I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends: On The Legitimacy And Viability Of Mini-States

In examining the larger subject of mini-states, it is helpful to have a working definition that sets the parameters of the discussion. Based on the research of Zbiginiew Dumienski [1], the microstate (synonymous with the term mini-state, used here) is a modern protected state, a sovereign state that has been able to unilaterally depute certain attributes of its sovereignty to larger (and usually nearby) powers in exchange for the benign protection of their political and economic viability in order to overcome their geographic or demographic constraints (22). According to these criteria, Dumienski posits nine nations that meet this definition, all of which are protected by larger (and usually nearby) nations: Liechtenstein (Switzerland), San Marino (Italy), Monaco (France), Andorra (France and Spain), Cook Islands (New Zealand), Niue (New Zealand), the Federated States of Micronesia (United States), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (United States), and the Republic of Palau (United States) (25). I feel it necessary to note that these nations, and other potential mini-states, have often been the subject of my own intense interest in writing [2].

Being a student of diplomatic history, it is obvious to wonder what makes this sort of relationship viable and legitimate. What is the gain each party seeks from the arrangement, and how does this sort of relationship apply to more ordinary issues of human behavior in personal and institutional conduct that makes it a model for consensual but nevertheless unequal relationships where both parties seek to remain friends rather than entering into the hierarchical relationship of subject and master. At its face, the protected state status would appear to offer a middle ground between a recognition of full equality and one of fully subordinate status, and it is this complicated but potentially very viable middle state that allows us to examine ways of dealing with others that allow for benign protection and do not either force an equality that a party may not be able to attain nor a subservient status that may be resented, fought, or unprofitable to maintain.

At its core, the model of the protected state is most suitable for those nations whose geographic size, economic or military power, or demography (population and/or population density) is such that it is preferable for them to freely outsource elements of sovereignty that they cannot profitably undertake on their own, yet without surrendering their whole sovereignty to their larger and more powerful neighbors. This relationship is distinguished from a mere protectorate by the fact that the relationship is freely and consensually chosen by the people and their governments, rather than coerced by the more powerful party. This relationship is also distinguished from the more familiar “failed state” by the open admission of limited sovereignty rather than the façade of sovereignty that exists in those nations who do not exercise effective control over their territory (like Somalia) but nonetheless are not in a formal treaty relationship with other nations who have agreed to defend their viability and provide consistent and regular assistance.

Mini-states are what they are because their small size and demographic limitations do not allow them the economies of scale to possess the resources necessary to engage in all of the qualities of statehood. Here a personal example may suffice. I am a member of a dinner club in my local congregation, but as the only single person [3], I am under particularly severe resource constraints, namely the fact that I do not possess the infrastructure necessary to engage in dinner diplomacy at the same standard of living as my peers without assistance. Generally, and happily, that assistance has been provided by others whose demographic constraints are far less severe and who have the means to help where I lack. And so it is with nations, where a larger and wealthier and more power nation provides benign protection and assistance to peers who are limited by constraints from certain aspects of ordinary statehood.

It is clear that this relationship is in the benefit of the mini-state. After all, such nations regularly receive military protection, favorable trade status, and logistical aid from larger nations, such as access to transportation networks, health and educational infrastructure (23) and even sporting leagues, that it would be impossible for the smaller nation to attain on its own. Moreover, this aid is given without the loss of independent status, as it is recognized as a free and independent state despite its limitations and constraints in conduct. Often, the consideration required for this aid is extremely small, such as a respect for the wishes and interests of the larger nation in foreign affairs, limitations that are hardly great when compared to what the mini-state gains from the relationship in terms of tangible material aid as well as the recognition of its freedom and sovereign rule over its (usually small) territories. For a mini-state, the freedom to pursue its own quirky individual path along with the support necessary to do so viably in a free association with a larger neighbor seems to offer many benefits at negligible costs.

