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The world's five smallest sovereign states by area, from largest to smallest: San Marino, Tuvalu, Nauru, Monaco, and Vatican City shown in the same scale for size comparison
Map of the smallest states in the world by land area. Note many of these are not considered microstates

A microstate or ministate is a sovereign state having a very small population or very small land area, usually both. However, the meanings of "state" and "very small" are not well-defined in international law.[1] Some recent attempts to define microstates have focused on identifying qualitative features that are linked to their size and population, such as partial delegation of their sovereignty to larger states, such as for international defense.

Commonly accepted examples of microstates include Andorra, the Federated States of Micronesia, Liechtenstein, the Marshall Islands, Monaco, Palau, and San Marino. The smallest political entity recognized as a sovereign state is Vatican City, with less than 1,000 residents and an area of only 44 hectares (110 acres). Some microstates are city-states consisting of a single municipality.

Microstates are distinct from micronations, which are not widely recognized as sovereign states. Special territories without full sovereignty, such as the British Crown dependencies, the special administrative regions of China, and the overseas territories of various recognized states are also not usually considered microstates.



Most scholars identify microstates by using a quantitative threshold and applying it to either one variable (such as the size of its territory[2] or population[3]) or a composite of different variables.[4] While it is agreed that microstates are the smallest of all states, there is no consensus on what variable (or variables) or what cut-off point should be used to determine which political units should be labelled as "microstates" (as opposed to small "normal" states).[1][5][6][7] According to some scholars the quantitative approach to defining microstates suffers from such problems as "inconsistency, arbitrariness, vagueness and inability to meaningfully isolate qualitatively distinct political units".[5]

List of microstates — by area or population[edit]

Sovereign states with a non-EEZ area less than 1,000 km2 (386 sq mi)[8][9] [10][11] and/or with a population of less than 500,000 people[8]
Rank Country Area (km2 or sqmi) Population Density (pop./km2) Capital Continent Subregion
1   Vatican City 0.44 km2 (0.17 sq mi) 1,000 1913.6 Vatican City Europe Southern Europe
2  Monaco 2.02 km2 (0.78 sq mi) 37,308 18469.3 Monaco-Ville Europe Western Europe
3  Nauru 21 km2 (8 sq mi) 9,488 451.8 Yaren Oceania Micronesia
4  Tuvalu 26 km2 (10 sq mi) 10,782 414.7 Funafuti Oceania Polynesia
5  San Marino 61 km2 (24 sq mi) 32,742 536.8 San Marino Europe Southern Europe
6  Liechtenstein 160 km2 (62 sq mi) 37,313 233.2 Vaduz Europe Western Europe
7  Marshall Islands 181 km2 (70 sq mi) 70,983 392.2 Majuro Oceania Micronesia
8  Saint Kitts and Nevis 261 km2 (101 sq mi) 51,538 197.5 Basseterre Americas Caribbean
9  Maldives 298 km2 (115 sq mi) 393,595 1320.8 Malé Asia South Asia
10  Malta 316 km2 (122 sq mi) 514,564 1305.9 Valletta Europe Southern Europe
11  Grenada 344 km2 (133 sq mi) 110,152 320.2 St. George's Americas Caribbean
12  Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 389 km2 (150 sq mi) 102,918 264.6 Kingstown Americas Caribbean
13  Barbados 430 km2 (166 sq mi) 289,680 673.7 Bridgetown Americas Caribbean
14  Antigua and Barbuda 443 km2 (171 sq mi) 91,295 206.1 St. John's Americas Caribbean
15  Seychelles 455 km2 (176 sq mi) 91,650 201.4 Victoria Africa Eastern Africa
16  Palau 459 km2 (177 sq mi) 21,186 46.2 Ngerulmud Oceania Micronesia
17  Andorra 468 km2 (181 sq mi) 85,458 182.6 Andorra la Vella Europe Southern Europe
18  Saint Lucia 616 km2 (238 sq mi) 163,362 265.2 Castries Americas Caribbean
19  Federated States of Micronesia 702 km2 (271 sq mi) 105,681 150.5 Palikir Oceania Micronesia
20  Singapore 714 km2 (276 sq mi) 5,888,926 8247.8 Singapore Asia Southeast Asia
21  Tonga 747 km2 (288 sq mi) 106,440 142.5 Nukuʻalofa Oceania Polynesia
22  Dominica 751 km2 (290 sq mi) 73,449 97.8 Roseau Americas Caribbean
23  Bahrain 765 km2 (295 sq mi) 1,140,942 1491.4 Manama Asia Western Asia
24  Kiribati 811 km2 (313 sq mi) 104,488 128.8 Tarawa Oceania Micronesia
25  São Tomé and Príncipe 964 km2 (372 sq mi) 190,428 197.5 São Tomé Africa Central Africa
26  Samoa 2,831 km2 (1,093 sq mi) 196,628 69.5 Apia Oceania Polynesia
27  Brunei 5,765 km2 (2,226 sq mi) 422,675 73.3 Bandar Seri Begawan Asia Southeast Asia
28  Vanuatu 12,189 km2 (4,706 sq mi) 266,937 21.9 Port Vila Oceania Melanesia
29  Bahamas 13,880 km2 (5,359 sq mi) 321,834 23.2 Nassau Americas Caribbean
30  Belize 22,966 km2 (8,867 sq mi) 340,844 14.8 Belmopan Americas Central America
31  Iceland 103,000 km2 (39,769 sq mi) 317,351 3.1 Reykjavík Europe Northern Europe
- With the exception of The Bahamas, Belize, Brunei, Iceland, Samoa, and Vanuatu, all the above countries have a non-EEZ area less than 1,000 km2 (386 sq mi).
- With the exception of Malta, Bahrain and Singapore, all the above countries have fewer than 500,000 people.
Vatican City, the smallest independent country in Europe and in the world


