are not autonomous and they need to behave like small states. In many ways the EU has been very successful – although it is facing some very serious challenges now – but it hasn’t been easily emulated. There were specific circumstances for integration in Europe at that time, such as economic complementarities, especially with France and Germany, and the shared memory of a very bitter war that nobody wanted to repeat.
Integration in the Balkans was attempted in the 1920s and 1930s but never got very far. Integration in the Middle East has not been attempted since the Second World War, and in Africa and Asia it is really striking by its absence. You have to ask yourself actually why there is so little integration around the world.

Have there been countries that could not properly adjust to the fact that they were small states?

A lot of small states in the 19th and early 20th centuries thought it was their business to make war on their neighbours and grow as large as they could. That was true of Greece and true of Bulgaria and true of Poland – which was not quite as small a state.
Both the Poles and Greeks shared the sense of being at the centre of events and have had that feeling really from the time they had a national consciousness. They saw themselves as being at the heart of Europe in some way and on occasions it led them to misjudge the willingness of larger powers to come to their assistance.

In both the Polish and Greek examples, these were countries that once had empires. Is it especially difficult for states reduced in power to cope with their new ‘smaller’ status?

That’s a very interesting question. One thinks of Britain and the ceremony starting off the recent Olympic games. How does a former imperial power cope with the fact that it is a former imperial power? I suppose irony is one way and that was done very effectively at the opening ceremony.
I don’t think these states think of themselves as any longer having imperial ambitions but perhaps one of the effects is that they are more divided than other states. Do their politicians find it harder to work together? I’m not sure. It would be interesting to compare Greece with Portugal, where the political system seems to be more unified even though Portugal had a larger empire, more recently than the Greeks. Why is it that some countries seem to adjust better than others?
The Danes appear to have made that adjustment fairly well for instance, but how they were able to forego the illusions of empire I don’t know.

So is it important that each of these small nations or states is studied on its own terms?

Yes, and I think that that is one of the difficulties in teaching European history. You want to get a sense of the continent as a whole but every national culture and every country’s historical profession is doing its own thing. Once you know one or two of those really well then you can see that there is still value in specialising.
Mark Mazower is a historian who has written widely on Greece as well as 20th-century European and international history. He is director of the Center for International History at Columbia University and author of Governing the World: The History of an Idea