Some small states have been around for longer than the major powers.
The Oldest Microstate and Republic : San Marino (301 AD)
According to legend, San Marino was founded in 301 AD, when a Christian stonemason, Marinus, fled to Monte Titano to avoid prosecution. He built a chapel and monastery, and the community gradually grew due to San Marino's isolation from the great persecution of Christians in Europe. The microstate was recognized as an independent country by the Holy See in 1631, in exchange for "protection from the Holy See". This independence status remained even after the unification of Italy in the 19th century.
The Protectorates: Andorra (1278), Monaco (1297), Liechtenstein (1719) and Luxembourg (1815)
From the early days in Europe, influential families controlled forts and villages, while serving as protectorates to larger states. Some of these families remains in power even today.
Andorra was first created in the 9th century by Emperor Charlemagne, Emperor of the Romans, as a buffer state to keep the Islamic Moors from advancing into Christian France. In 1278, it was determined that Andorra's sovereignty will be shared between the Count of Foix (Southern France) and the Bishop of La Seu d'Urgell (Catalonia), which gave the small state its territory and political form. In return, Andorra pays a tribute to its co-rulers.
Monaco was initially a port and on the coastal road from Spain to Italy. The land was granted to the Republic of Genoa by Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI in 1191. The House of Grimaldi arrived from Genoa and took control of Monaco in 1297. Subsequently, they became the undisputed rulers by being agreed to be under the protection of both France and Spain.
Liechtenstein was born out of two plots of land: the minuscule Schellenberg and Vaduz, purchased by the House of Liechtenstein in 1699 and 1712, respectively. The plots were bought in order for the House to gain access to the Council of Princes, accessible only to those who have ownership of land directly under the Holy Roman Emperors. On 23 January 1719, Liechtenstein became a sovereign member state of the Holy Roman Empire. Despite the fall of the Empire, the House of Liechtenstein remains in power in Liechtenstein today.
Luxembourg owns its history to the Luxembourg Castle, first built in 963, and gradually strengthened to become one of the strongest fortresses in Europe. The surrounding town became the County of Luxembourg, and later the Duchy of Luxembourg, inside the Holy Roman Empire. Members from the House of Luxembourg ruled as King of the Romans and Holy Roman Emperors as well as King of Bohemia. At its peak in 1364, the possessions of the Dukes of Luxembourg reached 10,000 square km.
But following the death of Sigismond, the last Emperor of the House of Luxembourg, the town of Luxembourg fell under the rule of the Netherlands. It subsequently fell to Spain, and territories were ceded to France and Prussia. In 1815, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg was recognized as a separate political entity from the Netherlands. After part of Luxembourg was lost to Belgium in 1839, the remaining area of 2,586 square km remained as the Luxembourg we know today.
Caribbean Wave of Independence: Haiti (1804), Dominican Republic (1844), Cuba (1902)
European superpowers colonized large parts of the New World, but starting with the United States' independence, things started to crumble down for the European powers. Struggles for independence were long and painful, lasting over 14 years in Haiti, 39 years in the Dominican Republic and 34 years in Cuba.
Haiti was a French colony that was Inspired by the French Revolution, with both French settlers and free non-Europeans (free people of colour) demanding for greater political freedom and civil rights. A militia of free-coloureds was first set up in 1790, and soon the country fell into a war. Newly-independent US and the Spanish both sent in their support for different fractions, in a bid to reduce the French influence in the Caribbean region.
In 1802, Napoleon attempted to re-assert French control, but in the end, the majority of the French force suffered and died from yellow fever. Napoleon eventually gave up his dream of a North American Empire, selling off Louisiana to the US and withdrawing all remaining troops from Haiti in 1803. After the deaths of as many as 100,000 Europeans and 350,000 Haitians, independence was declared on January 1, 1804.
Dominican Republic and Haiti splits the Island of Hispaniola, with Dominican Republic on the East. The capital, Santo Domingo, was once hotly contested between the French, Spanish and the British. Thus, when the Haitian revolution broke out against the French, the Spanish quickly send in their support for the rebels. The French did manage to fight back and re-gain Santo Domingo, only for it to fall under the independent Haiti in 1805. The Spanish regained Santo Domingo in 1809, but by 1822, Haiti invaded and re-captured Santo Domingo.
From 1822 to 1844, Haiti ruled the Dominicans brutally, including large-scale land expropriations, imposed military services, restriction of use of the Spanish language, and elimination of traditional customs. This led to the Dominicans' perceptions of themselves as different from Haitians.
Uprisings began to take place in 1838, but it took six years for the rebels to seize the Ozama Fortress by surprise and force all Haitian officials left Santo Domingo. Following more infighting, the Dominican Republic's independence was declared in 1844. Yet, the country was sold out by its dictator, who reverted the nation to colonial status in 1861. Another guerrilla war ensued and claimed over 50,000 lives before the restoration of an independent Dominican Republic in 1865.
Cuba is geographically located in between Florida and the Island of Hispaniola. So with Spanish rule ending in Florida in 1821 and Dominican Republic in 1844, it was inevitable that Cuba, another Spanish colony, would soon follow. A rebellion started in 1868 turned into a 10-year war which ended with no clear victory for neither the Spanish nor the Cubans, although the Spanish did eventually gain the upper hand.
In 1895, José Martí, a Cuban poet and philosopher, mobilized the Cuban exile community in the US to launch a fresh war against the Spanish to free Cuba. From the beginning of the uprising, the rebels were hampered by the lack of suitable weapons, but they compensated by guerrilla-style fighting, based on quick raids and fades to the environment. But it wasn't until the intervention of the United States, three years later in 1898, that the tide turned.
Under the banner of "protecting American citizens and interests", US began an invasion and Spain opted for peace by relinquishing all claims to Cuba. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1898, stipulated Cuba's independence, although the Cubans had to wait until May 20, 1902, when Cuba finally achieved independence, albeit as a US protectorate.
It may have been a surprise to you that the tiny countries listed above were all established prior to: Indonesia (1945), India (1947) and modern day China (1949).
Post World War II Decolonization
The global political landscape shifted significantly with the two world wars, and subsequently many small states were born in much different circumstances. In 1929, Vatican City was established as an independent state that is apart from Italy. In 1944, as World War II move towards conclusion, Iceland became the first microstate to break free from its governing state.
The wave of decolonization then swept across the world. In 1954, Suriname became independent. Then in 1960, the UN General Assembly passed a declaration calling for independence for the colonial states. Subsequently, 17 other microstates were established in the 1960s, followed by another 21 in the 1970s, and another 7 in the 1980s. Although independence wars took place in some nations, peaceful separation was the expectation.
The Youngest Small Country
The oldest microstates are in Europe, but so is the youngest tiny nation. Montenegro, with a population of 620k, became an independent country in 2006, breaking up the nation of Serbia-Montenegro. The 2006 referendum was held after years of instability in former Yugoslavia, with over 55% of voters in favour of independence that year.