By David Clark

What kind of role could an independent Scotland reasonably aspire to in world affairs?

Would it enjoy a position of international influence with the ability to shape events in its interests, as advocates of independence claim? Or would “little Scotland”, as Sir Malcolm Rifkind argued last week, be “a very lonely place”, shorn of allies and condemned to the diplomatic margins?

The first thing to recognise is that size of population, although important, is only one factor among many in determining a country’s power and influence on the global stage. Others include economic strength, technological development, natural resources, educational attainment, military effectiveness and geopolitical location, together with more intangible expressions of ‘soft power’, such as cultural attractiveness.

Viewed in the round, Scotland enjoys attributes that can be compared favourably with those of other similar sized countries that have succeeded in establishing a significant international presence.

It has high levels of economic and human development, a strong technological base, stable institutions, an established military tradition, abundant natural resources and a clear ‘brand’ identity.

It also occupies an important geopolitical position close to the Arctic Circle and astride the maritime transport routes linking North America with Europe. It is sometimes asked whether Scotland would be allowed to join NATO, but it makes just as much sense to consider whether NATO could afford to keep Scotland out.

There are plenty of examples of small states exerting disproportionate influence in foreign affairs. We have seen it most recently in the international response to Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The largest donors of aid to Ukraine relative to GDP have been Estonia and Latvia. Crucial weapons supplies have also come from countries like Norway and the Czech Republic. Sweden and Finland are about to be welcomed into the NATO fold, not as an act of charity but because it is recognised that both countries will strengthen the Alliance’s collective defences.

The leadership of these small countries has been moral as much as material, galvanising the West to counter Putin’s aggression and shaming larger countries that have contributed less.

The resources a country has at its disposal will always be an important determinant of its global standing, but just as important is how effectively a country deploys those resources.

The small states that thrive are those able to compensate for their relative lack of size with intelligently designed policies that make the most of the assets they possess. There is every reason to think that an independent Scotland could be just as successful and influential provided it understood and applied certain principles.

The first is to recognise that leadership is something that can only be exercised though multilateral engagement rather than asserted unilaterally. Even the United States at the zenith of its power following the end of the Cold War required the co-operation and support of other countries to achieve its goals.

The smaller the country, the more important multilateral alliances become as a means of amplifying their voice. These can either involve small states joining forces to aggregate their power or alliances with larger states, often on an issue-specific basis. Either way, influence for a country of Scotland’s size depends on the quality of the relationships it is able to build.

A second principle, flowing logically from the first, is that small states must seek to maximise their influence by contributing to the common good. A wise old diplomat told me on joining the Foreign Office in 1997 that there were two sorts of country in the world; problem solvers and problem makers.

The problem solvers enjoy popularity and influence because, stripped of the high politics, the international community works much like any other community. Members who make a positive contribution and help to improve the lives of those around them benefit from bonds of reciprocal good will, whereas no one wants to associate with those who are selfish or disruptive. Small states must therefore seek, as far as possible, to be problems solvers, offering practical solutions to international challenges.

The third principle is specialisation. Resource constraints mean that small states have to be more selective in the issues they take up, however this often translates into a more intense focus on the things that really matter.

The important thing is to prioritise areas where expertise and other assets give small states a comparative advantage over others. Norway and Finland have developed strong reputations in the field of conflict resolution, Sweden focusses heavily on humanitarian assistance and Ireland is know for its contribution to international peacekeeping.

Good ideas for what an independent Scotland could prioritise have already been suggested. SNP defence spokesperson, Stewart McDonald, has talked of developing a specialist capability in the field of military medicine. Nicola Sturgeon’s ambition to make Scotland a leader in renewable energy is a natural fit with its interests and attributes.

One area where Scotland could have an important contribution to make is in the field of international law and the promotion of initiatives aimed at strengthening a rules-based world order.

Small states have an obvious interest in defending the rule of law in international relations and Scotland has a strong legal tradition and resources to draw on in making itself a thought leader on a topic that certainly requires more global focus and attention. A post-independence Scottish government working in partnership with academia and civil society could do a lot of valuable work in making that happen.

Although an independent Scotland wouldn’t be able to replicate the global influence and reach of the UK, it could certainly expect a more significant international role than it currently enjoys as part of the UK.

After all, on the most important foreign policy question we have faced in a generation – Brexit – Scotland’s voice counted for nothing. There is ample evidence from the experience of other countries to suggest that it could do better as an independent force in the world.

David Clark was special adviser to Robin Cook at the Foreign Office 1997-2001. He now works as an independent foreign affairs consultant.