(+855) 99841445/ 99 929 323
#24 Street 566, Boeung Kok 2, Toul Kork, Phnom Penh.


Shelter Theory and Cambodian Foreign Policy

ISSUE 2020
No 02
Release 19 February 2020
By Dr. Trond Gilberg

Executive Summary

  • Several Icelandic scholars have written an interesting volume examining the “shelter theory”, which attempts to conceptualize policy options for small states that cannot ensure their security and well-being on their own. They therefore seek “shelter” provided by a benefactor or protector. The theory is a variation on other, more familiar theories such as dependency theory, hegemony, and alliance theory, but shelter theory adds an important concept of societal shelter, namely the idea that protection sought or made available will be more likely, if there is a certain amount of commonality in culture, education and social mores between the shelter seeker and the shelter provider.
  • Cambodia is a small state, but it is not that small. Whereas Iceland has a small population and virtually no military establishment, Cambodia has sixteen million inhabitants and a strong military. The state from which Cambodia seeks support is one of the two global superpowers. While there are important differences between the Chinese and Cambodian societies, a form of “societal shelter” is provided by mutual respect and acceptance of sovereignty in politics and economics, which will presumably produce a win-win relationship. Thus, shelter theory as conceived by the Icelandic scholars has only limited relevance for Cambodia and other states in the region. At a time when massive changes are underway because of AI and 5G, we must seek further for conceptual guidance in a revolutionary new world.
  • Policy Options:

-Cambodia should maintain respect for sovereignty of all states; quest for mutual benefits in international relations, and non-interference in the internal politics of other states.

-Relations with partners in ASEAN and other regional fora should remain key aspects of Cambodia’s foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

-Shelter theory rationalizes Cambodia’s focus on strong relations with China, given insecurities in the world and region.

Shelter Theory and Small States

The predicament of small states in a world of major powers that are often in various forms of conflict with each other has preoccupied scholars of international relations for a considerable period of time. Serious efforts have been made to develop theories that can help explain and predict the behaviour of such states. These theories discuss matters such as hegemony as a form of relationship between small states and larger powers; other scholars explore asymmetrical relationships, and there is the well-known set of concepts developed by John Mearsheimer that examines ways in which small states attempt to reduce their risks and enhance their security by “bandwagoning”. “buckpassing”, and other devices in which the smaller state either joins the “bandwagon” or coalition of a larger patron, or attempts to get others to fight for it through “passing the buck” to somebody else.1 There is also dependency theory, which analyses asymmetrical relationships that turn to dependency and domination by one part of the relationship relative to the other, stronger part.2 Much of this literature is in the realist mode, which assumes that states are unitary actors, that they are rational actors, and that they therefore make cost-benefit analysis about their foreign policies, acting in ways that will produce more benefits than costs. Like all realist theories, a starting point is a basic international anarchy in world politics, where possible aggression is only tempered or hindered by a balance of power. “Power” in this view is primarily political, military, and economic. Furthermore, analysts in this mode generally do not distinguish between the realism guiding all states, big or small.

The problem of relations between smaller states and larger powers is a crucial one for Cambodia, given the geopolitical facts confronting the leadership in Phnom Penh, as it attempts to navigate the difficult and unsettled relations between the various actors of varying size regionally and globally. Are some of the theories mentioned above more appropriate than others, as guides to action? Is there a need for new or different thinking on this issue?

A number of Icelandic scholars have produced an interesting attempt to deal with this set of issues from a somewhat different perspective, using the history of the foreign relations of a very small state indeed (Iceland only has a few hundred thousand inhabitants in total) since World War II. In this effort they have produced a slim but interesting volume, entitled Small States and Shelter Theory: Iceland’s External Affairs, edited by Baldur Thorhallson, Professor of Political Science at the University of Iceland (London and New York: Routledge, 2019). In this volume, the authors argue a number of interesting points and criticisms of existing IR theories, and then proceed to propose their own theory, which they have entitled “shelter theory”. The argument on this point is that small states have inadequate power and resources to conduct a fully autonomous foreign policy. Because of this, their perception of reality is different from that of larger and more powerful states. In short, they must seek shelter from some other actor or actors, mostly larger and more powerful states (but also in some cases from the increasing institutionalization of international organizations, NGOs, and other entities in the global governance that now are increasingly powerful actors in their own right). This shelter is, predictably, political and security support and economic assistance, but the authors add another dimension, namely societal shelter, which has been little discussed in other theories. Societal shelter is a certain level of cultural commonality, perhaps developed though a common or similar history. Societal shelter is likely to make it easier to obtain needed assistance without becoming a client state of the protector. This aspect of shelter theory is considered very important, and it enhances the explanatory value of the theory while at the same time limiting its applicability, a point that I’ll discuss in further detail below.

