When I tell people that (one of the states) I study is Luxembourg, they are often surprised. True, this is in part because I have no personal connection to Luxembourg – political scientists and International Relations (IR) scholars tend to study states where they live or have lived. But the other reason for such case selection questioning is found in Luxembourg’s relative size and significance. Many laymen and academics think only the largest and most significant states ought to be studied. I imagine this is because people tend to want research to be useful, by being policy oriented for example. Concerning the study of security cooperation, for example, these individuals would argue that the states to be studied are those that are most involved in security cooperation or those that affect security cooperation the most. Of course, not all social scientists avoid studying smaller states. And of these, not all only study small states because they live or have lived in small states. Many scholars study small states because of the subject matter’s use to science (Veenendaal and Corbett, 2015). Or as Thorhallsson and Steinsson (2017) put it, studies of small states have “the potential for enormous intellectual payoffs for international relations and foreign policy analysis“.
Studying small states can provide inspiration, ideas and even insights, and this for two reasons. The first is the simple fact that, without comparative and relational studies, one cannot know that which states are large or significant. But the second, less appreciated fact is that studying small states is a complexity reducing exercise. By studying small states, one studies large states writ small. One studies a microcosm. Pace Thorhallsson (2018) and Randma-Liiv and Sarapuu, 2019, small states are not fundamentally different from larger states: they have administrations, they have territory, and these administration – and only these administrations – have the legitimacy to regulate violence within these territories. In other words, scale-related problems are one of degree, not kind. In view of this fact, it is clear that studying small states and comparing them with large states ought to provide great knowledge. Just as economists use thought experiments where the number of goods is limited, IR scholars can study (real) states where the population, territory, economy, and public administration/military is limited.
The study of small states is so insightful that when one does try to study small states, one often ends up learning more about medium size states! One discovers, for example, how vulnerable and weak medium sized states are. Statements such as “a free hand might come to mean an empty and unarmed hand” (Liska, 1968), and “the price of alignment is the loss of real independence and effective sovereignty” (Keohane, 1969) apply just as much to France as they do to Luxembourg.
Similarly, one also discovers important insights about international relations: “"informal penetration" is a pervasive phenomenon in contemporary international politics which works in both directions: Small states can penetrate large ones as well as vice versa” (Keohane, 1969). Here, of course, we need to stop thinking about states like hermitic entities, sealed off from one another. Instead, we should be viewing social relations as a “totality” (Bailes, Thayer and Thorhallsson, 2016). Like cartels, states communicate and coordinate; they share employees, capital, equipment, and know how, they merge and divide.
Reversely, the study of small states can lead one to conclude that a small state is not that small, i.e. that some small states are smaller than others. The Netherlands is not Luxembourg, which is not Lichtenstein, which is not the Holy See. So, when one studies a small state, one in fact might not be studying a small state at all, but rather a not-so-small state. This is the argument of many small state scholars. These scholars seek to demonstrate not only the vulnerabilities of small states, but also their resources, capacities, capabilities, competencies, and influence (e.g. Keohane 1971). Fewer diplomats and experts, for example, means less presence and skill in negotiations, but also more flexibility, better delegation, and more informality, which in turn means faster decision-making. Just like start-ups and boutique enterprises, small states can be more agile and nimble than larger states, Davids to Goliaths Thorhallsson (2018).