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Knights and Rooks: The Role of Geography, Resources, and Asymmetric Capabilities in Attaining Status

Editor’s Note: This article is Part II 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.

In December of 1968, North Korea released the 82 survivors of the USS Pueblo, the only U.S. ship ever detained by a foreign country. However, the Hermit Kingdom only agreed to release the prisoners after the Lyndon B. Johnson administration signed a letter prepared by Pyongyang stipulating that the Pueblo had intruded on North Korean waters and apologizing for this provocation. This incident is perplexing given the considerable gap in material capability between the two countries. North Korea’s material power measured at one-fortieth of the United States’ power. While Washington had full nuclear weapon capability, Pyongyang had not yet started to develop these capabilities. How could a “pawn,” like North Korea, ever coerce a “queen” into apologizing for something that, according to the queen, did not even occur? In this piece, we discuss three factors that allow states to punch above their weight in international politics: geography, access to strategic resources, and the asymmetric projection of power.


Image courtesy of Adam Ratzlaff © 2019


Geography is an important factor in establishing a country’s importance in international politics. It can bolster the strategic value of a “pawn” due to its proximity to a great power or its location adjacent to crucial trade routes. For example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cuba’s location mattered to Soviet efforts to overcome the missile gap with Washington. By reducing the burden of building expensive intercontinental missiles, the USSR could overcome its material deficiencies in missile technology. For the United States, mid-range nuclear missiles in Cuba jeopardized the survival of the majority of U.S. citizens. Thus, the Castro Regime attained an important place in U.S.-Soviet calculations due to its geographic proximity to the United States.

The importance of a state is also bolstered by its proximity to trade routes. Singapore is situated at the strategic chokehold of the Malacca Straits, through which China receives 80% of its energy imports from the Middle East. Called the “Malacca Dilemma,” Singapore holds extensive strategic importance for China given its geographic location and capability to disrupt China’s economy and has used this position to boost its own security and development prospects. Similarly, Iran has repeatedly threatened to disrupt oil supplies passing through the Straits of Hormuz, which has implications for global consumer gas prices and energy security.

Strategic Resources

The presence of natural resources also enables states to punch above their weight and increase the importance of their position within international negotiations. Members of the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) used their position as oil producers to create a cartel to increase the influence of all producing states. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, OPEC’s Arab members imposed oil embargoes against states that militarily supported Israel. The oil embargoes more than tripled the cost of a barrel of oil, leading to massive inflation in the United States and forcing the United States to implement new policies, including the creation of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and pushing for the development of the International Energy Agency.

A cartel is not necessary, however. Qatar has been able to pursue an independent foreign policy, including disengaging from OPEC, largely due to the presence of its expansive gas and oil reserves. The small but independent emirate continues to chart its own path in international affairs despite a blockade by neighboring Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. Moreover, while oil has traditionally been the strategic natural resource, other resources such as rare earth elements (REEs) have become important as well. REEs are critically important for modern technological devices including hybrid cars, cellphones, computers, and lab equipment. China strategically used its REE resources in 2010 when Japan seized a Chinese trawler. China threatened to halt the supply of REEs to Japan, a crucial input to the Japanese economy. While China is the largest producer of REEs, smaller states such as Malaysia may be able to assert more influence in international politics by leveraging their REE supply.

Asymmetric Projection of Power

“Pawns” can also turn to asymmetric warfare to create a stalemate with, or even defeat, “queens” in armed conflicts. Fighting asymmetrically has been considered the only possible way for a small power to engage war against the United States. This implies “not fighting fair” or attacking the vulnerabilities of the much stronger opponent by employing unconventional tactics and weapons such as guerrilla warfare, cyberattacks, weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons), and/or terrorism. The Vietnam War demonstrated how these asymmetric capabilities could empower small powers to drain the resources of great powers until the latter is forced to give up. This is why both Iran and North Korea have concentrated their efforts on developing nuclear weapons, submarines, and cyberwarfare units instead of attempting to compete with U.S. conventional military capabilities or cutting-edge communications and intelligence systems. Pyongyang is also infamous for its special operations forces capable of infiltrating both forward and rear areas and conducting “hybrid operations,” including attacking vital facilities and assassinating key figures. Asymmetric threats are increasingly relevant these days due to the easy access to commercial products that can be improvised into explosive devices and suicide drones. These asymmetric capabilities help not only non-state actors such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and ISIS, but small powers trump great powers in the right circumstances.

The victory of David over Goliath in the Valley of Elah is regularly heralded in the west, but the story is not as positive if you are the giant. Great powers should be fully aware of potential threats and dangers coming from small, albeit clever, powers. Smart “pawns” can strategically use their geography, key resources, and asymmetric warfare to become “knights” and “rooks” on the chessboard of international politics, making them suddenly important to the game.

However, material power is not the only way that lesser powers can become important pieces on the global political chessboard. Part III of this series, “From Pawns to Bishops: Ideational Forces and the Pursuit of Power,” will focus on some of the non-material mechanisms that allow small states to become important actors in international politics.

*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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