Can Europe Make It?

Turning fear into opportunity: a chance for smaller states

Smaller states can make the best of a scary global situation by seeking deeper friendships.

Kristin Haugevik Benjamin Tallis
24 March 2020
Images combined from a 3D medical animation, depicting the shape of coronavirus.
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Wikicommons/scientificanimations.com. Some rights reserve.

Even before the spread of COVID-19, smaller states had much to fear in international affairs. The shifting global order, instability in regional institutions and the resurgence of great power politics do not bode well for countries such as Czechia and Norway. However, it’s not these fears themselves, so much as what smaller states make of them, that determine how they can adapt and survive – or even thrive – under changing and challenging global conditions. To make the best of the scary global situation and influence the ‘post-Coronial’ international order, smaller states should use their common fears as the basis for deepening their friendships with each other and, together, contribute to a less fearful world.

Taking the example of two smaller, European states – Czechia and Norway – we can see how common fears can trigger new relational dynamics, and revitalize latent or unfulfilled partnerships. Norway and Czechia have very different histories and geographies, and their societies are often perceived to be at opposite ends of the European political spectrum. Clichéd images, however unfair, of Norwegians as busy-body ‘know-it-alls’ taking the moral high ground in international affairs, and Czechs as recalcitrant introverts, either ignoring or landing on the conservative side of issues from migration to climate change have been hard to shake off. Norway is embedded in liberal-progressive Nordic Cooperation (N5), while Czechia still beds down in the Visegrad Four (V4) together with illiberal standard bearers like Viktor Orban’s Hungary and Jaroslaw Kacyynski’s Poland.

Yet when it comes to assessing their current international prospects, in light of shifts in global and European politics, policymakers and experts in the two countries tend to see things in a remarkably similar fashion. These common assessments, combined with the realisation that, should they put their collective minds to it, smaller states can help each other, comes at a time when COVID-19 has made the need for joined-up international action to combat common threats abundantly clear. Smaller states cannot afford to simply let the great powers shape such action – and the emerging world order in their own image. Rather, they need to use their common fears as a springboard to seizing and creating common opportunities for influence.

They need to use their common fears as a springboard to seizing and creating common opportunities for influence.

Common fears

Clearly COVID-19 is currently the most prominent fear amount public and government in Norway and Czechia. However, both countries also have longer standing fears in common. Their respective foreign ministers have recently expressed apprehension that the rules-based international order is falling apart, not least because of increased great power rivalry and changes in US policy and posture. Ine Eriksen Søreide observed that the liberal world order is under pressure not only because of great power rivalry, but also because states with different value systems are becoming more influential. Tomáš Petříček noted, with urgency, that respect for our rules-based order principles must be restored.” As smaller states, both Norway and Czechia have a lot to lose from declining respect for rules and the resurgence of machtpolitik.

Both states fear losing the United States as their key security guarantor, within but also beyond NATO. Ongoing uncertainty over the Trump Administration’s intentions and strategic commitment to Europe as well and unrest within the alliance, exemplified by Emmanuel Macron’s now infamous ‘brain-dead’ remark, have stoked these fears in the two countries (Macron’s remark was quickly rejected by both Czechia and Norway). So too have concerns over Vladimir Putin’s penchant for revanchism and hybrid destabilisation, but which in both states are balanced by a keen appreciation of the need for constructive engagement with Russia. The two states also share ambiguous approaches to China, balancing business interests and potential strategic cooperation with concerns for human rights and wariness over growing Chinese influence abroad.

Despite their concerns, both Norway and Czechia remain committed to NATO – and aspire to meeting the 2% target by 2024. At the same time, both have also welcomed recent initiatives to deepen EU security and defence cooperation. As a non-member Norway can only participate in EU initiatives by invitation, which creates a certain fear of ‘missing out’. By contrast, as in other areas of European integration (notably the Eurozone) Czechs fears are of ‘missing in’ – being dragged further and faster into integrative processes than is comfortable for both the foreign policy establishment and large parts of the population. Brexit also continues to create considerable concerns for both countries, which have traditionally shared institutional outlooks with the UK.

