Small States. What Are They?

Updated: Mar 12

When people learned that I am passionate about small states, they usually ask a question: What qualifies as a small state? The answer is not that straightforward.

How small is small when it comes to a small state?

Well, small states are tiny nations or territories. Sometimes they are called a microstate or a tiny nation. But then more questions follow once we dive into the details.

What is Small

Depending on who you ask, a state could be described as "small" because of its geographical size, population, or perhaps even its economical and political strength.

And what qualifies as "small"? If population is used as the criteria, should the threshold be five million people or should it be one million? There is no universal definition, even amongst experts.

What is a State

Secondly, what qualifies as a "state"? A simple definition of a "state" would be a country, a definition that is substantiated by the Cambridge Dictionary. But a look beyond the dictionary reveals much more practical and interesting definitions.

For example, German sociologist Max Weber defined a state as a "polity that maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence is widely used". On the other hand, the Global Policy Forum has the following definition:

"… A state levies taxes and operates a military and police force. States distribute and re-distribute resources and wealth, so lobbyists, politicians and revolutionaries seek in their own way to influence or even to get hold of the levers of state power."

Based on this, a state could then also expand to include colonies, dependent territories and de-facto states that are not fully recognized internationally, such as Kosovo. And then what about an entity such as "Islamic State"? It is a terrorist organization, but does this prevent it to be considered as a "state" as well? After all, it had operated a military and police force, and it also levied taxes on its people.

Defining the "Small State"

Academia will continue to debate over this, in the meantime, I pieced together a definition.

1. States. I made an arbitrary definition to include three forms of states:

2. Small. Far from scientific, I considered "small" as less than 1 million in population. I felt that "small" should be defined by population, if our goal was to highlight culture and stories that you don't come across easily.

3. Small State Memberships. But we complemented this unscientific approach by looking at the memberships in a number of international "small state communities". So we also included all states from:

4. Outcome. The outcome is 60 countries, 54 dependent territories and 6 disputed territories.