How Can Small States Stay Relevant? Ask Ireland.


The last three hundred years of international-relations history were characterized by the struggle between major powers to extend their spheres of influence in different parts of the world. The main objects in the framework of that competition were the small nations and peoples that could not afford the luxury of independence and, therefore, have always been in the orbit of influence of the great powers and empires. History shows that small nations in larger states’ zones of interest have often been threatened with complete annihilation. The consequences of Britain’s colonization of Ireland led to the Great Famine, which killed more than one million people. Contradictions in Europe led to the two world wars, resulting in the genocide of the Armenian people in Ottoman Turkey, as well as the Holocaust of European Jews conducted by Nazi Germany.

Natural Competition

After the defeat of the Third Reich, certain illusions arose about a new realism that would take into account the lessons of the tragic war. However, neither the establishment of the United Nations with principles of international law nor the decolonization process could change these tough rules of struggle between great powers. During the Cold War, small countries became an arena of ideological battle between the American capitalist and Soviet communist systems. The wars after 1945 once again led to massive destruction and annihilation. Ideological contradictions imposed by competing states resulted in large-scale civil wars in Vietnam and Korea. Political models of communism and democracy turned out to be more important than national identity for the inhabitants of different parts of these countries. For many centuries, empires created internal contradictions and manipulated them to extract benefit. The nations that were able to learn from their own history and study the behavior of major powers recognized the need to strengthen their identity and lobby their interests by various means and methods.

Political realist theory says that a state can be independent if the heads of the world’s leading countries consider its opinion. After the two world wars, the decolonization process and the collapse of the USSR, many new states appeared that were trying to find their place in the international system. Some countries, such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, joined the European Union and the NATO military-political bloc, receiving the patronage of the United States. The leaders of these nations made a reasonable decision to surrender their sovereignty in favor of focusing on the supranational level. They understood well that lack of resources would prevent them from creating their own political tools that would allow them to keep a balance between the different centers of power. In that respect, the Baltic countries were lucky enough, because their choice did not meet much resistance from Russia, which for centuries has considered these areas an object of its national interests. Other small states have been less fortunate. On the one hand, Moscow did not seek to intervene in the internal affairs of those “younger brothers” that announced their own foreign policy priorities. On the other hand, the Kremlin drew red lines that these small countries could not cross.

Russia did not oppose the dialogue of Tbilisi with NATO, but it clearly explained that joining the military-political bloc would mean the end of the Georgian state. Nowadays, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are not able to take a political decision to join the EU or NATO, recognizing the dire consequences for their countries and peoples. As a major nuclear power, Russia is seeking to demonstrate its determination and force its competitors to recognize its own spheres of influence. Therefore, if there is a need to sacrifice the interests of small countries and peoples, Moscow will do it without any doubt or regrets. In general, the United States will behave in a similar way if Cuba, Nicaragua and Costa Rica decide to become members of a military and political union supervised by Russia. Fierce competition has not disappeared; it is just diplomacy that creates illusion of softness, equality and respect for small states. Thus, many small countries are objectively deprived of any possibility to avoid the collision of different interests on their land.

Transnational Political Nations

There are also states without any natural resources or favorable geographical configuration, whose interests are nevertheless taken into account by great powers. For decades, countries such as Ireland and Israel have actively deployed the potential of their sizable diasporas around the world, forming unified transnational political nations. Many experts often mistakenly equate the concepts of diaspora and transnational political nation. In the scientific world, there are hundreds of opinions about what a diaspora is and how it differs from a community and lobby. In general, a diaspora is a group of people united by common national, religious or cultural traditions. As that definition suggests, a diaspora does not have to bring together the representatives of particular ethnic groups. 

Today, religious and geographic diasporas are the most active ones. For example, the Poles, the Italians and the Cubans can together be considered part of the Catholic diaspora, while the Bulgarians, the Greeks and the Romanians are included in both the Orthodox diaspora and the Balkan diaspora. As for a community, it unites people of the same ethnic origin, regardless of their place of exodus and religion. Thus, a French-American Protestant who grew up in Texas and a French Catholic who moved from Lyon are both an integral part of the French community in the United States. In turn, a transnational political nation (TPN) unites the most active representatives of a specific ethnic group. A TPN is always closely connected with the country of origin, and its main priority is defending its interests.

