“A small state under pressure tries to strengthen its sovereignty” – Dr. Hans Mouritzen


Dr. Hans Mouritzen is a Senior Researcher on foreign policy and diplomacy at the Danish Institute of International Studies. He has developed theories on the autonomy of international organizations; small states’ foreign policy in a spatial context (‘constellation theory’); how external danger affects domestic cohesion; and how historical memory impacts foreign policy decisions (‘presence of the past’ theory).

In an interview with NEPAL FIRST, Dr. Mouritzen sheds light on small states and briefly highlights the concepts of his ‘constellation theory’.

There is no universal definition of small states. Some scholars have even decried the concept of small states. What do you think are the parameters that define small states?

There is no uniform behavior of small states. Unlike children compared to adult people, they do not have a characteristic behavior; small states are ‘small adults’, as they basically carry on foreign policy in the same way.

What are the types of challenges and opportunities faced by small states in general?

Again, that is difficult to say in general; in my view, it very much depends on what constellation they are in (see below) and, thus, their geographical position relative to the great powers. This being said, however, one common trait is their benefits from a strengthening of multilateral diplomacy, because it enables them to cooperate with more than one or two great powers.

What are your thoughts on sovereignty of small states? How can a small state’s foreign policy get impacted if it is surrounded by bigger power(s)?

A small state under pressure tries to strengthen its sovereignty (self-control) through state centralization and the mobilization of popular cohesion. This means elitism and the curtailment of democracy regarding foreign policy-making. The pressuring great powers, on their side, may try to counteract this by wedging, i.e. divide-and-rule between groups in the smaller society.

How do you view the position of small states in today’s international order? What are some of the strategies that small states can adopt to make them relevant?

Today’s world is characterized by multipolarity, i.e. great powers (the US, Russia, China, India) that have increasingly been able to project power in their respective spheres of influence. Multilateral diplomacy has been weakened. In general, this development has weakened the influence of non-great powers.

You have developed the “constellation theory” in the domain of small states. Can you elaborate its fundamental concepts?

It basically says that the position of non-great powers depends on what constellation they are in. If they are in a symmetric constellation (i.e. symmetric between two great powers), increased tensions between them (e.g. China and India) will lead to strengthened influence of the weak (like Nepal) because its assets are more in demand. Alternately, its vulnerability will also be increased, if there is a risk of war. In addition comes the role of the past (historical memory), but that is a separate theory that I think can be combined with constellation theory.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the vast discrepancy in access to vaccines between rich/powerful and small states. How do you view this? What sort of world order can we expect in the post-pandemic era? 

Yes, we have seen a good deal of vaccine nationalism/imperialism recently. And de-globalization, where states fear too long value-chains of the form: ‘let’s keep the equipment and vaccine to ourselves in this situation and possible future situations’. Evidently, this is a very shortsighted view, but it will typically be backed by the electorate and thus make leaders popular in the short run, at least.


Reference for ‘constellation theory’:

Hans Mouritzen, ‘Tension between the strong and the strategies of the weak’, Journal of Peace Research, 28(2), May 1991, 217-231.

Hans Mouritzen and Anders Wivel, ‘Constellation Theory’ pp. 15-43 in ‘The Geopolitics of Euro-Atlantic Integration’ (Mouritzen & Wivel, eds.; Routledge 2005, 2007 paperback)

Hans Mouritzen,’Small states and Finlandisation in the age of Trump’, Survival 59(2), 2017, pp. 67-84.





About the author

Nepal Forum of International Relations Studies (NEPAL FIRST) is a Kathmandu-based independent, not-for-profit and non partisan organization in the field of International Relations that focuses on issues related to Nepal’s foreign policy and diplomacy.

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