Small state strategic autonomy only exists when great powers allow it – agree or disagree. It was on this resolution and debate format that the topic “Multilateral Security Cooperation in the Shadow of Ukraine” was discussed on 19 August 2022. The Centre for Multilateralism Studies (CMS) hosted the RSIS Seminar Series on Multilateralism Studies on the topic.
Proposition speaker, Dr Frederick Kliem, Research Fellow with CMS, argued in favour of the motion stating that small states have strategic agency in one of two cases: (i) when great powers allow it; and (ii) when small states can play several equally great powers to their advantage. He also argued that spheres of influence are a reality in international relations and there are limits to what the great power will tolerate within those spheres. Therefore, small states that exist in a geographical space that a great power sees as consequential to their primary national interests will struggle even with basic degrees of agency in their foreign and security policy. He concluded this opening statement by stating that realism is not a normative theory but an attempt to realistically predict the behaviour of states under conditions of international anarchy.
Opposition speaker, Dr Joel Ng, Research Fellow and Deputy Head of CMS, argued that the normative shift is relevant because the debate does not sit in a vacuum of bilateral relations but against the backdrop of the global community with other states also involved. The history of postcolonial movements since the end of World War 2 was a push back by small states against domination. Secondly, domination entails significant costs that must be backed by military force and coercion. But the acceptability of this has diminished—the costs of enforcement have skyrocketed while the gap in material power has closed in our multipolar world with a rise in the economic power of emerging markets. Thirdly, he argued that the ‘right to rule’ is conditional, stating that legitimacy is a force multiplier and the only means that present-day great powers have to mitigate the costs of enforcement. In conclusion, Dr Ng argued that great powers should not and would not have the capacity to restrict small state strategic autonomy unilaterally. Doing so would entail enormous costs that could reduce their capabilities and allow other great powers to overtake them.