For small states, it's all about priorities. Even relatively wealthy states simply do not have enough staff to cover all the functions and sectors that larger states cover. So, they must prioritise, prioritise and leverage. In fact, prioritisation and leverage often go hand in hand, especially in foreign affairs. States like Iceland and Luxembourg have become experts at becoming experts. Like small companies, small NGOs and small universities, small states invest in niche areas. This creates a competitive advantage, which can then be exchanged for favours from other states and international organisations. Hence the dual strategy of prioritisation and leveraging, of specialisation and cooperation.
Prioritisation can take many forms. Small foreign affairs ministries tend to only have 20 to 30 missions (including embassies), covering both national representation and representation in international organisations. Moreover, one mission is often responsible for several states and organisations. Of course, large states and ministries also prioritise. Attachés in US embassies, for example, are often responsible for several states. An FBI attaché in London, for instance, will also cover cooperation with Ireland, and the one in The Hague will also cover Luxembourg. This said, small states do this not at the staff level, but at the embassy level. If the Government of the US does not have an embassy in a state, it is usually for political, not technical or economic reasons.
Noteworthy here is the fact that small states can only do so much in terms of cooperation. They cannot be in every meeting and they can not participate in every project. This means not only that they must choose where participation matters the most, but also means that these small states often depend on other states to keep them informed about on-goings.
Prioritisation can also be done as specialisation. Ministries in Luxembourg and Iceland tend to focus on their strengths, hoping to bring actual added-value to other states and international organisations. Thus, the Government of Iceland has acquired knowledge and knowhow in fishing, geothermal energy, soil restoration, and gender issues. This expertise can be used within projects and missions organised by the United Nations (UN), the Council of Europe (COE), the Nordic Council, the Artic Council, etc. Similarly, the Government of Iceland was able to manage the airport in Kabul during the recent NATO mission in Afghanistan (International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)). Likewise, Luxembourg’s Army has specialised in water sanitisation and demining, which enables it, despite its relatively small size, to be of use during UN, NATO and European Union (EU) missions and projects. This said, because the army only sends one or two soldiers on each mission, they must always be integrated within another state’s forces (e.g. Belgian troops).
By creating and fostering such expertise and added-value, these small states can use these capabilities as gestures of appreciation for the benefits they accrue as members of the UN, NATO, the EU, the COE, etc. In other words, specialisation not only allows small states to have an impact, but also allows them to improve their ‘brand’ and not be accused of free riding. Providing symbolic help is a way of consolidating and reinforcing partnerships and relations that are vital to the security and prosperity of these small states.