Public diplomacy challenges in small states: the case for EAC

A surprising reality is that we are still living in an international environment which is primarily defined by a multitude of nation states, but a significant number of these states are small in absolute terms. 
Joe B. Jakes.
Joe B. Jakes.

A surprising reality is that we are still living in an international environment which is primarily defined by a multitude of nation states, but a significant number of these states are small in absolute terms. 

Others are considered as small in relative terms and yet all of these states, large or small, act and expect to be treated as sovereign and independent members of the international community. For the purpose of this piece, all member states of the East African Community (EAC) are treated as small states.


There is absolutely no single agreement on the definition of small states but for the purpose of this article, one defines them as entities which are small in size, population, human capital, military capacity and economic resources. 


The definition however deserves scrutiny because like many others, it may be susceptible to political interpretations as some may argue that the smallness or size in itself cannot solely be the defining factor in determining a country’s status. 


In other words, the size per se is not the factor in the establishment of criteria for admission to the United Nations (UN) for example, instead the country’s ability to carry out the obligations contained in the UN Charter. 

To state the obvious, the Nordic countries and indeed the Vatican hold tremendous power and commend respect in international political arena, which is a clear demonstration that one does not necessarily need the might military power to influence the world’s affairs. 

In short, judging a country’s status based on its size, population, and economic output is simply a comparative not an absolute idea. 

In reality however, small states suffer from a definitional problem in both theory and political practice because of their power capabilities. 

As numerous academic arguments suggest, small states vary in terms of territorial size, population density, market potential, administrative capacities, resource possession and mobilization, as well as degrees of geographical remoteness. 

In fact, some with neorealist views on small states addressed their survival prospects in terms of ‘small powers’ and power inequality. This simply means, small states are at best marginally relevant in power bargaining in the initial stages of a crisis, but ultimately irrelevant in final outcomes as they have limited power to back up their stance. 

Having said that, some small states have the capacity to push the ideas (i.e. as the state of Malta is famously known in the maritime affairs) but often without capacity to follow up in which case their role can be limited to being vocal. Sometimes, the irritant and constant voice is what some big states need to hear; hence one thinks it is a noble role nevertheless. 

Despite these pessimistic analyses, others argue that significant variations of small state power capacities exist across differing contexts which offers more than cautious optimism for the prospects of small states. 

In this vein, this article looks at how the anomalies inherent in small state power can become an advantage when they are construed as strategic avenues enabling those weak in one power index to offset or match, the advantage states perceived as strong in other indices. 

In this case however, one thinks that a deeper EAC regional integration would be the most appropriate and best strategic move in this modern world of geopolitics and power, but also as the region searches for a place in the post-modern world of images and influence. 

The need for  more coherent and coordinated social and economic policies to improve the welfare of about 120 million people, and also in later stage a more political federation that would allow the region to advance its interests at continental and world levels. 

The reality in the world of global politics is that the framework in which affairs of great importance are conducted does not always favour small states. The EU process is more advanced, a comfortable space to be in if you are a small state although one has to accept that there are always competing interests and ideals which means states do not always agree on every policy prescription from Brussels. 

This serves as a reminder that the EAC members won’t always agree on everything, but merging states together in one political union would render the organisation more effective. 

Why? Because by getting rid of various small centres of power (i.e. national governments) that are in constant political competition and defence of national interests, one hopes that the union would then focus on modifying policies, creating coherent mechanisms and would have greater space and autonomy to pursue and achieve the regional economic and political interests.

With a shift in political paradigms in the world, power does no longer solely reside in persuasion or coercion but increasingly from information sharing and attraction, which are essential for the development of soft power- and the promotion of the latter is the key aim of public diplomacy. 

For small states, public diplomacy represent an opportunity to gain influence and shape continental and international agendas in ways that surpass their limited hard power resources- related to size, military, and economic strength.

There is absolutely no doubt in one’s mind that tackling regional existing problems and facing up to the evolving ones, the EAC needs a deeper and meaningful integration rather than a superficial one that plays into the hands of  not only economic competitors; but also those who gain from the region’s constant instability and political immaturity. 

Public diplomacy needs to be taken seriously as it has potential to promote the regional soft power, and also fight off other associated stereotypes of weak governance, civil wars and genocide. 

A note of caution however, is that before seeking to attract foreign audiences; states’ actions, ideas and values must be attractive to domestic constituency as this is an essential pre-condition for a successful public diplomacy. 

If the EAC is to be a functioning and viable institution, all of its members must be willing to compromise and commit themselves to the cause which will benefit the entire populace. 

In this way, the EAC’s ability to capture the mind space of global decision makers will be enhanced and in return, such an increase soft power abroad increases the likelihood that citizens at home would find it befitting and indeed beneficial to associate themselves with their region and support its leaders.

In concluding, one leaves questions as always. Does the EAC have a political credibility? If so, why can’t the member states seem to give right signals of genuine commitment? Does the EAC have clout to influence regional affairs?

If so, why does it appear to have little effect on the Great Lakes region conflicts? The truth of the matter is that most member states are involved in political and military activities (i.e. Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda in peacekeeping missions across Africa) of some sort which could be used to change from the stereotype of instability to build a more positive image of peacemaking. 

But as the article argues, it is not about hard power or defence diplomacy but also the ability to use soft power. Why can’t the member states harmonize the immigration (visa) regime to benefit the tourism industry for instance? 

In the end, the flow of foreigner investors and tourists is one of the key ingredients in reshaping the region’s image and overcoming many public diplomacy challenges.

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