Why the Irish TPN Succeeded

There are more than sixty million Irish people around the world, while there are only 4.5 million permanent residents in the Republic of Ireland. The largest Irish communities are concentrated in the United States. According to the 2010 census, thirty-eight million Americans claimed Irish origin, accounting for nearly 11 percent of the country’s total population. The formation of Irish interest groups in America has a long and rich history, dating back to the American state’s foundation. Members of the Irish community played an important role in key events of American history: the struggle for independence from Britain, the territorial expansion of the United States, the Union’s victory in the Civil War and the civil rights movement. In addition, the Irish created large farms and built plants and factories, boosting the development of American economic power.

The factor of heritage has become one of the most important components in the construction of the Irish transnational political nation. Community leaders have constantly reminded the general public and the political class of the invaluable contributions and sacrifices that the Irish people made for the good of the United States. At various times, the Irish people reminded the leaders of the White House of President Andrew Jackson’s covenant to appoint the Irish and the Scottish to key foreign-policy positions as the most talented and dedicated sons of America. Wide advertising of Irish heritage has led to the development of a special attitude toward Ireland among the American public. For Irish interest groups, it was important to create such an image of their historic homeland in order to balance against the entrenched Hamiltonian tradition, according to which the American and British peoples have a special fate, and the United States has an important mission as the foundation of the Anglo-Saxon world. Though the attempt to break this philosophy failed, the permanent promotion of the Irish historic brand has led to the perception of the Irish as a major founding nation.

The second factor is Catholicism. Historically, the Irish were the largest ethnic group of Catholic confession in a predominantly Protestant America. The lack of serious competition allowed the leaders of Irish lobbying organizations to steer Catholic voters, influencing political decisionmaking. Irish Catholic organizations ultimately played a key role in establishing and developing Washington’s diplomatic relations with the Vatican. During regional and federal election campaigns, candidates wishing to get the votes of Catholics had to appeal to the leaders of the most influential Irish organizations. Many influential presidents and presidential candidates, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and John Kerry, announced their Irish roots and special attachment to Ireland. It is difficult to say whether any was sincere in his statements. However, that is not so important: the very fact of their desire to endear themselves to the Irish people speaks to the extremely high degree of influence of the Irish in American politics.

The third factor is the formation of an Irish-centered aristocracy. Most American Irish are indifferent to political processes connected with their historical homeland. As a rule, being “Irish” just means visiting pubs and celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. Numerous examples show that on average, 60 percent of any ethnic community is apolitical and not involved in lobbying for the interests of their countries of origin. However, these figures cannot affect the effectiveness of lobbying. During the formation of a transnational political nation, the thing that really matters is an organized minority that can encourage the unorganized majority to take action in a critical situation. Many lobbying structures build a strategy of balancing between the interests of countries of residence and countries of origin. However, this tactic has long been proven ineffective. The main purpose of a TPN is to make countries of residence perceive the interests of countries of origin as their own. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to have certain representatives of the organized minority in the economic, cultural, media and political spheres. If necessary, these resources are used for organized lobbying for the interests of Ireland.

The fourth factor is involvement by the country of origin itself. The leaders of the national liberation organizations in Dublin and Belfast have always had close ties with the leaders of Irish community organizations throughout America. Ireland’s interest in the formation of a political elite and influential lobbying organizations in Washington can be explained in several ways. Firstly, Dublin realized very quickly that in time of need, the country can trust only its patriots around the world. Secondly, encouraging investments from overseas compatriots was essential for the country’s economic security, which is directly connected with its political independence. Of course, Dublin and the Irish community faced serious differences on many issues. However, all their problems were put aside when it came to the security and survival of the nation.

The Irish TPN in Action

The Irish factor was taken into account by the U.S. authorities during the war for independence in Ireland in 1919–21. Irish American newspapers compared the republican movement in Dublin with the American people’s struggle for independence. Particular attention was paid to the fact that both Irish and Americans suffered under the British yoke for decades. Moreover, Eamon de Valera, the father of Irish independence, was born and raised in New York, and was regarded by the American public as the Irish George Washington. The influence of Irish interest groups was essential even at that time. Law-enforcement institutions in the United States did not stop rich Irish clans from directing finance and weapons to the Sinn Féin movement. Influential Congressmen of Irish origin—Charles Curtis, Duncan Fletcher, John McCormack and David I. Walsh—urged the White House to support the Ireland’s independence. Numerous protests in London only increased the influence of a pro-Irish lobby that required the president to condemn Britain’s intervention in the affairs of the American people.

