Small States vs. Middle Powers — What’s the Difference?

Small States vs. Middle Powers — What’s the Difference?
Photo by Marco Süssi on Unsplash

Njord WeggeSenior Research Fellow, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI)

In early June 2018, Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide expressed in an interview with the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) that Norway, as a “middle-sized economy,” benefited from an open international trading system. She was therefore concerned about the outlook for increased taxes in a new potential trade war following Trump’s “America First” policy.

The following week, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg was invited to the extended meeting of the G7 in Quebec, Canada, since the topic to be discussed was sustainable ocean management. While attendees of this meeting at the outset represented the seven largest democratic economies in the world — Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Japan — some additional countries relevant to maritime stewardship and/or climate change, were invited to join in, hence the arrival of Norway.

A similar situation occurred during the German-hosted G20 meeting in July 2017. Here also the Norwegian prime minister was invited to join in. German Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted her attendance, despite Norway not being among the 20 largest economies in the world.

These examples illustrate a tendency where Norway, in spite of its small population, on several occasions both views itself as something more than a small state, and is acknowledged by other state leaders as being more important than what one would typically expect from a small state. However, with a population of only 5.3 million inhabitants, to label Norway as something “above” a small state is also problematic.

In my presentation, “Norway: Middle Power or Small State? Placing Norway in the International System,” I discussed how small states or middle powers can be defined. At the outset, investigating the merits of objective criteria such as these help to define a baseline:

  1. A state’s objective position data, such as GDP, population, or military spending
  2. A state’s ability to influence the systemic level in international politics
  3. A state’s foreign policy posture

I also gave an example from two particular areas of strength, where Norway’s influence is likely to exceed that of a traditional small state. First, Norway’s role as a key state actor in the Arctic. Second, Norway’s position and strength within the realm of security, defense and intelligence. These are areas where Norway, on several occasions rather resembles a middle power, than a small state.

Finally, when assessing Norway’s foreign policy behaviour, one can also identify how Norway has acted as a defender of liberal order, promoting internationalism and multilateral institutions. This is an order Norway also has benefitted from, where a state’s power-potential not only decides outcomes, but where law, rules, and institutions also matter.

* This article is part of a six-blog series that follows from a workshop on “Middle Power Liberal Internationalism in an Illiberal World,” hosted by CIPS and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). For other blogs in this series, click here:

Liberal Internationalism: Save, Ditch, or Reform? by Rita Abrahamsen

Making the United Nations Fit for Purpose in an Illiberal Era by Louise Riis Andersen

How History Helps Us Uncover the Real Successes of Middle Power Internationalism by Heidi Tworek

The View from MARS: American Populism and the Liberal World Order by Jean-François Drolet and Michael C. Williams

In Defence of Liberal Internationalism? by Alexandra Gheciu

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