Category Archives: St. Lucia

Wouter Veenendaal – Microstate Foreign Policy: How Much Leeway for Presidents?

This is a guest post by Wouter Veenendaal of the Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde / Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV)

On 18 December 2015, James Alix Michel was reelected as President of Seychelles, defeating his opponent by a razor-thin margin of 0,30 per cent, or 193 votes. Michel’s election victory ensured that the Parti Lepep (People’s Party), which had been in office since its coup d’état of 1977, will remain in power in the archipelago. While multiparty democracy was reinstated in Seychelles in the early 1990s, putting an end to the Marxist single-party regime, the ruling party has won all subsequent elections. It has now been in power for almost 40 years.

Michel’s election victory was contested by the opposition, which cried foul over alleged irregularities. Commonwealth observers, however, noted that the fundamental rights of candidates, political parties, and the electorate had been respected. Regardless of whether the recent Seychellois election was fair or not, the outcome means that no major political changes can be expected in the island archipelago. This is especially true for foreign policy, which, as in other small island states, appears to be largely (pre-) determined by the country’s weakness and relative insignificance within the international system.

As actors in international relations, small states are typically considered to be vulnerable and dependent. Their survival rests on the benevolence of larger states, as a result of which small countries do not have the capacity to develop a foreign policy of their own; they are regarded as mere ‘objects’ in world politics. The extent to which individual leaders in small states can influence the foreign policies of their countries is thus considered to be inherently limited. The case of Seychelles appears to support this view: the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 necessitated a drastic reorientation towards the West, which was entirely motivated by a change in the international system.

In fact, however, the smallest countries in the world (so-called microstates) often act in remarkable and rather exceptional ways in global politics. Together, Caribbean and Pacific island nations for instance constitute the bulk of states that recognize the international sovereignty of Taiwan, and the Pacific microstates of Nauru, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu were among the first and only countries to extend diplomatic recognition to the Caucasian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Out of the nine states that in 2012 opposed Palestine’s bid to become a United Nations observer state, five were Pacific small island states. How can these foreign policy choices be explained? The answer is: money.

The examples above highlight that microstates often make strategic use of their sovereignty, negotiating their political support in exchange for material gains. In return for diplomatic recognition, Taiwan, for example, develops ICT facilities, provides police cars, or constructs new government buildings in various small island states. As a token for its continuing support for the People’s Republic, in 2008 China, on the other hand, constructed a new parliament building for Seychelles, and recently donated two aircraft to the archipelago. And in exchange for Nauru’s diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russian government bestowed this Pacific island nation with US $31 million in hard cash.

Whereas Seychelles has been steadfast in its support for Beijing, other microstates have occasionally shifted their diplomatic recognition. The Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia, for example, recognized Taiwan between 1984 and 1997, but then withdrew its recognition and established relations with China instead. In 2005, the St. Lucian government decided to reestablish its diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Microstates like St. Lucia thus take part in the so-called two-China game, in which they essentially award their diplomatic support to the highest bidder. Instead of having a passive and submissive role in international politics, these countries therefore actively and successfully make gains by playing off two large powers against each other. The examples also demonstrate that small states often do have a range of foreign policy options to choose from, which supposedly gives more leeway to presidents and political leaders in crafting the foreign policies of their countries.

Another example is provided by the Micronesian island nation of Palau, which became independent from the United States in 1994. A large share of the public finances of Palau is derived from its Compact of Free Association with the United States, and it is hardly a surprise that Palau’s voting behavior in the United Nations General Assembly overlaps by over 97% with that of the US. In addition, in 2009 the Palauan President Johnson Toribiong came to the aid of Washington by agreeing to provide shelter to 19 Uyghurs who had been released from the Guantánamo Bay detention center, and under US law could not be returned to China. In exchange for financial aid, Palau, therefore, willingly plays the role of staunch US ally in the international system.

In addition to the United States, Palau maintains close ties with Taiwan (which provided crucial disaster relief after a typhoon had hit the island) and Japan (which constructed the Japan-Palau friendship bridge between Palau’s two largest islands). Although Palau, in exchange for economic assistance, always supported Japan’s position on whale hunting in international fora, in 2012 President Toribiong suddenly dropped this support, arguing that whaling is incompatible with Palau’s support for nature conservation. In a similar fashion, newly elected Palauan President Remengesau recently made some cautious statements about potential cooperation with China, raising suspicions in Taiwan and the US. These examples demonstrate that political leaders of even the smallest states can and do strategically influence or pressure larger countries.

In an upcoming article in Foreign Policy Analysis, I argue that the international relations between microstates and large powers can, in many ways, be seen as a patron-client linkage, in which political support is exchanged for material gains. Just like clientelism in a domestic context, from a normative perspective such relations can be denounced as opportunistic, immoral, or even corrupt. On the other hand, for microstates these relations offer unique opportunities to make the most of their sovereignty, and to independently position themselves in international affairs. While presidents of small island nations still only have a very limited range of foreign policy options, the presence of multiple potential patron states – and their growing number since the end of the Cold War – does give political leaders of microstates some say about their countries’ foreign relations.

Dr. Wouter Veenendaal is a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden, The Netherlands. His research focuses on politics, democracy, and governance in small states, and he is presently part of a larger academic project that investigates non-sovereign territories in the Caribbean and elsewhere.