Some academics have suggested defining microstates according to the unique features that are linked to their geographic or demographic smallness.[5][9][12] Newer approaches have proposed looking at the behaviour or capacity to operate in the international arena in order to determine which states should deserve the microstate label.[12][13] Yet, it has been argued[by whom?] that such approaches could lead to either confusing microstates with weak states[6][9] (or failed states) or relying too much on subjective perceptions.[5]

An alternative approach is to define microstates as "modern protected states".[5] According to the definition proposed by Dumienski (2014): "microstates are modern protected states, i.e. sovereign states that have been able to unilaterally depute certain attributes of sovereignty to larger powers in exchange for benign protection of their political and economic viability against their geographic or demographic constraints."[5] Adopting this approach permits limiting the number of microstates and separating them from both small states and autonomies or dependencies.[5] Examples of microstates understood as modern protected states include such states as Liechtenstein, San Marino, Monaco, Niue, Andorra, the Cook Islands or Palau.

The smallest political unit recognized as a sovereign state is Vatican City. However, Professor of International Law Maurice Mendelson disputes qualifying Vatican City as a state, arguing that it does not meet the "traditional criteria of statehood" and that the "special status of the Vatican City is probably best regarded as a means of ensuring that the Pope can freely exercise his spiritual functions, and in this respect is loosely analogous to that of the headquarters of international organisations."[14]

St. Kitts and Nevis, the smallest independent country in the Americas with 261 km2 (101 sq mi)


Statistical research has shown that microstates are more likely to be democracies than larger states. In 2012, Freedom House classified 86% of the countries with less than 500,000 inhabitants as "free".[15] This shows that countries with small populations often had a high degree of political freedom and civil liberties, which is one of the hallmarks of democracies. Some scholars have taken the statistical correlation between small size and democracy as a sign that smallness is beneficial to the development of a democratic political system,[16] mentioning social cohesiveness, opportunities for direct communication and homogeneity of interests as possible explanations for why this is the case.[15][17]

Seychelles, the smallest independent country in Africa with 455 km2 (176 sq mi)

Case study research, however, has led researches to believe that the statistical evidence belies the anti-democratic elements of microstate politics.[15][18] Due to small populations, family and personal relations are often decisive in microstate politics. In some cases, this impedes neutral and formal decision-making and instead leads to undemocratic political activity, such as clientelism, corruption, particularism and executive dominance.[15] While microstates often have formal institutions that are associated with democracy, the inner workings of politics in microstates are in reality often undemocratic.

The high number of democracies amongst microstates could be explained by their colonial history.[15][16] Most microstates adopted the same political system as their colonial ruler.[19] Because of the high number of microstates that were British colonies in the past, microstates often have a majoritarian and parliamentary political system similar to the Westminster system.[16] Some microstates with a history as British colony have implemented some aspects of a consensus political system, to adapt to their geographic features or societal make-up.[19] While the colonial history often determines what political systems microstates have, they do implement changes to better accommodate their specific characteristics.

