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Small States Navigating the Complex World: Costa Rica’s Success Story
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Although International Relations (IR) is primarily focused on studying the relationships between one or two dozen key countries, most nations within the international system are small states with a limited role worldwide. These states are not land or maritime base hegemons, nor do they possess nuclear weapons; these are entities with limited resources and primarily manage their affairs by functioning under the framework of the rules-based liberal international order. To survive, to make itself known, and to have influence in the turbulent and anarchical world, some small states choose the strategy of focusing on one or two specific issues and by developing a solid reputation as the globally recognized moral authority on the issue(s); ultimately building up considerable weight in the international stage. By adopting this strategy, these political entities tend to carry more weight than their peers in the region and are more successful in international institutions, thus creating a small subset of successful small states. Over the years, Costa Rica, a small nation in Central America, and one of the world’s few neutral countries without a military, has chosen to focus in the fields of human rights and regional peacebuilding, and ultimately developed itself as a unique issue-orientated leader on the international arena. This essay will touch upon the creation of small states studies and focus on Costa Rica’s success story as a small state navigating in the complex world.

Prior to the post World War II (WWII) rules-based liberal international order, the world was dominated by only a few dozens of empires, monarchies, and democracies. The drastic increase of sovereign states in the past seven decades is mainly due to the various waves of decolonization after WWII and the collapse of the Soviet Union; thus, the formation of most small states across the globe. The study of small states in IR first came to light in 1959 after Colombia University’s Annette Baker Fox published The Power of Small States: Diplomacy in World War II. While this book was focused on the small European states during WWII, it helped establish the field of small states within the academic study of IR. During the height of the Cold War Non-Alignment Era, a group of IR scholars studied the effectiveness of small states cooperating to balance against the bipolar United States and the Soviet Union under Stephen Walt’s balance of threat theory. Although the majority of IR literature on small states until present day remains Eurocentric, with a specific focus on the Nordic nations and Switzerland, it is important to note that small states in various regions across the globe have distinct characteristics that help them stand out in the international community.[1] For example, in the Middle East, the Arab state of Oman earns its international reputation through serving as one of the principal communicators between Iran and the West.[2] Geographically situated between Saudi Arabia and Iran (Across the Gulf of Oman), the two regional powers; Oman maintains friendly relationships not only the regional powers but also with other nations in the globe. With that, Oman only maintains a modest military and focuses primarily on its economy, making it one of the high-income economies recognized by the World Bank.[3]

A subset of small states to focus on is Central America. The region, which composes Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama, has been plagued by domestic and transnational conflicts with constant military coups in the twentieth century. Ever since establishing itself as a democratic government in 1869, Costa Rica has been the most peaceful nation in Central America, with a brief forty-four-day Costa Rican Civil War which took place in 1948, which interrupted its continuing democracy. After the Civil War, the new constitution bid farewell to its military force and Costa Rica became the first nation in the Western Hemisphere to demilitarize. Costa Rica has been a vibrant liberal democracy, which strongly supports the rules-based international system, ever since. Its leading diplomat, Christiana Figueres, the former United Nations Secretary General candidate from Costa Rica, once said that “[i]n Costa Rica we’re governed, not by military force, but by the force of our laws and international legal decisions.”[4] Going against the realist belief of maintaining a strong military force and accumulating power, Costa Rica focuses on pursuing its goals of delivering prosperity to its people and being a faithful and credible member of the international society. With that, Costa Rica has prevailed among the Central American countries in the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index.[5] As an active member of international organizations, Costa Rica has served three times in the United Nations Security Council, whereas Belize and El Salvador have yet to sit in the prestige institution.[6] However, Costa Rica realized early on that being a faithful member of the international community is not enough for the country to expand its influence across the globe. Hence, over the past decades, Costa Rica aligned its foreign policy objectives with the shared goals of the international community while placing human rights on the top of its agenda, followed by facilitating regional peacebuilding.