What, then, does the larger state achieve? Why would a powerful nation that could easily stomp out the existence of neighboring mini-states allow such realms to preserve their independence, at the cost of support from the larger neighbor? These reasons are worth exploring, as it is the interests of the larger nation that are the most important in examining how mini-states can remain viable in such a dangerous world as ours. Perhaps the most generous possible explanation for the continuing survival of mini-states is that even large nations sometimes prefer to have friends rather than subjects. This is true of healthy individuals, for whom the benefits of friendship among peers are far greater than the enjoyment of exercising power over others. Even aside from psychology, there is some self-interest to the preference of friends over subjects. Where the size of the protected state is small enough, the cost of direct administration may not be worth the loss of having a friendly vote in international institutions like the United Nations, which operate on a one nation, one vote basis. For the loss of tens of thousands of people, one can gain an extra vote in support of one’s general policies, and the cost of providing aid to a protected nation is often far less than the sort of aid that would be required to bring that protected state up to the standard of living of the rest of the nation.

There are other benefits as well to allowing small neighboring states protected status. For one, it is a lot less stressful to have friendly and small neighbors than to have subjects who would prefer to be independent and who tie up litigation and resistance to central government for minimal gain in natural resources. Additionally, mini-states often allow the business elites of their larger protectors substantial benefits because of their independent status, being free of burdensome regulations and having lower tax burdens while also having free access to the markets of the larger countries, allowing them to serve as primary manufacturing areas or friendly tax havens, which it is in the interests of the ruling orders of the larger nation to maintain. Additionally, the small size of the protected areas may make them awkward to fully integrate with a larger nation, especially where size and population thresholds prevent full integration [4], while the smaller size is no handicap to being a protected nation in a mutually consensual treaty relationship of friendship with its former colonial power.

What can we learn from all this? For one, we can add to our options on how to view other people, institutions, and nations. Having a conceptual slot in our heads to deal with those whose resources and size of income or family do not allow them the same logistical base but who are nonetheless friends and peers rather than subjects allows us to think of ways that we can benefit by providing out of what we have in abundance to those who are more limited in their possessions. It also allows us to move beyond the black and white thinking that does not seek to recognize the legitimacy of smaller institutions and nations, or younger people, and allows us to understand that someone may be respected and honored as a friend who nonetheless may also require protection and care. Having a more nuanced understanding allows us to have more friends, and be better people by avoiding the tyrannical tendency to conflate everyone that is not as powerful as us into a subject or a slave. We can never have too many friends, nor people or institutions where there is mutual goodwill and friendliness. If a little bit of aid can help a friend stand on his or her feet, or help a small nation to carve its own path with dignity and respect, how can we refuse such aid where strong common interests and ties already exist, and where the existence of friends can help ourselves as well.

[1] Dumienski, Zbigniew. “Microstates As Modern Protected States: Towards A New Definition Of Micro-Statehood.” Institute Of International Affairs, The Center For Small State Studies. 2014. Accessed 2 March 2015.

For those interested, the paper can be found here:


[2] See, for example:









[3] ] There is one divorced person in the larger group, who has a rented house of her own and the benefit of at least grudging labor from her children for the purposes of hosting, if necessary, so she is not a solitary individual under the same demographic pressures as I am.

[4] The United States, for example, has a constitutional minimum population standard for new states, and on a practical basis any area less than 500,000 people would likely find it impossible to achieve entry as a state because of problems of scale alone. For a republic like the United States, there are only two permanent paths that are consistent with the ideals of our nation. One of them is the process of political maturation by which territories eventually become states accepted as equal members of the Union. The other is the process of political maturation by which a free nation, like the Philippines, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, or the Republic of the Marshall Islands, emerges from territorial status able to control its own destiny, albeit under American protection. By these standards, only Puerto Rico among America’s current territories is a viable state, and it has expressed a desire to become a state, which nonetheless has not yet proven acceptable to the US House of Representatives. Other smaller American territories, like the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam, appear to be best suited as future mini-states in a treaty relationship with the United States that offers support and protection but that allows sovereignty. The idea of a protected state is also one that could be immensely appealing for areas like Greenland which would require economic and military assistance from a larger power but that also appear to desire greater sovereignty for themselves.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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