In particular policy areas too, the two states fear in common. Despite the stereotypes noted above, and considerable differences in demographics between the more ethnically homogenous Czechia and more diverse Norway, considerable common fears are also expressed over migration. In both cases these fears are linked (however questionably) to fears of terrorism and organised crime, and are connected to wider (shared) societal divisions over liberalism and openness to the world, which in turn bring competing fears over missing out and missing in on globalising processes.

Common opportunities

US President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous remark that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” is not entirely on the mark for smaller states. They undeniably do have much to fear as uncertainty rises in the current international climate. The spread of COVID-19 has seen the suspension of international rules, multilateral frameworks, the return of heavily statist command and control mechanisms and the reimposition of state border controls in the Schengen zone. Problems like the novel Corona virus that hit to the heart of national senses of insecurity – yet which are manifestly transnational in nature and require multilateral responses show that smaller states need not only fear the virus but, potentially, the responses to it as well.

However, this does not mean that their options are restricted – they need not simply throw up their hands and abandon themselves to fate or the not-so-tender mercies of great powers and a new international system of their design. Rather than focusing on their fears themselves, smaller states should look at what they can make of them.

Fears need not be paralysing; they can also be productive. Fear creates incentives to seek new options and to explore previously untapped sources of cooperation and security. For Norway and Czechia, the fears they have in common actually create common incentives for such exploration and cooperation. Not only in mini- and multilateral formats and contexts, but also with each other.

Being smaller states is in this sense at least, actually a comparative advantage, since it allows greater latitude for such exploration and experimentation than would be possible for larger powers. Where Czechia and Norway are key players – such as in their respective regional groupings, the N5 and V4 – they should maintain their positions. Crucially, however, they are now faced with a rare opportunity to diversify their support networks and relationships, escaping typecasting and hence becoming more able to take advantage of the opportunities created by global flux.

They are now faced with a rare opportunity to diversify their support networks and relationships, escaping typecasting and hence becoming more able to take advantage of the opportunities created by global flux.

Friends in( )deed

So how can a cordial but latent partnership be transformed into a trusting friendship for troubling times?

Firstly, simply understanding that many of their fears are common rather than unique is a powerful tool for transforming them into opportunities. Making explicit that two smaller states do not fear alone creates a platform for a different kind of dialogue. Understanding each other’s fears is a good starting point for deepening relations. When fears are common (and seen as such), they create incentives for exploring new common actions. Identifying similarities also creates a different perspective from which to understand when their fears differ - as they for example do on energy security due to the two countries different producer/consumer positions. Crucially, however, when understood as productive rather than paralysing, fears can be the catalyst for experimentation and innovation in foreign policy.

Making explicit that two smaller states do not fear alone creates a platform for a different kind of dialogue.

For example, Czechia and Norway could make productive use of their fears by pushing for multi-lateral and transnational health governance and economic support frameworks in the wake of the Corona virus. They could also jointly propose fora to ensure that social distancing doesn't lead to alienation between as well as within societies. On other issues they could take some of the following steps: regularising bilateral consultation on US, Russian and Chinese policies, but also on multilateral issues – such as a joint agenda to shape the emergent ‘Alliance for Multilateralism’; working jointly in sub-formats of existing institutions, such as by holding annual meetings to compare notes and coordinate policy on NATO or migration; exploring the possibilities of N5-V4 cooperation for willing members of both groupings. They could take highly practical steps such as enhancing counter-terrorism cooperation, knowledge exchange and joint training between their respective intelligence services, special police and military units. Or they could explore bolder institutional steps like suggesting Czech observer status at the Arctic Council.

The incentives and opportunities for deeper and broader bilateral cooperation exist in the dynamic global arena, but how relations develop ultimately depends on smaller states seizing them in concrete ways. From picking low-hanging fruit to blue-sky thinking, it will be in the common doings that Czechia and Norway can take the step from being friends in common need, to being friends in( )deed. The heightened sense of common fear engendered by the Corona virus creates an opportunity for smaller states to address some of their longer standing concerns as well.

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