From Iceland — The Mouse That Roared

The Mouse That Roared

Published August 22, 2011

The Mouse That Roared

If you’ve taken even the most cursory glance at recent Icelandic history, chances are you’re familiar with the Cod Wars: big, bad Britain sends warships up against plucky little Iceland’s fishing boats, and the underdog wins. But the incident was hardly a fluke. Norwegian author Jacob Børresen, in his new book, ‘Torskekrig! Om forutsetninger og rammer for kyststatens bruk av makt’ (“Cod War! The conditions and limits for the coastal state’s use of force”), explains that small nations actually have more power at their disposal than many would suspect. We called him up for some tips on how we might abuse this power….
Do you think the Cod War had any international implications? Did the world theatre, with regards to relations between large and small nations, change as a result of it?
No. The Cod Wars took place within the framework of the Cold War and was solved without upsetting that framework, i.e. Iceland did not leave NATO. There are no traces, as far as I can see, of the Cod Wars in international relations. On the other hand, the Cod Wars were an expression of a new paradigm after World War II and the creation of the U.N. and the prohibition of war in the U.N. Pact, where there were stronger political limits for major powers’ use of force against minor powers, and thus more room for minor powers to manoeuvre. I doubt that Iceland could have succeeded, let’s say, 50 years earlier.
Tell us a little something about your theory of small states and the use of power.
My key concept is “The balance of perceived interests.” When the issue under dispute is much more important to Nation A in a conflict than to Nation B, the balance of perceived interests is in favour of Nation A. My proposition is that when the balance of perceived interests is in favour of the small state, it tends to cancel out the bal-ance of power in favour of its bigger adversary, creating wiggle room for the small state that otherwise would not have been there. In the Cod Wars, national control of the fish resources around Iceland was a question of vital, almost existential, proportions for Iceland, while in Britain it affected only a few communities. The development of the international law of the sea was in line with the Icelandic point of view. The Icelandic people and Iceland’s government stood squarely behind the Icelandic claims, while the British government was split on the issue, and the British population at large was indifferent. All in all, this led up to the balance of perceived interests being decisively in Iceland’s favour. As a result, it was not politically possible for the British government to use the amount of force that it had at its disposal and that had been necessary to break Iceland’s will.
My other major point is that both the value of the interest under dispute, and the balance of power between the parties to the dispute, are subjective factors that can be manipulated. The party to the conflict who succeeds in communicating to the opposition that the issue under dispute is a key issue of vital importance to him, and more important to him than to his adversary, has succeeded in tipping the balance of perceived interest in his favour. An issue that immediately may upset the balance of perceived interests in favour of the small state, however, is if it conducts itself in a way that triggers the prestige of the larger state. Prestige was part of the reason why Great Britain resorted to the Navy in the Cod Wars, but in this case the balance of perceived interests was so firmly in Iceland’s favour that in the end it did not matter.
This naturally leads us to talk about Icesave. Do you think your theory applies to the Icesave situation?
I am not very well acquainted with Icesave, but in principle the theory of the balance of perceived interests is applicable to any conflict.
One of the big concerns that the anti-EU camp in Iceland has is that as a small nation, they will not have the kind of sway that countries like France or Germany might have within the organisation. How would you respond to this?
Again, I think that in questions of vital importance to Iceland, and that are of more marginal importance to the other EU members, Iceland will be able to “punch above her weight.” Fisheries come in this category, and it strengthens Iceland’s position that many of the EU nations, in principle, share Iceland’s concerns about a sustainable takeout of fish resources. A key point when it comes to the demonstration of commitment and resolve of a small state to uphold and protect a key interest (which then—by definition—makes it a key interest), is what I have called “a strong home base.”
I suppose one of the more obvious vulnerabilities of a small nation is the military one. With a small military—or, in Iceland’s case, no military at all—what recourse do small nations have when it comes to self-defence?
I am not so concerned about the military as such, as I am with the power at the disposal of the state in general. Iceland has a renowned Coast Guard, it has valuable natural resources, it has debt that its debtors would like to see repaid—which is also a source of power—and it is a sovereign state, member of the U.N. and NATO, which are also not insignificant sources of power. Finally, to repeat myself, a united people behind its government is not an insignificant source of power in itself. I talk in my book about the value, even the necessity, to small nations of alliances, formal or informal. Another form of defence is, of course, to make oneself so insignificant that nobody would have any conceivable interest in mingling in ones affairs. Iceland is not there. The bottom line is that even if Iceland spent all its resources on military defence it would not be enough to protect it from a dedicated aggressor. It therefore has to use its other power resources with that much more skill.
Is what ways is it good for small nations to join up with larger international organisations, and in what ways could it be detrimental?
Small nations, that are not invisible because they are totally insignificant, cannot survive unless they are able to mobilise some kind of external support. That does not mean that E.U. membership is necessarily or automatically a good thing for Iceland. A small state member of a large international organisation dominated by major powers is dependent on skilful diplomacy to be able to take care of her interests. Again, a strong home base in the form of a people united behind its government can be an asset. On the other hand, a government in a weak parliamentarian position at home may also play that weakness to its favour by telling the international organisa-tion that it is unable to do this or that, because it would create a political crisis at home, or tell the home audience that it is unable to do this or that because of its formal obligations to the organisation. There are no straight answers to questions like these.
On a global scale, do you believe we’re trending towards larger nations, or are we moving more towards “balkanisation”, i.e., larger nations splitting into smaller ones?
Hard to say. There seems to be a development toward multiple competing centres of power in the world (Beijing, Washington, Delhi, Brasilia, Moscow, Berlin, Paris, London). At the same time, the U.N. is in trouble, apparently incapable of renewing itself. It is still a reflection of the power equation that resulted from World War II. Important states do not have a seat in the Security Council. Consequently, we see the growth of a number of competing organisations like the G8, G20, the IMF, the Arctic Council and so forth. Small states like Iceland (or Norway for that matter) are completely dependent for their security that major powers respect the prohibition of war in the U.N. Charter. In that regard, developments of concepts like “responsibility to protect” and the increasing willingness of major powers to use military force as an instrument of diplomacy, is worrisome.
What role do you see small nations playing in the global stage in the near future?
Small states have in common that they usually have no colonial past, and relatively few heavy international security obligations. They can therefore enjoy the luxury of taking the moral high chair in a lot of questions like human rights, nuclear weapons, peace and so forth, and allow themselves to discuss such issues on a purely ideal and principal basis. As such they constitute a resource of insights and knowledge that major states can tap into as and when they feel the need. Secretary Generals of the U.N., for example, often come from small states, and that is not a coincidence.

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