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Written by Tomáš Weiss

Size matters… and it shapes public policy

Tomáš Weiss argues how a country’s size bears on international policy decisions – and how British perceptions of their own national power relate to Brexit.

Detail from photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

The size of any country is in the eye of the beholder. Take Brexit. The British domestic debate has been full of references to the fact that Britain is “strong” and an “exceptional power” and many reacted angrily when somebody suggested otherwise. For outsiders, though, this internal debate has seemed utterly delusional.

Traditionally international law and international relations theory have treated all states as equals no matter what their size. States are equal partners in international agreements and organisations, and international law protects them from external interference into their domestic affairs. Despite their varying power and influence over international affairs, states have the same rights and obligations in the international arena.

Yet when analysing public policy, size matters, both in terms of domestic processes and the results in the international context. It is one of the critical factors shaping how states conduct policy-making internally, and how they understand their policy options and the consequences of these.

Each of us has an implicit understanding of which countries are big and which are small, but for practical purposes an operational definition is useful. Such a definition can be based on absolute figures such as geographical, economic, or demographic indicators. In the global context, a population of 15 million is sometimes used as the threshold distinguishing the big from the small. Alternatively, size can be understood in relative terms – Switzerland is a small state in relation to Germany, but a giant when dealing with Liechtenstein. Another option is to consider size as a constructed attribute. In other words, what matters is how a country is perceived by others as well as by itself. That means that countries may be bigger, or smaller, than they appear and their “size” may change depending on the context.

For public policy analysis, this latter concept of size based on perception is useful because it helps analyse the policy processes and the behaviour of stakeholders. In multi-level polities, in particular the European Union, where actors draft policies at various levels depending on the policy area and issue, size - and the perception of size - may help explain national positions and domestic pressures. To put it simply: your constituency will expect you to shape policy-making at the international level if you represent a “big” country. You can only surprise and “punch above your weight” if you represent a “small” one.

Our research on domestic debates on defence spending in NATO has revealed how different the debates in big and small countries tend to be, even if they concern the same issue and take place in a similar context. We investigated how the 2014 NATO Wales pledge translated into a domestic understanding of defence spending and what arguments were used to support or reject raising spending on defence in Germany and Czechia. Both countries have struggled to reach 2% of GDP spending level expected of NATO member states. Even though both countries have increased their defence budgets since 2014, they are probably going to miss the target by a huge margin.

The main difference between the two countries lies in the domestic understanding of the 2% commitment, and this can be explained by differences in size. In Germany, the vibrant think tank scene fed expert arguments into the domestic debate putting the commitment in context and laying out both the importance of defence spending and the weaknesses of Germany on this particular indicator. All these arguments were picked up by politicians and elaborated, even if in a slightly less sophisticated manner, in the parliamentary debates on this question. Crucially, the final decision to spend more on defence, or not, stemmed from internal pressures – the need to react to the changing security environment, the considerations of Germany’s role in European security, the needs of the Bundeswehr, and the effectiveness of German defence spending.

In Czechia, by contrast, the limited expert base could not manage to provide the full spectrum of arguments and the political debate had little to offer in terms of substance. In contrast to the German case, the 2% commitment has been approached as an externally-set indicator that should serve as a guideline for Czech defence spending to make Czechia a “good ally”.

This serves as an example of how a country’s size is an important variable for both international relations and domestic public policy. Size translates into capabilities and power, but it also shapes the domestic understanding of international politics and may have a significant impact on decisions. Coming back to Brexit, had the internal British debate evaluated the UK’s situation – its relative size –  more realistically, the referendum and the subsequent negotiations with the rest of the EU might well have taken a very different turn.

  • About the author

    Tomáš Weiss

    Tomáš Weiss is Associate Professor and Deputy Director for Research at Institute of International Studies, Charles University, Prague. He is a member of the Scientific Council of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic and a member of the editorial board of Mezinárodní vztahy / Czech Journal of International Relations. After degrees in European Studies in Hamburg and in Prague, he did his PhD at Charles University in Area Studies, analysing the changing role of police and military forces in contemporary Europe. His research focuses on European foreign and security policy, small states in the EU, Europeanisation of national foreign and defence policies, and the Czech foreign and security policy in particular. In 2018-2019, Tomáš is a visiting researcher at the Department of Politics and International Studies and a visiting fellow at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge.

    Tomáš Weiss