While die-hard realists, such as Ken Waltz, do not believe that human rights are relevant in the discussion of IR, Costa Rica is one of the examples that convey the importance of human rights in IR. Costa Rica’s human rights agenda is not based out of humanitarian intervention but focusing on upholding human rights domestically while advocating for them abroad. Costa Rica is one of the world’s leading defenders of human rights; it has a 1.0 Freedom Rating and an aggerate score of nighty-one according to the 2018 “Freedom in the World” survey published by the United States-based think-tank Freedom House.[7] To put the numbers in perspective, the United States is ranked lower than Costa Rica, scoring only an aggerate score of eighty-six, while Costa Rica’s neighbor Nicaragua scores forty-four.[8]

Over the years, Costa Rica has not only developed a reputation for upholding human rights at home but also promoted them in both Central and Latin America. In addition to the European Court of Human Rights, Costa Rica is home to the reputable Inter-American Court of Human Rights, one of the two successful international legal bodies on the issue.[9] The Court, operating under the Organization of American States (OAS) system, was established during a special conference that convened in Costa Rica's capital in 1969 and codified in the American Convention on Human Rights, also known as the Pact of San José. Costa Rica led the example by being the first nation, out of thirty-five OAS Member States, to ratify the Convention and recognize the Court’s jurisdiction. Currently, only twenty nations have accepted the Court’s jurisdiction. According to Freedom House, the Court, in conjunction with its counterpart, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “have spurred legal reform and the introduction of human rights protections in many countries.”[10] Costa Rica is also home to the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, backed jointly by the Costa Rican government and the OAS, it serves as one of the world’s leading human rights academic research and advocacy institutions.[11] On a global scale, in the United Nations, Costa Rica was a champion and a leading factor towards the creation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and other human rights related organs.[12] It is important to note that Costa Rica’s focus on human rights is based on good intentions and also is a strategy to become a reputable global leader on the issue.

One refutation to Costa Rica as a shining example of human rights was the nation’s decision, under the tenure of Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Oscar Arias Sanchez, to switch its diplomatic recognition of China from the human rights upholding Republic of China (Taiwan) to the undemocratic People’s Republic of China (Mainland China) in 2007.[13] In this case, Arias went against the will of the people, considering the popular consensus was in support of Taiwan and went against Costa Rica’s commitment to strengthen global human rights. Arias operated solely under the neo-realist thinking of being a rational actor, focused on acquiring more power (cash assistance from the Mainland), and enhancing the national interest of Costa Rica, while completely disregarding the Mainland’s shameful human rights record.[14] Choosing to establish diplomatic relations with the Mainland for cash assistance to help deliver his campaign promises on domestic infrastructure and development projects, Costa Rica’s reputation and authority, as a leader of safeguarding human rights, was significantly hindered. Nevertheless, this incident does not serve as a complete rebuke to Costa Rica’s longstanding commitment towards the issue.

Despite Arias’ failures in upholding human rights principles, in the mid-1980s, during his first presidency, he helped negotiate the Central American Peace Accord, which helped settle the decade-long conflicts within the sub-continent.[15] While the peace treaty did not have much enforcement mechanisms attached, it helped drastically improve the living conditions within Central America and helped promote the ideals of democracy and human rights. His leadership role towards the signing of the treaty earned him a Nobel Peace Prize and furthered Costa Rica’s international image as a peace-loving nation.[16] His peacebuilding diplomatic efforts help demonstrate that “a small and weak power operating in opposition to a hegemonic power can have a transformative impact on an international crisis.”[17] As a neutral state, Costa Rica has also served as a successful mediator of peace in Central America on other occasions.

Costa Rica is also home to the UN-mandated University for Peace (UPEACE), an intergovernmental organization created by a treaty and endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly with the mission to “provide humanity with an international institution of higher education for peace.”[18] It is one of the world’s leading higher education institutions in the fields of Peace and Conflict studies and Sustainable Peace studies. UPEACE is also a hub for diplomats from across the world to advance their careers in facilitating peace. Costa Rica was chosen primarily due to its longstanding commitment to peace and democracy. With their headquarters located in Costa Rica, the nation further developed its moral authority in peacebuilding and facilitating. As a regional peace facilitator and as the host of UPEACE, Costa Rica exemplifies itself as a leader in the field of peacebuilding.

