It is generally assumed that in the realpolitik of a world dominated by large, rich and powerful countries, small and poor nations have little influence.
That is what we often see in the world’s headline news. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council rule the roost when it comes to issues of war and peace in the world. The G-7 and the G-20 countries set the rules of the world economy through their domination of institutions like the World Bank, IMF and WTO.
It appears there are two set of rules – double standards – when it comes to human rights, and inter-state trade and commerce. The theoretical premise of the “sovereign equality” of all nations goes out the window when the vested interests of the rich and powerful nations collide with those of the poor and the weak. The same applies in the private sector when large transnational corporations spread their wings in low and middle income countries.
However, this is not and need not be the case always. In the long march of human civilization, lofty ideas, noble norms and lasting values have come from unexpected quarters. Gautam Buddha, a prince of a tiny kingdom in the remote Himalayas, spread the message of peace that has guided the conduct of millions across many countries for millennia. Born in humble families in the Arabian desert, Jesus of Nazareth and Muhammad of Mecca propounded profound religious teachings that are followed by billions around the world. A half-naked fakir, Mahatma Gandhi, used the power of non-violent resistance to defeat the world’s mightiest empire.
In setting norms of global governance, we have seen scholars, diplomats and political leaders of such relatively small countries as Barbados, Costa Rica, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Switzerland, Scandinavia and even tiny Lichtenstein play an outsized role at the UN and elsewhere. There was a time when Nepali diplomats played a leadership role in negotiations involving the laws of the sea and the end of apartheid from their strategic perch at the United Nations.
If pursued in a principled and persistent manner, small countries can harness their soft power as honest brokers to set new norms and influence big decisions in powerful regional and global forums. Several small island states are now exercising significant influence in negotiations involving the global climate crisis. Nepal could potentially play a leading role on behalf of the environmentally fragile mountain states of Asia and the world.
Leaders of Asian countries – Nehru, Sukarno, Sihanouk, Zou Enlai, U Thant, were influential figures in the world in the post-colonial era and at the height of the global Cold War. Asian scholars like Amartya Sen and Mahbub ul Haq influenced and shaped the global human development agenda. Nepal’s BP Koirala hobnobbed with such leaders and articulated a compelling vision of the big role of small states at the UN during his brief Premiership. He even broke new ground becoming the first SouthAsian leader to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
In recent decades, geopolitical discord and disequilibrium have weakened the collective voice of South Asian states rendering regional bodies like SAARC toothless. While Asian Tiger economies have roared and Southeast Asian states have forged a strong economic alliance under the aegis of ASEAN, Asia as a continent today fails to present a collective & coordinated common position in international affairs as do most African and Latin American countries.
With the right kind of leadership and consistency in its policies, a neutral, non-aligned country like Nepal, espousing friendship with all and enmity with none, can hope to punch above its weight by forging alliances with like-minded small states on issues like the climate crisis, peace-keeping operations in conflict areas, setting norms for harnessing the growing power of digital technology and artificial intelligence for the benefit of humanity, while putting the interests of the world’s bottom billion peoples in Asia and beyond at the heart of regional and global policymaking.
Championing win-win solutions to the complex problems of the world divided by competing ideologies and economic interests is what small countries with big ideas and enlightened leadership can do best.
May ‘Purak Asia’ from its Nepali home base be the incubator of such vision.