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Small States’ Strategic Hedging for Security and Influence

Small States’ Strategic Hedging for Security and Influence

September 14, 2016
Leah Sherwood
Leah Sherwood Deputy Director of Research

Small states are hard to define, yet the study of them persists because of agreement on their existence, importance and common challenges. For small states, the implication of today’s multilateral world is that it provides a stage for them to exercise influence and act internationally. In fact, small states now represent the majority of states globally and hold membership in international organizations such as the UN, EU, OECD, OPEC and NATO, for example, which in many cases are based on equal membership and, in a way, this confers power to small states by putting them on a diplomatic and legal footing with larger states. For example, Luxembourg and Belgium are the smallest states within the EU, yet they are active and influential players in EU policy.  As Hey points out, Kofi Annan, the popular former Secretary-General of the UN, is from Ghana – a state that has played a greater role in regional affairs than its size would suggest, at least theoretically.[1] Oman is another great example of a small state achieving strategic results. It is an interesting case study as a classic small state pursuing predictable policies yet it also is remarkably independent for a state with alliance-based security policies.

First, a brief review of small state security strategy choices. Security and influence are they two things that small states do not have on their own, a capability assessment which is part of what defines a small state. To improve upon their situations, there are several strategies they employ aside from membership in international organizations. A small state can engage with great powers through internal balancing by building up capacities or external balancing by forming counter alliances.[2] Balancing can be hard or soft, which is really only a difference of degree not kind. Hard balancing constrains diplomatic flexibility, which is why small states rarely do it, at least theoretically. In practice, the general strategy of balancing is the most common strategic policy for small states. Bandwagoning means aligning with great power(s) or rising power’s policies. The bandwagoning policy may be defensive, in which case the small state bandwagons to neutralize or avoid conflict with the rising power, or offensive where it seeks to profit by aligning with the ‘other side.’ Buckpassing is a small state policy of neutrality and ‘staying out if it all together’ so states, usually the great power(s), carry the cost and consequences of action. However, there is another strategic option to the ones reviewed above: hedging. Small states can hedge, which some call a ‘smart’ way to compensate for smallness and lack of ‘hard’ means of pursuing policies.

Despite structural realities on power and capability, there is clearly space for a small state to leverage its individual types of power (relative power) to gain some foreign policy independence.  Oman is a great example as its security policy is alliance-based, but it does not pick just one alliance interestingly; it simultaneously pursues a policy of neutrality. It allies with both Saudi Arabia and the US, but also with Tehran. Within its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) alliance, it manages to maintain a remarkable degree of freedom of sovereign action to pursue its own strategic interests, which at times clash with the interests of the alliance partners creating fallout at times that must be carefully managed.  In fact, since the 1981 formation of the GCC, Oman’s foreign policy has often differed from GCC policy. Oman is a puzzle because unlike Qatar, which appears to be primarily power-seeking in its hedging pursuits, Oman’s hedging policies show that it has different perceptions of the external environment to its similarly structured allies in the Gulf, which is why it consistently makes independent foreign policy choices. Arguably, the reason for the different perceptions lays in the Sultanate’s unique geopolitical context, which is rooted in over 250 years of historical interactions with Britain, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the other states of the Gulf littoral.  These experiences have led Muscat to perceive its strategic interests, threats and opportunities differently. The complex nature of the geostrategic balance of power and interests in the Gulf leads Oman to hedge in its foreign policy, which is understood to be a small state strategic policy.

Understanding the hedging behaviour of small states is key to explaining their behaviour. In international relations, a state will hedge when it seeks middle ground.[3] Hedging allows Muscat, in principle as a smaller power, to offset and reduce the scale of threats to it in relation to both regional powers without confronting either of them, which would in practice allow it to embrace cooperative and competitive policies to guard against Riyadh and Tehran and create what Medeiros calls a kind of “a geopolitical insurance strategy.”[4] In the present Gulf context, the strategy allows Oman to preserve important ties with both threatening forces, but to simultaneously participate in the GCC alliance to balance the Iranian threat without challenging Saudi authority. Hedging decreases the chances of surprise as the choice to fully balance or bandwagon is theoretically shorter. In order to hedge, Oman has had to make dual investments – one as a committed, participatory member of the GCC and the other toward Tehran advancing a long-time friendship through productive bilateralism.  At all costs, Muscat has to walk a fine line, balancing its relations between these two powers and remaining neutral while cooperating with the US. Anarchic, capricious environments like the Gulf are particularly ideal for hedging strategies because the preservation of different strategic options and maneuverability are built into the approach.

Strategic hedging intersects with defensive realist precepts in that balancing against a potential threat, conducting a restrained policy and boosting domestic defense capabilities are understood to enhance security.  The shared aim is to avoid the repercussions of a security dilemma situation.[5] However, unlike a defensive realist posture, hedging strategies enable some bandwagoning (Saudi/GCC) including judicial discernment on security cooperation (Yemen) as well as economic and or socio-political cooperation with the threatening power (Iran) to try to side-step future conflict with it. Some scholars refer to this type of behaviour as soft balancing whereby a states cooperates with the more powerful actor while using a variety of economic, diplomatic and institutional instruments to undermine its power if not wholly beneficial.[6] Despite the apparent contradiction of cooperation and destabilization, the unique hedging strategy works if the state views its rival as an actual and immediate threat to its security.[7] In practice, this means it deliberately cooperates with its rival to escape threats while concomitantly embracing elements of hard balancing against it, which a strategy of soft balancing does not do.[8]