Having set forth the basic aspects of shelter theory, the authors then examine the history of Iceland’s foreign policy in several distinct periods since WWII. The first is the American period, starting with the occupation of Iceland by US forces during the war and ending with the removal of American troops and the turning over of bases and other facilities by the US to Iceland in the early 2000’s. The US provided political and security shelter through strong defence ties and policies, and the presence of thousands of US servicemen and support personnel was crucial to the Icelandic economy, which was (and still is) primarily based on fisheries and the production and export of various aquatic products. But this relationship did not produce societal shelter. US culture, in various forms, was somewhat alien to the Icelandic tradition in the cultural sphere, and this meant that the US presence, while accepted as crucial to the security and wellbeing of the island, was also resented as Americanization and the hollowing out of the national cultural heritage. In passing, it should be mentioned that the American presence even in a culturally similar society such as the UK during WWII was resented by the locals, who used to say that the Yanks were overpaid, oversexed, and over here. If that was a problem in the UK, it is easy to understand that similar results of the American presence manifested themselves in Iceland as well.

The second period under consideration to some extent coincides with the American period, and became more important after the American departure. The shelter in this case was provided by the Nordic countries (especially Denmark and Norway, but also to some extent Sweden and to a lesser extent Finland). In this case, societal shelter was provided by a shared history (Iceland had been administered by Denmark until WWII), and many of the Icelanders could trace their ancestry back to the original settlers from Norway. Their languages were similar, to some extent, and the cultural “goods” of these societies corresponded closely with Icelandic culture. The problem was the fact that the Nordic countries by themselves were too small to produce adequate political/security shelter, and their markets, while important, could not absorb all of the Icelandic exports. Once again, adequate shelter was unavailable in this relationship.

Yet another area of shelter for Iceland was Western Europe overall, of which the Nordic countries are an integral part. Various multinational organisations housed in Western Europe, such as NATO, the European Economic Community and now the EU, fulfilled some of the criteria for shelter, as set forth by the authors of this volume. The EU, for example, is large enough to provide significant political/security shelter, and the integrated European market has always been an important buyer of Icelandic fish. The UK traditionally occupied an important position in Icelandic political and economic shelter. But several factors and events have limited the role of Western Europe and the UK as providers of multifaceted shelter for Iceland. The so-called “Cod War” between the UK and Iceland over fishing rights and territorial waters significantly soured the relationship for a considerable period of time. The Icelandic overexposure to international banking led to a collapse of the Iceland financial system, and Iceland’s plea for various bailout mechanisms were rejected by EU institutions and also by the US. In fact, the EU supported the Netherlands and the UK who pressured Iceland to provide a rescue plan for UK and Dutch citizens, whose assets had been wiped out during the Icelandic financial crisis. And the supranational tendencies of EU institution-building was incompatible with Icelandic nationalism and their quest for autonomy. Iceland found itself dependent on the EU and some other shelter providers for support in various policy areas with no opportunity to seriously influence the decision-making process that led to EU policy in relevant areas. Shelter implies some loss of autonomy; it is impossible to have full autonomy and shelter at the same time, or so it seemed in the case of Iceland. With Brexit, there is now renewed hope that stronger shelter can be sought in London in political/security and economic terms. And it is hoped in Iceland that the British emphasis on autonomy in Europe can be used to forge a strong relationship.

When it comes to societal shelter, Europe can only provide partial support. While the states of the European Union share certain basic values with Iceland, such as democracy and support of human rights, these very concepts are themselves being questioned in the EU, where some states are emerging as semi-authoritarian entities, limiting traditional aspects of human rights. Culturally, there is a gap between Greece and Portugal, for example, and Iceland, so societal shelter will be hard to achieve, except in very broad terms such as commitment to the nebulous concept of democracy and the problems of verbal adherence to human rights in principle but important violations in practice. Iceland’s quest for political/security shelter, economic shelter, and societal shelter at the same time remains elusive.

It is now time to evaluate the theory as theory, and then examine its applicability (or lack thereof) in specific cases. First of all, a theory should allow for the generation of hypotheses and the testing thereof. It should also have external validity, in the sense that one can generalize from it to other cases. There are other aspects of theory evaluation as well, but in the interest of space limitations, let us examine shelter theory on these two criteria. To this purpose – can one generate hypotheses from the theory? Insofar as “shelter” is defined in operational and measurable terms, the theory meets this criterion. But it is not clear that shelter is quite distinct from its component parts, such a security support or assistance, or political support and good will. There is also a problem with the definition of societal support, that presumes cultural similarities, common values, and educational compatibility. The combination of these three forms of shelter represents an innovation but at the same time limits its utility in practical terms.

After all, the Icelandic example shows that all of these forms are possible separately or in some combination, particularly of political/security and economic shelter, but not all at the same time or in the same relationships. Does this limit the utility of the theory conceptually? I think yes. And if the societal shelter requirement is left out, does the theory provide something that cannot be studied through alliance theory, collective security theory, the study of asymmetrical relationships, or dependency theory?

