How do states without defence forces defend themselves? An examination of security and sovereignty in small states

TYSON SARA is a senior official with the Australian Defence Department and is a 2017 graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies. The post is based on his MA dissertation. All views expressed in it are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Defence Department or the Royal College of Defence Studies.

The defence and security of a state is a sacred responsibility of its Government. The maintenance of credible defences is as fundamental a function of the state as the provision of healthcare, education or social services. Indeed the armed forces of a state are often a visible symbol of a state’s sovereignty. Heads of state are regularly styled as the Commander-in-Chief of their armed forces as is the case in the United States. Foreign leaders are welcomed with military guards of honour and gun salutes having themselves arrived on a military aircraft accompanied by uniformed aides de camp. How then, in a world where military power and symbolism is entrenched in statecraft and concepts of sovereignty, can a state not have armed forces? How can a state defend its sovereignty without armed men and women and complex and expensive weapon systems poised along its frontiers? How can sovereignty be established and maintained without the means to physically use force to defend it?

In short, how do states without defence forces defend themselves? This was the question my research has examined.

In defining a state I only looked at states that are sovereign and members of the United Nations (UN). This removed semi-sovereign entities such as British overseas territories like Bermuda or the Cayman Islands. It also excluded states with many elements of sovereignty or whose sovereignty is disputed and have not joined the United Nations like the Cook Islands or the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Defining a defence force was slightly more difficult but for the purposes of this research if a state calls its armed forces a military, whether that military is a credible and capable of defending national sovereignty or not, then it will be excluded from the scope of this paper. This included states with token forces like San Marino, Antigua and Barbuda and Tonga. It did not exclude those states that have a provision for armed forces in their constitutions or those states that possess highly capable police or coastguard capabilities if the state declares that they are only for law enforcement or internal security.

This left a small but not insignificant list of states from around the world that do not possess an armed instrument of national power with which to defend themselves. These states are:

  1. Andorra
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Dominica
  4. Grenada
  5. Haiti
  6. Iceland
  7. Kiribati
  8. Liechtenstein
  9. Marshall Islands
  10. Mauritius
  11. Federated States of Micronesia
  12. Nauru
  13. Palau
  14. Panama
  15. St. Lucia
  16. St. Vincent and the Grenadines
  17. Samoa
  18. Solomon Islands
  19. Tuvalu
  20. Vanuatu

These countries account for over 10% of the membership of the United Nations. Together their GDP, at US$159.74 billion is greater than Kuwait, Kazakhstan or Hungary. Their collective population of nearly 23 million is larger than the Netherlands, Chile or Romania. Their collective land area of 306,210 square kilometres is larger than Italy, the Philippines or Great Britain. Most astonishingly, the 20 countries without militaries have a maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of over 15 million square kilometres, which is larger than the EEZ of any single country and larger than the EEZs of Indonesia, Canada and Brazil combined. To put it together means these states combined have the 57th largest economy, the 54th largest population, the 71st largest land area and the largest EEZ, with not a single soldier, sailor or airman to defend it. By sovereign representation, economy, population, land area or EEZ size the amount of the world that is undefended by military forces is significant and there are certainly interests and territory that requires defending.

My research found that despite the absence of military forces, it does not mean that these countries are undefended. I examined the ways in which small states use non-military means to defend their sovereignty and interests in the modern world. These non-military means of defence are varied and combine the natural environment of a state with a range of economic, political and diplomatic measures. My research looked at the relationship between geography, history and strategic circumstances and how it influences a state’s decision not to develop military forces. I went on to examine the international system and the degree to which it protects sovereign states and the potential for this system to be strengthened or weakened into the future. I also looked at the role of alliances and their effect on both defence and sovereignty. Finally, I examined the risk posed by militaries to the very societies they are charged to protect and the effect of demilitarisation. My research examined these issues in detail through the lens of seven states that best embody the issues at play with the international system (Liechtenstein and Tuvalu), alliances (Iceland and the Pacific Compact States of Palau, Micronesia and Marshall Islands) and demilitarisation (Costa Rica).

My research found that for a small state defence without a military is not a radical approach in a world where conventional military warfare is becoming less common. The threats to nations and their interests in the current era are generally not from the armoured divisions and bomber squadrons of the 20th Century. Small states use the international system to safeguard their territory and interests, they use alliances to bolster their positions when faced with larger threats and they use demilitarisation to eliminate the threat that armies pose to their own people. These concepts of sovereignty, alliance and demilitarisation are interlinked and underpinned by the international system. The current UN based system of sovereign states is the overarching framework within which sit alliances and regional security arrangements. These alliances and an ordered international system create an environment where a nation can demilitarise without risking conquest or collapse. It is the international system therefore which is both the greatest guarantor of security for small states and the greatest threat if that system is changed.

Image: The border between Liechtenstein and Switzerland, via Wikipedia.

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