Muscat’s strategic hedging foreign policy is layered. It general, Oman conducts a policy of external balancing, which is to ally with others against a threatening power in which case it would ally with the US, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC against Iran. It also hedges toward Iran too, which appears contradictory, but is not as it benefits from adversarial relations between Iran and the GCC as mentioned. Muscat bandwagons with Iran as a strategy to ally with the source of the threat and benefit from any divisions that occur.[9] This is a tricky foreign policy to pursue and carries many risks. To mitigate these risks, it is also an internal balancer, which is why it has consistently sought to strengthen its domestic defence capability through arms buildup – defence spending indicates it is a clear domestic priority for Muscat. Many interpret this defensive behaviour accompanied by strident attempts to pursue polices of neutrality are more of a reaction toward the perceived threat of Riyadh, not Tehran, but Oman has a history of keeping adversaries close too. Needless to say, domestic defense capability can be called into operation regardless of where the threat stems from. Hedging behaviour fits well with neoclassical realist theory as hedging is characteristically a recognition of the structural features of power in politics and an attempt to mitigate their impact domestically. That said, systemic pressures cannot always be altered through intervening domestic variables so foreign policies that hedge are not always or entirely the result of domestic level factors.

The key to understanding this mixed strategy is to appreciate that Oman is primarily attempting to minimize threats to its stability and survive in an anarchic world; its motivation is not to ‘profit-seek’ material reward from its policies or change its relative position, but rather to secure it. Any status and recognition gained from the diplomatic maneuvers made possible by exploiting the space between allies and adversaries enhances its security, which underscores the point being made here. Oman’s strategic regional foreign policies challenges the overly simplistic dichotomy advanced by realist scholars on the way states achieve strategic security, which they claim is a choice between either influence or autonomy.[10] If it opts to influence, it joins an alliance and prefers to balance or bandwagon versus attempts to protect autonomy, which require policies of neutrality.[11] Muscat’s multilateral foreign polices disprove this conjecture, illustrating a rather far more dynamic reality. The notion that a small state’s foreign policy is state-idiosyncratic challenges political theory as it is thought they have little space to maneuver. Ultimately, Muscat’s foreign policies in the post-2011 era reflect a requirement for scholars to look at small state theory in new way and make space for states to make practical adaptations to complex environments ultimately informed by that state’s unique internal geo-political experiences.

Understanding the new roles that small states can play is critical to foreign policy and international relations today. Indeed, failing to appreciate their unique space in the global system could be costly. Sri Lanka serves as a good reminder of this as in the last few years, the rarely thought about small state became more strategically significant to China and the US – great powers. Geography, like Oman, is a key factor. Beijing has attempted to influence politics in Sri Lanka because it is located at the centre of the Indian Ocean between China and Middle Eastern energy resources. The fact that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa (receptive to Chinese interests) lost the January 2016 election to pro-Western Ranil Wickramasinghe means that the domestic politics of Sri Lanka suddenly matter. From a small state viewpoint, the wider implications are that a strategic small state like Sri Lanka, which pivoted West recently, gives it a new tool in its toolbox – it can switch backers and that confers leverage to it.  In conclusion, in today’s global political arena, power is diffused. It can be expressed by those able to foster a climate of cooperation and convince others of shared interest versus zero-sum outcomes, like Oman did regarding the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran. International relations is increasingly more about smart power than hard power, a niche to which small states are perfectly suited.

[1] Hey, J. (2003). Small States in World Politics : Explaining Foreign Policy Behavior. Boulder; London: Lynne Rienner Publishers. P.1.

[2] Mehmetcik, H. (2015). If you are not big enough, pick a strategy: Bandwagoning, Balancing, Hedging | International Association for Political Science Students. [online] International Association for Political Science Students. Available at: [Accessed 31 Aug. 2016].

[3] Tessman, Brock and Wojtek Wolfe. 2011. “Great Powers And Strategic Hedging: The Case Of Chinese Energy Security Strategy”. International Studies Review 13 (2): 216.

[4] Medeiros, Evan S. 2005. “Strategic Hedging And The Future Of Asia Pacific Stability”. The Washington Quarterly 29 (1): 164.

[5] Miller, Benjamin. 2010. “Explaining Changes In U.S. Grand Strategy: 9/11, The Rise Of Offensive Liberalism, And The War In Iraq”. Security Studies 19 (1): 32-35.

[6] Brooks, Stephen and William Wohlforth. 2005. “Hard Times For Soft Balancing”. International Security 30 (1): 84.

[7] Press-Barnathan, Galia. 2006. “Managing The Hegemon: Nato Under Unipolarity”. Security Studies 15 (2): 273.

[8] Guzansky, Yoel. 2015. “Strategic Hedging By Non-Great Powers In The Persian Gulf”. In Great Powers And Geopolitics: International Affairs In A Rebalancing World, 1st ed. (Springer International Publishing Switzerland), 234.

[9] Schweller, Randall L. 1994. “Bandwagoning For Profit: Bringing The Revisionist State Back In”. International Security 19 (1): 80.

[10] Miles, Lee and Anders Wivel. 2014. “A Smart State Handeling Of A Differentiated Integration Dilemma?”. In Denmark And The European Union, 1st ed. (New York: Routledge), 229-230.

[11] Wivel, Anders. 2005. “The Security Challenge Of Small EU Member States: Interests, Identity And The Development Of The EU As A Security Actor”. Journal Of Common Market Studies 43 (2): 396.

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