While small states have not traditionally been a focus in IR literature, the increasing number of small states under the post-WWII liberal international order provides relevance to this sub-field of IR. Some small states who desire to become a meaningful player in the complex international arena choose to concentrate its resources on developing a positive reputation on certain globally recognized issues. In the instance of Costa Rica, the demilitarized and democratized nation chose to make human rights and peacebuilding its cornerstone issues and has successfully become the moral authority on both subjects not only in Central America but also across the world. Costa Rica is a perfect example to prove that small states are not marginal players in international politics.


Huan-Cheng (Thomas) Liu is a Freshman at the College of William & Mary studying Government and Finance. He is originally from Taiwan (R.O.C.) and resides McLean, Virginia, and takes an interest in the study of international development. 


[1] Iver B. Neumann and Sieglinde Gstöhl, “Lilliputians in Gulliver’s World? Small States in International Relations,” in Small States in International Relations ed. Christine Ingebritsen (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 9-13.

[2] Joseph A. Kechichian, “Oman: A Unique Foreign Policy Produces a Key Player in Middle Eastern and Global Diplomacy” RAND Corporation (1995),  www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB2501.html (accessed November 9, 2018).

[3] “World Bank Country and Lending Groups” World Bank Group (2018),  www.datahelpdesk.worldbank.org/knowledgebase/articles/906519-world-bank-country-and-lending-groups (accessed November 9, 2018).

[4] Elizabeth Lang, “Christiana Figueres: ‘Costa Rica is in danger of losing what it’s gained’” The Taco Times (February 20, 2018),  www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB2501.html (accessed November 5, 2018).

[5] “Human Development Data (1990-2017)” United Nations Development Programme (2018), www.hdr.undp.org/en/data (accessed November 9, 2018).

[6] “Countries Elected Members of the Security Council” United Nations (2018), http://www.un.org/en/sc/members/elected.asp (accessed November 9, 2018).

[7] “Freedom in the World 2018” Freedom House (2018), http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2018 (accessed November 9, 2018).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Alison Brysk, “Global Good Samaritans? Human Rights Foreign Policy in Costa Rica,” Global Governance 11, no. 4 (2005): 449.

[10] “Defending Regional Human Rights Protection Mechanisms: The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Under Attack” Freedom House (November 8, 2012), https://freedomhouse.org/article/defending-regional-human-rights-protection-mechanisms-inter-american-commission-human-rights (accessed November 9, 2018).

[11] “The IIHR” IIHR, https://www.iidh.ed.cr/iidh-en/estrategia/quienes-somos (accessed November 9, 2018).

[12] Brysk, “Global Good Samaritans,” p.447-448.

[13] “For the sake to uphold the national interests and dignity of the country, the government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) has decided to terminate formal relations with the Republic of Costa Rica and cease all cooperation projects between the two countries” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan) (June 7, 2007) https://www.mofa.gov.tw/en/News_Content.aspx?n=0E7B91A8FBEC4A94&s=540CFBE74B432D89 (accessed November 9, 2018).

[14] Otto von Feigenblatt, “Costa Rica's Neo-realist Foreign Policy: Lifting the Veil Hiding the Discursive Co-optation of Human Rights, Human Security, and Cosmopolitan Official Rhetoric.” Paper presented at the International Journal of Arts & Sciences Conference, Orlando, Florida (2009): 1.

[15] John Peeler, “Costa Rica: Neither Client nor Defiant,” in Latin American and Caribbean Foreign Policy, ed. Frank O. Mora and Jeanne A.K. Hey (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003), 29-30.

[16] Ibid., p.30.

[17] Ibid., p.35.

[18] “Mission and Vision” University of Peace, https://www.upeace.org/pages/mission-and-vision (accessed November 9, 2018).

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