Another question may be raised on external validity. Iceland is a very small country in terms of some indicators of power. It has a small population, its economy is predominantly based on one area of activity (fishing and the export of fish products), it has limited natural resources outside of this area. Its main assets are geographical location, which were important in WWII, and also figured prominently in the Cold War, thinking as a central area that could significantly assist or hinder the US in its supply and resupply of armed forces in Europe or act as a barrier to the Soviet Northern Fleet in its attempts to break out into the Atlantic. This was certainly a basis for the US shelter provided throughout considerable periods during and after WWII until the end of the Cold War. But the strategic situation changes. Are the same critical points valid today, when the main global contest is between the US and some (not all) of her allies, on the one hand, and China, on the other? Put briefly, what does Iceland have that someone wants and needs enough to provide the kind of shelter sought? Another issue the question of size itself. Is it conceptually valid to assume that other small states, with more assets, can be expected to behave like Iceland? Is a country with a few hundred thousand inhabitants comparable to say, one of fifteen to sixteen million, like Cambodia? There is a saying that size matters. Is it also true that relative smallness matters?

Now to the issue of the relevance of this theory to Cambodia. Cambodia is relatively small, compared to some other states in the region such as its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, but comparable to Laos in terms of size and population. It is also true that Cambodia is excessively dependent on the garment industry for its economic wellbeing (but developments during the last few years have begun to diversify the economy to an important degree). But in terms of political and security shelter, Cambodia is quite different from Iceland. Until recently, Iceland did not even have a defence budget, producing extreme reliance on others in this field, while Cambodia has significant armed forces, with the military absorbing a large part of the state budget. Cambodia needs allies, and has them in ASEAN. Cambodia also needs a balancer in its relations with its neighbours, but Cambodia is strong enough to play a part in its own defence. And then there is location and timing. Cambodia is located in a region increasingly influenced by the giant and rising China. In order to understand Cambodia’s need for support in various forms, one must examine what the policies are of the chief contestants, China and the US. By comparison, Iceland was never directly caught in the competition between the US and the Soviet Union. And a much later attempt to approach China for assistance during the Icelandic financial crisis petered out in a relatively short time, part of it for lack of Chinese interest at the time.

Does Cambodia have an opportunity to obtain societal shelter as defined in the theory? On the face of it, this is not likely. Relations with its immediate neighbours have been touchy for a long time, as far back as the nineteenth century. There is still suspicion and popular resentment of alleged Thai arrogance, and we all know what “yuon” stands for despite officially friendly ties. In short, the cultural and educational affinity that Iceland has sought in the Nordic states is not here. Can Cambodia then find societal shelter in its relations with China?

When one examines the official statement by Chinese and Cambodian elites, there is an effort to establish compatibility and congruence of the goals and objectives in the foreign policies of both states. Both sides emphasize respect for sovereignty and mutual gains through their current and future relationship. Both sides are dedicated to mutual gain, to a win-win connection. If this is the case, both sides get what they want and need out of the relationship: Cambodia gets economic aid and assistance in development, and China gets rewards through the expansion of its sphere of influence. Cambodia further provides political support for China in disputes in the wider region, e.g. the problems of the South China Sea and the Chinese military and security expansion there. Cambodia gets Chinese support in ongoing disputes with the US, the EU, and other Western entities. Chinese investments in Cambodia clearly produce development, albeit with some drawbacks, such as accidents caused by shoddy construction, and also Chinese expansion into, and dominance of, traditional Cambodian economic activities. Presumably, the mutual respect pronounced by political and economic elites will be reflected in the people-to-people contacts of mass tourism originating in China. Above all, the Chinese leadership makes clear that it has no intention to interfere in the political matters of Cambodia, and the Western insistence on democracy (loosely defined) and human rights (ideas originating in the West) is disparaged, which is a welcome recognition of Cambodian sovereignty. All in all, this is certainly a win-win situation for Cambodia so far, and, presumably, for the Chinese in its quest for the expansion of political and economic influence. The danger of this relationship, which is asymmetrical, of developing into dominance does not need to be discussed here.

Lastly: Is shelter theory relevant in the present revolution called 5G? According to the discussion of 5G, the element of choice that small states are assumed to have in shelter theory will not be present as the 5G revolution proceeds. Instead, every country and its economic and informational infrastructure will be forced to choose between communication systems proffered by either the Chinese or the Americans. Efforts to “go it alone”, presumably exemplified by Vietnam, are unlikely to succeed. And 5G is not just about security and politics, or economics, or culture; 5G is going to change everything in massive way, thereby transforming all of the areas discussed in shelter theory, producing a new society for the future, with both great promises of progress and dire existential threats. For this revolution, we need a new, comprehensive theory of international relations.

Policy Options

1) Cambodia has well-established principles guiding her foreign policy: Respect for the sovereignty of all states; quest for mutual benefits in international relations, and non- interference in the internal politics of other states. These are principles that should be maintained, even in the face of challenges by others; in return, Cambodia should expect and demand reciprocity in its foreign relations.

2) Relations with partners in ASEAN and other regional fora should remain key aspects of Cambodia’s foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

3) Referring to shelter theory: It is rational for Cambodia to focus on strong relations with China, given the insecurities in the world and the region, and given somewhat strained relations with the US and the West, particularly in sensitive areas such as sovereignty, forms and procedures of the political and socio-economic system, and human rights. China can provide a form of “shelter” for Cambodia in such a situation.

The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute