Great powers - small countries relationship in the world today
14/9/2018 8:54' Send story Print story
  1. Identifying great powers

Great powers is a term used to refer to countries with big area, big populations and possess superior developmental resources compared to others. It has potentials as well as powerful and influential political, military, diplomatic, economic and cultural strengths that are capable of affecting and shaping the policies and behaviors of other nations worldwide. It also has impact on the movement of the international relations system, international trends, and the resolution of global issues.

At present, there is no uniform perception or any general definition of great powers. The delimitation of small or great powers depends on the perspective of each country based on a comparison of its strength, status and  impact on others. Accordingly, a country may be weak in this relationship but is considered to be strong in relationship to other countries and vice versa (1). For example, Canada, Brazil and Australia are the largest countries in the world in terms of area and resources; India, Indonesia, Pakistan are the most populous nations. However, the combined strength of these countries has not yet reached the status of world powers. In fact, in determining and evaluating whether a country is a power or not, the synergy element that stands out is the military power. Economic and scientific-technological strengths also play a particularly important role. The Netherlands is a small country in Europe, but its dominant strength during the 15th-16th centuries "gained the hegemony" of the world with the title "Car Driver on the Sea." England with an area of ​​just over 200,000 km2 but in the nineteenth century was dubbed as a place where"the sun never set off." Currently, although France, Britain, Germany are just medium countries of the world in terms of area and population, but with their synergy especially in economics, science - public military, as well as international status, they are considered great powers of the world. Reflecting this criterion, South Korea and Israel, or even smaller ones like Singapore and Qatar in terms of area and size of population possess admirable power in economy, science and technology, military and international influence.

However, based on the combination of the identified criteria and the current interpretation, five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are five nuclear-weapons states including The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France who are considered world powers. In addition, Germany and Japan are also seen as powers by their economic power and international influence. The United States was the only global superpower after the Cold War, followed by China and Russia. These two powers are considered to be fully converged with criteria and capabilities to be world superpowers that can be comparable to the United States. In terms of size, population and development potential, Britain, France, Germany and Japan can only be viewed as prominent regional or continental powers. Look from perspectives of economy, military, science and technology and international influence, these four countries can also be regarded as world powers. Meanwhile, some regionally strong countries or mid-range countries such as Brazil and Canada in America, India and Australia in Asia and the Pacific; India is considered to have the potential to emerge as world powers.

2. Nature of small nations-great powers relationship today

International relations are increasingly democratized, governed by the Charter of the United Nations and international law, but power-based politics remains the core essence of international politics and diplomacy. As a result, powers have dominant influence on smaller countries, as well as play a dominant role, or even determine the movement and development of international trends and the world. This relation’s nature is defined by 1)distinct asymmetry of overall strength; 2) psychology and behavior formed from two sides, derived from the asymmetry of strength; 3) experience the difficult history of  small nations-great powers relationship.

Derived from the great difference in stature and strength, powers are often confident of their power so they are often abusive, aggressive and bullying “smaller states" (2). In contrast, small nations normally have to restrain, tolerate, respect the status of powers, sometimes they are forced to "obey" the powers to get the peace.  The greater the asymmetry plus geographic proximity and historical collisions will increase the psychological and behavioral effects of small nations-great powers (3). In this relationship, great powers often dominate and have substantial influence. Through diversified levers, they can bound or affect policy and behavior shaping, forcing small nations to pay attention to their positions, opinions, and interests. They usually ignore or underestimate the interests of small nations. In case of conflicts and disputes, great powers often press for small nations to abide by themselves, regardless of international law or the legitimate interests of small nations. Due to differences in attitude, psychology and behavior, small nations and great powers often suspect each other, lack of strategic trust. In the cooperation and competition among powers, they tend to use their various tools and resources as well as exploit conflicts of small nations-great powers from their rivals to entice by dividing, bribing, manipulating, pressing and even threatening. On the other hand, small nations are also very easy to become "hostages" or "tools" for powers to exchange, bargain, buy and sell in their power competition.

In the long run, power politics is the very nature of international politics, even though relationship between nations are different from those in the past. The modern world context has created the premises and conditions for small countries to overcome the concept of "vassal-empire" in relationship with powers to be able to assert themselves as independent and equal in the international community. Firstly, Charter of the United Nations and international law have clearly identified independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity of nations, equality between nations irrespective of size or prosperity. Civilized human today do not accept the great powers – small countries relationship in international politics. The order and rules of the world today do not completely follow the rules of "big fish eats up small fish". Therefore, in spite of powers’ important role, they are unable to decide the fate of small countries like in the past. With the establishment of the United Nations and other international organizations, small nations now have gained international support to defend their sovereignty from great powers. In today's international relations, relationship between nations regardless of size, prosperity and strength are based on fundamental principles of equality, mutual benefit, and law observance. Small nations are also increasingly playing a greater role and voice in addressing common human problems as well as in shaping international order.