After America’s recognition of Irish independence, a new stage in the establishment of bilateral relations began. Not only did such organizations as the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Sons of Ireland aim to bind Dublin to Washington, but they also sought to insert an Irish element into the U.S.-British relations. Since 1921, the Democratic Party has served as a conductor of pro-Irish interests. It has been funded by such influential Irish clans as the Kennedys, the Thompsons, the Gordons, the Fords and others. Consistent work together with the Democrats, carried out in the framework of a cross-lobbying strategy, led to greater success. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became the U.S. president, he appointed Joseph Kennedy an ambassador to the UK, which was negatively perceived among the British public. British newspapers reported that Roosevelt insulted London by sending an Irishman who financed and armed the fighters of Sinn Féin.

By the end of the fifties, Irish Americans had reached the peak of their power. More than fifty legislators of Irish descent served in the Eighty-Second, Eighty-Third and Eighty-Fourth Congresses—constituting 25 percent of the total number of congressmen from the Democratic Party. The victory of John F. Kennedy, elected president of the United States in 1960, was the community’s greatest success. It was the only case in American history when an Irish Catholic was elected the leader of Protestant America. During his historic visit to Dublin, Kennedy gave a speech in which he recalled, “Franklin sent leaflets to Irish freedom fighters. O’Connell was influenced by Washington, and Emmet influenced Lincoln. Irish volunteers played so predominant a role in the American army that Lord Mountjoy lamented in the British Parliament that ‘we have lost America through the Irish.’”

The clan system is still a key element of the Irish TPN. The duties of each family are strictly divided: some finance politicians, others are involved in investment projects for Ireland and still others are responsible for the education of new generations. During the conflict in Belfast during the 1990s, members of the Irish TPN stepped up again to defend their fellow Catholics. Influential politicians of Irish origin—Edward Kennedy, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Bruce Morrison and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill—launched an extensive lobbying campaign against the actions of the British government. At the same time, magazines and newspapers under Irish influence wrote about the unjustified violence of London and the pro-British Ulster Workers’ Council. Hollywood shot numerous films with world-famous actors, with main roles given to Irish American celebrities like Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt (starring in The Devil’s Own), Mickey Rourke (A Prayer for the Dying) and Daniel Day-Lewis (In the Name of the Father). The main objective of these films was to show the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as patriots and fighters for Irish freedom who were pursued by the British authorities.

The mechanisms of TPN influence led to active U.S. involvement in the conflict. Washington’s political sympathies were with the Irish. The heads of leading pro-Irish companies managed to convince the White House that supporting their plan of resolving the conflict would give the United States a good opportunity to influence British policy, thus avoiding a large civil war in the future. Acting on three fronts—the lobby, Dublin and the Catholic Church—let the leadership of the organization Friends of Ireland persuade President Bill Clinton to finance the International Fund for Ireland and issue a U.S. visa for IRA leader Gerry Adams, though that was at odds with the recommendations of the State Department and the CIA. Clinton’s private participation in resolving the conflict reduced the degree of the conflict and narrowed London’s ability to act decisively in Belfast.

The example of the Irish transnational political nation leads to the conclusion that small countries can build a TPN out of well-organized community structures in great-power nations. Jews also went a long way to form the necessary TPN institutions in Europe and the United States. The Armenian and Greek communities also had good chances of doing so, but they could not convert their potential into a political resource. Today a Polish TPN is actively being formed in Europe, America and Canada. The main condition for success is the need to preserve subjectivity at least partly, which would allow creating expatriates’ own goals and influence political decisionmaking. Otherwise, the community will become an object in the hands of the country of residence and of different interest groups.

It is important to bear in mind that a TPN is not created in order to transform a great power into an equal ally. Regardless of the opportunities that the Irish or the Jews may have, the United States, being a great global power, will always have many interests around the world. The purpose of a TPN is to reach a situation in which a great power, taking into account the interests of a small country, does not undertake actions that can harm that state and nation. In case this state and people are threatened by another figure, the challenge facing a TPN is to attract the country of residence to protect the country of origin.

Галстян Арег — кандидат исторических наук, колумнист журналов Forbes и The National Interest. Руководитель научно-аналитического центра «American Studies». 

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