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From Pawns to Bishops: Ideational Forces and the Pursuit of Power


Editor’s Note: This article is Part III of “When Pawns Become Queens,” a four-part series that seeks to explain how less powerful states are able to rise to prominence in international politics. To start from the beginning of the series, please read When Pawns Become Queens: Becoming a Global Power.

Saudi elites have recently found themselves in hot water due to their alleged involvement in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. His murder was not the first of its kind. In 2014, the Saudis carried out the execution of the Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was a vocal critic of the Sunni government. Although the international community, along with human rights organizations, frowned upon his execution, many Saudis believed he was an Iranian-backed terrorist. For the Saudis, this was a strategic move in cultivating allegiance and influence in the Arab world along sectarian lines. The Cleric’s activism was an important symbol of Shia presence in the kingdom. His execution was an attempt to crack down on the Arab Spring domestically and in other parts of the region such as Bahrain and Yemen. In doing so, they were able to ensure the survival of Sunni regimes along with providing support to Sunni groups rebelling against Shia governments. The Saudis are not alone; the Iranians have also emphasized sectarianism in the Middle East creating what some have called a ‘Cold War-like conflict in the region.

Image courtesy of Adam Ratzlaff © 2019

Many policymakers still question the relevance of non-material capabilities, or “soft power.” In International Relations, power can be defined as a “man’s control over the minds and actions of other men.” This classic definition reveals clear limitations in the view of power as a property or resource that can be materially measured based on how much influence it allows an agent to wield by coercing others. However, power shouldalso be viewed as a relational and psychological force that can change the preferences, emotions, and predispositions of states. These include non-material capabilities as identity, moral authority, and strategic positioning in domestic or international contexts. They permit geopolitical “pawns” to revise and reconstruct the global equation to play a more strategic role.

Forging Identities

Small states can create and utilize identity as a means to cultivate support and ensure a significant level of influence in the international arena. While both Iran and Saudi Arabia have done this in the Middle East, the rise and influence of Venezuela is a prime example of a country whose influence lies in its cultivation of identity. After the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998, citizens across Latin America elected left-leaning leaders in what became known as the “Pink Tide.” Leveraging this left turn and anti-imperialist sentiment, Chavez was able to forge an important role for himself in regional politics and across the globe. Venezuela was able to use their shared identity to challenge U.S. interests in the region in the first decade of the millennium until the recent election of right-wing leaders in countries across the region weakened its substantial clout throughout the region.

Moral Authority

In addition to identity, moral authority and good practices in domestic politics can allow lesser powers to wield significant influence in world politics. The Scandinavian countries have gained esteem for their high level of equality, good governance, and commitment to help developing countries. This esteem and moral authority gives small Nordic states influence in shaping the agendas of key international organizations such as the United Nations and World Bank. Similarly, in the 1980s, Costa Rica had attained a degree of autonomy in pushing for peace during the Central American Civil Wars due to the common perception that they were an honest broker in the peace process.

Strategic Positioning

During the Cold War, by playing a geopolitical game and advertising the image of the front line fighting force along the edge of the “iron curtain,” small powers received enormous support from the two competing superpowers. Taiwan is the classic example. The exiled government resides 100 miles away from its civil war adversary, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and survived three major confrontations. Taiwan has guarded its de facto sovereignty despite the PRC’s relentless endeavors to create a unified China. However, it is difficult to explain Taiwan’s remarkable success without U.S. military, economic, and political support. Taiwan’s foe maintains 17 times greater material capabilities on average, not to mention the severe gap in nuclear capabilities. Washington’s continuous backing for Taipei was based on its strategic importance as the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” and the “first island chain” of the U.S. alliance in Asia. Taiwan could only prevail over the economic and military coercion of the PRC as long as it dexterously plays the geopolitical game and is successful in winning the hearts of the United States.

Throughout world history, we have seen that “who they are” often matters as much as “what they have.” Factors other than material power are highly important in state relations and throughout the global political arena. We see that “pawns” can be promoted to “bishops” in the game of world politics if they are able to gain and maintain shared identities, develop an exemplary reputation, or strategically position themselves to play the powerful off of one another. States should not underestimate the importance of these factors in attaining prestige or shaping world politics.

However, although states are able to find alternative ways of gaining influence in international politics, it does not always work out how they would like. The final part of this series will discuss how small powers can fail to leverage both material and ideational assets into major roles in International Politics in “When Pawns Remain Pawns…”

*The WPBQ team consists of a group of young scholars from Florida International University (FIU) who are interested in the role of lesser powers in the International System. The team members responsible for this article series are listed below.

Bibek Chand, PhD, is Visiting Instructor of International Relations at FIU. Bibek’s research focuses on foreign policy, international security, and geopolitics. His specific interests include the international relations of small states, the role of buffer states in international security, and Sino-Indian interactions in the Asia-Pacific. Follow Bibek on Twitter @bibekcnp.

Yang Gyu Kim is a Fulbright Scholar and a Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations at FIU. He completed his BA and MA in International Relations at Seoul National University in South Korea and worked as a research fellow at the East Asia Institute. His research focuses on coercive diplomacy, power transition, and Northeast Asia.

Adam Ratzlaff is a Ph.D. student in International Relations at FIU and Staff Writer for Charged Affairs. Prior to coming to FIU, he conducted research on Latin American public and foreign policy for a number of groups including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He holds an MA from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Follow him on Twitter @adam_ratzlaff.

Lana Shehadeh is a Ph.D. student in International Relations at FIU concentrating on the study of rentier economies in the Middle East. Prior to this, she worked as a Senior Researcher for the BBC Media Action where she led research projects in the Middle East. She holds an MA in International Development from American University. Follow her on Twitter @Lana_Shehadeh.

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