Secondly, small nations today have more leverage and opportunities to reduce and minimize asymmetry, increasing their power and position in relationship with great powers. The diplomatic relations and the handling of asymmetric relations with great powers are no longer confined and framed in bilateral relations or in narrow space spaces but are expanded to a global scale instead. As a result, small countries no longer have to deal solely with great powers, being able to build their own bilateral, multilateral and multilateral relationships and various close local, international alliances and partnerships in order to increase their strength and position in relationships with the great powers.

Thirdly, in today's globalized world, countries have a complex and intertwined interest and are increasingly interdependent. The small countries and the great powers, as well as the great powers themselves, have flexible, diverse, overlapping bonds and connection of benefits in the complex relationship of both cooperation and competition. This also helps minimizing the threat of great powers doing adventurous policies to small countries. Moreover, the globalized world also offers opportunities for small, or even very small countries to quickly become prosperous and powerful, from which they can gain deserved position in the world, and the respect of the great powers.

In handling relationship with great powers, small states often pursue policies such as: 1) "bandwagoning". Accordingly, smaller countries choose to "obey" great powers, accepting their lower status for economic security, and relatively stable relations with great powers. Neutralism is also a variant with many similarities as "bandwagoning." The neutrality of the policy is typical of Finland's policies with Russia (5). 2).Power balancing is another option by which small countries seek to counterbalance or confront great powers through policies aimed at increasing internal power as well as building international alliances to counter the threat posed by a great power(6). This choice often leads to conflict, war, and then small countries often suffer damage. 3) "Hedging" is the simultaneous pursuit of many different or even opposite policies, both cooperation and struggle, both compromise and prevention and deterrence ... to maintain a stable relationship with great powers, harnessing the benefits and positive aspects of relationship with them or taking precautions from their strategies. In some cases, countries may incorporate all three of these strategies together with other elements of neo-liberalism, neo-liberal institutionalism. Whatever choice is made in relationship with great powers, " patience "," restraint ", keeping the "friendliness " are preferred by most small countries. But the limit of patience and punishment is not easy to determine in practice, especially when there appear conflicts on the fundamental national interests . In relationship with great powers, sometimes a lack of restraint from small nations can lead to disastrous consequences. However, any patience or concession has its own rules and limits. In fact, the boundary between patience, restraint with patience, crouching, peace, fear is very fragile and difficult to identify. It depends on the leader's vision, bravery, experience, sensitivity and leadership skills. Moreover, history has shown that, faced with the ambition of encroachment from a great powers, small countries would have to continue with concession if lacking bravery and failing to maintain a strategic stance or unreasonable concessions.

As for the small countries-great powers relationship, President Ho Chi Minh is the master of the art of behavior. He had the ability to build up and maintain good relationships with most of the great powers, even when those countries were in conflict with each other. He took advantage of international support for the national revolutionary cause. He even received the respect of the great powers who were the nation’s enemies. Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew is also a typical character of dealing with great powers. He brought this small country from a small and resource-poor fishing village that stood in the midst of the hostile rivalry of great powers for nearly three decades to become one of the strongest states of the world. Singapore has been receiving great respect from all countries and is a development model for many, including great powers. Lee Kuan Yew is a leader capable of balancing relationship with great powers. In dealing with great powers, he always showed a fair position, making frank comments and judgments. Lee Kuan Yew was willing to defend the ideals and values ​​pursued by Singapore and did not hesitate to challenge great powers in order to protect Singapore's national interests and protect sanctity of regional and international law and order. However, he was also willing to compromise unadorned national interests and flexibly change in order to achieve effective policy effect. (8)

Thus, the small nations-great powers relationship is real, objective and ever-present in international politics. Small countries with solidarity, vision, intelligence, will and courage can go beyond, create and change their own destiny.

