Manoeuvring at the Margins

Constraints Faced by Small States in International Trade Negotiations

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Of enduring concern for small states are the numerous constraints they face in international trade negotiations. This study provides evidence that small states can still have an important influence over the outcomes of negotiations if they successfully identify and tackle these underlying constraints.

Building on existing scholarship, Manoeuvring at the Margins is the first attempt to thoroughly analyse the views of representatives from small states on the constraints they face in this area. The authors, led by Dr Ngaire Woods and Dr Carolyn Deere Birkbeck of the University of Oxford, highlight three areas where small states can maximise their potential influence: establishing an effective negotiating team by strengthening human resources; harnessing the support of civil society and the private sector; and improving negotiation strategies. The recommendations they provide will be useful in assisting trade policy-makers in small states to achieve greater success in WTO and other trade arenas.




For several decades, there has been considerable debate about the position of small states in the international trading system. Small states rely heavily on trade and are particularly vulnerable to changes in international trade rules. They thus have a high level of interest in the outcome of trade negotiations. At the same time, small states face power asymmetries and well-known structural economic and political constraints that heavily circumscribe the space within which they can manoeuvre. These constraints often produce pessimism about their prospects for success in international negotiations. Taken to the extreme, such assessments can lead to a view that ‘no amount of negotiating will make a difference’.


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