Microstates and international relations[edit]

Microstates often rely on other countries in order to survive, as they have a small military capacity and a lack of resources. This had led some researchers to believe that microstates are forced to subordinate themselves to larger states which reduces their sovereignty.[20] Research, however, has shown that microstates strategically engage in patron-client relationships with other countries.[21] This allows them to trade some privileges to countries that can advance their interests the most. Examples of this are microstates that establish a tax haven or sell their support in international committees in exchange for military and economic support.[20]

Historical anomalies and aspirant states[edit]

A small number of tiny sovereign political units have been founded on historical anomalies or eccentric interpretations of law. These types of states, often labelled as "microstates," are usually located on small (usually disputed) territorial enclaves, generate limited economic activity founded on tourism and philatelic and numismatic sales, and are tolerated or ignored by the nations from which they claim to have seceded.

The Republic of Indian Stream – now the town of Pittsburg, New Hampshire – was a geographic anomaly left unresolved by the Treaty of Paris that ended the U.S. Revolutionary War, and claimed by both the U.S. and Canada. Between 1832 and 1835, the area's residents refused to acknowledge either claimant.

The Cospaia Republic became independent through a treaty error and survived from 1440 to 1826. Its independence made it important in the introduction of tobacco cultivation to Italy.

Maldives, the smallest independent country in Asia with 298 km2 (115 sq mi)

Couto Misto was disputed by Spain and Portugal, and operated as a sovereign state until the 1864 Treaty of Lisbon that partitioned the territory, with the largest part becoming part of Spain.

Jaxa was a small state that existed during the 17th century at the border between Tsardom of Russia and Qing China. Ironically, the language commonly used in the state was Polish.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Warrington, E. (1994). "Lilliputs Revisited". Asian Journal of Public Administration, 16(1).
  2. ^ Mehmet, O. & Tahiroglu, M., 2002. Growth and equity in microstates: Does size matter in development? International Journal of Social Economics, 29(1/2), pp.152–162.
  3. ^ Boyce, P.J. & Herr, R.A., 2008. Microstate diplomacy in the south pacific. Australian Outlook, (April 2012), pp.37–41.
  4. ^ Reid, G.L., 1975. Impact of Very Small Size on the International Behaviour of Microstates (International Studies), SAGE Publications Ltd.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Dumienski, Zbigniew (2014). "Microstates as Modern Protected States: Towards a New Definition of Micro-Statehood" (PDF). Occasional Paper. Centre for Small State Studies. Retrieved 2014-06-07. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  6. ^ a b Neemia, U., 1995. Smallness, islandness and foreign policy behaviour: aspects of island microstates foreign policy behaviour with special reference to Cook Islands and Kiribati. University of Wollongong.
  7. ^ Dommen, E., 1985. States, Microstates and Islands, Routledge Kegan & Paul.
  8. ^ a b "CIA – The World Factbook – Rank Order – Population". CIA. Retrieved 2012-06-05.
  9. ^ a b c Amstrup, N., 1976. The Perennial Problem of Small States: A Survey of Research Efforts. Cooperation and Conflict, 11(2), pp. 163–182.
  10. ^ "CIA – The World Factbook – Rank Order – Area". CIA. Retrieved 2008-06-20.
  11. ^ "Demographic Yearbook—Table 3: Population by sex, rate of population increase, surface area and density" (PDF). United Nations Statistics Division. 2008. Retrieved 2011-06-12. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  12. ^ a b Neumann, I.B. & Gstöhl, S., 2004. Lilliputians in Gulliver’s World ? Small States in International Relations.
  13. ^ Oest, K.J.N. & Wivel, A., 2010. Security, profit or shadow of the past? Explaining the security strategies of microstates. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 23(3), pp. 429–453.
  14. ^ Mendelson, M. H. (1972). "Diminutive States in the United Nations". The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 21(4), pp.609–630.
  15. ^ a b c d e Veenendaal, W. (2015). "Democracy in microstates: why smallness does not produce a democratic political system", Democratization, 22(1): 92-112.
  16. ^ a b c Anckar, D. (2004). "Regime Choices in Microstates: The Cultural Constraint", Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 42(2): 206-223.
  17. ^ Corbett, J. (2015). ""Everybody knows everybody": practising politics in the Pacific Islands", Democratization, 22(1): 51-72.
  18. ^ Erk, J. and Veenendaal, W. (2014). "Is Small Really Beautiful? The Microstate Mistake", Journal of Democracy, 25(3): 135-148.
  19. ^ a b Anckar, D. (2008). "Microstate Democracy: Majority or Consensus; Diffusion or Problem-Solving?", Democratization, 15(1): 67-85.
  20. ^ a b Sharman, J.C. (2017). "Sovereignty at the Extremes: Micro-States in World Politics", Political Studies, 65(3): 559-575.
  21. ^ Veenendaal, W. (2017). "Analyzing the Foreign Policy of Microstates: The Relevance of the International Patron-Client Model", Foreign Policy Analysis, 13(3): 561-577.

Further reading[edit]