3. Vietnam and the great powers

Due to the strategic political geography it possesses, Vietnam has always had to deal with great powers in the world. During Vietnam’s history, the great powers have always got considerable influence on the country’s security and prosperity. Living alongside its giant neighbor has imprinted the mindset of a small country into the Vietnamese. Our ancestors, while declaring themselves emperors, still showed the obedience towards the superpower, accepting the superpower – small country relationship. Therefore, even though we defeated them in wars, our emperors still sent envoys to negotiate for peace, asked for kingship declaration, and sent tributes regularly in order to maintain peace and independence for Vietnam. The historical lessons from our ancestors in dealing with the Chinese, together with the Ho Chi Minh ideologies on diplomacy, are priceless heritages for Vietnam’s foreign affairs nowadays. However, international relationship at present does not retain the superpower – small country relationship anymore, but follows the relationship based on equal, mutually-beneficial respect for independence and sovereignty of nations. Thus, when mentioning relationship with great powers, we need to abandon the small-country mindset which has been rooted deeply in Vietnamese’s thoughts for ages and put ourselves in the position of an independent country which has its own sovereignty and is equal to any other countries in international relationship, without any inferiority complex, fear or submission. On the other hand, when being too proud of our own power, lulling ourselves in our victories against the superpowers of the world, we had to pay a great price in national security, development and diplomacy. Interacting with the great powers needs modesty, caution and self-restraint, no self-humiliation, no self-demeaning or no compromising without following any principle. The important thing in diplomacy is to know ourselves and our enemies. We need to realize Vietnam’s position and strength in the modern world, to know where we are standing in international relationships, in the movement of geo-politic and the international and local orders in order to be aware of our own abilities and our limitations. More importantly, we cannot let yourself be caught in the whirlpool of the game of power competition between the great powers, challenge them or follow any powerhouse to antagonize the others, or follow any faction to counterbalance other factions, but need to exploit the positive sides of the relationships with all the great powers in the world, keep their influence and benefit in balance in our relationships. At the same time, we need to build a variety of powerful, deep, trusting and mutually-beneficial bilateral, multilateral relationships with other countries; take advantage of the support from the international community and from the great powers sharing our benefits. We also have to rely on local and international multilateral mechanisms; maintain our righteousness and rely on international law and universal principles in relationships between nations accepted by international community to deal with threats from the great powers.

Facts have shown that the small countries should flexibly, gracefully and cleverly combine political realism, the principles of idealism with the identity of nationalism and the elements of the liberalism in the age of globalisation. Among those, “putting national interest as the top priority” must be the starting principle, the foundation, the target for planning and executing our diplomatic policy, and also the scale for rating our diplomatic policy. Surpassing the ideology barrier which used to restrain Vietnam’s diplomatic policy during the Cold War to approach the principle of “partners – subjects” and the principle of “national interests” in dealing with international relationships is the breakthrough in the diplomatic mindset of Vietnam. These principles help us break the rigidity in international relationships, from which we could gain flexibility in solving challenges, threats, allowing us to exploit, develop our strength in relationships with nations in the world to maintain our independence, sovereignty and strategic stability, creating an advantageous and long-lasting developing environment for the country. In protecting national benefits against great powers, we need to maintain our principles and stance, and avoid compromising without any clear principles or being oppressed. Among those, independence, sovereignty, unification and integrity of territory are the core national interests that need to be protected and firmly preserved. Besides, development must be the most important motivation to be paid attention to in every national policy. This is also one of the most important factors to ensure long-lasting national security and prosperity, as well as to gain respect from the world. The protection of the invariability of national interests must be done through the confirmation of the targets and a long-term vision, but also needs flexible improvisation in strategy. Accordingly, it is necessary to differentiate between the direct and short-term interests with the indirect, strategic, long-term ones. That requires artistic diplomacy, strategic sensitivity against the changes of local and international contexts, the trends of the era and the world order, the correlation in power between the local and global forces, the strategic trends of cooperation – competition between great powers, as well as the potential, combined strength and international position of the nation. We will have to be rightfully aware of the challenges and correctly take the opportunities to modify our policies timely and reasonably.

If we want to have an equal relationship with the respect from the great powers, it is necessary to maintain independence, self-reliance and inner strength. The potential and combined power of the nation are two of the key factors that create the “great” or “small” stature of a nation, and the strongest basis of diplomacy. President Ho Chi Minh pointed out clearly, “people count on us when we are strong and pay no attention to us when we are not”. He also asserted, “with inner strength, diplomacy will win. Strength is the gong, diplomacy is the language. Gong has a loud voice.. If we consider the capacity of a country a gong, then diplomacy is the sound. The bigger the gong is, the louder the sound will be”.

The world has shown that there are nations and territories with small area, small population, very limited potential for development, but they are definitely not considered small powers with their soft and hard power and international influence way surpassing their own stature. In this era of globalisation, Vietnam needs to reinforce our own inner unity and stability, actively integrate into the international community, focus on untangling the development knots, exploit effectively the domestic strengths and resources, take advantage of the important geo-political location and the comparative advantage in cooperating and international division of labour to develop the country, quickly leading it to prosperity.


1. Assoc.Prof. Dr. Nguyen Viet Thao, Deputy Director of Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

2. Dr. Ngo Chi Nguyen, Institute of International Relations, Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

Translator: Viet Nga/ Proofreader: Dr Vu Thanh Van