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What is Unique About Luxembourg?

What is Unique About Luxembourg?


There is a question, a war between frameworks that is becomingfought in the shelled-out fields of International Relations, over a concept that perhaps forms the basis for its existence: perception. Perception and optics form the foundation of the situations, stresses, and decisions that determine the outcomes of both historically applauded and vilified, but always monumental, global events. It was this question posed to the “International Relations Gone Viral” class at Amherst College on October 4th, during the class’s discussion about unipolarism and hard and soft power. “Under what perspectives, conditions and frameworks would it be more probable for Luxembourg’s stance about a divisive global event to matter more than China’s stance?” 

Charles IV, the 14th-century Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia from the House of Luxembourg

Upon first glance, the immediate outlook for Luxembourg’s case is bleak, and without relevance to class material. Luxembourg is a country with less than a thousandth of China’s population and land, and a hundredth of its GDP. In any conceivable sense of the word “reputation” in an inherently anarchic system of diplomatic cache, Luxembourg seems hard-pressed to defend against China’s might. However, upon deeper analysis of two of the three fundamental frameworks that govern IR, liberalism and realism, an answer becomes clearer.

Moravscik, in his essay on international liberalism, states that “Liberalism…is a “systemic” theory, […] one in which foreign policy results from the convergence and divergence of state preferences or “purposes”, not relative capabilities”1. This perspective stands in contrast to Mearsheimer’s realist framework that demands that “states cannot depend on others for their own security”2 due to the constant struggle between states for political power, and constant clashing of capabilities in order to gain political power. In essence, this contrast shows that a liberalist framework, at its core, supports the alignment of nations due to factors such as institutional ideology, rather than a realist’s concerted effort to balance international political power. 

These perspectives reveal base differences in the frameworks that determine the rationale for alliances between nations and ultimately, Luxembourg’s situation. October 4th notes on unipolarism discuss how liberal frameworks often emphasize regime type and institutional solidarity as a primary factor in determining alliances, rather than political power, due to the liberal focus on institutions, rather than states, as the primary actors of an international system. This liberal framework stands in contrast to a realist framework, which emphasizes states as the primary actor, with the only consideration of these states being their relative political power when compared to other states. The liberal framework that remains the key determinant for Western alliances propels the importance of Luxembourg’s opinion over China’s opinion on certain issues, and under certain conditions. By choosing to use a liberal framework to analyze China and Luxembourg’s international status, a case for Luxembourg begins to shine through. 

The question of the cases in which Luxembourg’s opinion matters more than China’s looks at how the fundamental frameworks, actors, and types of power determine how countries are perceived within international relations, and their relative importance when compared with other states. By being a member of the western world order, Luxembourg can rely on other countries to flip the system and position that it finds itself in. After establishing Luxembourg’s position within the liberal, global framework, the actor that determined the international framework that Luxembourg operates within must be specified.

Moreover, a unipole is a state that is the most powerful, with no other states being able to threaten its power, and how the United States is arguably the world’s sole unipole. By being the unipole and the world’s hegemon, the United States has built the international world order over the past 2 decades.

However, a world with only a unipole is inherently unstable due to the imbalance of power. Martha Finnemore acknowledges that “the United States, arguably the closest thing to a unipole we have seen in centuries, has been frustrated in many of its policies since it achieved that status at the end of the Cold War…some sources of this frustration may be embedded in the logic of contemporary unipolarity itself.” China is perceived as a rising power on the global stage, one that is a “potential peer competitor” that is “on the rise”3 when compared with the world’s current unipole, the United States. When comparing relative power capabilities, China seems to be on par with the US, thus, it seems reasonable under a realist framework that the US should listen often to China. However, that is not how the US has structured its world order. 

The question of status is relevant to the field of international relations because it explores how smaller and weaker states may still have a larger impact and influence on certain events and topics than larger and more powerful states, despite the apparent weaknesses of the smaller state. The relevance of Luxembourg being compared to China is tied to the relevance of the United 

Cantons of Luxembourg: 1 = Capellen Canton, 2 = Clervaux Canton, 3 = Diekirch Canton, 4 = Echternach Canton, 5 = Esch-sur-Alzette Canton, 6 = Grevenmacher Canton, 7 = Luxembourg Canton, 8 =Mersch Canton, 9 = Redange Canton, 10 = Remich Canton, 11 = Vianden Canton, 12 = Wiltz Canton

States, since the status of the unipole and of the unipole’s allies, as well as their framework, determines the current world order. Two of the mechanisms that determine the relevance of Luxembourg within the United States’s contemporary unipolarity are the functions of legitimacy 3 Nuno Monteiro, “Unrest Assured:Why Unipolarity is not Peaceful”, 10-11.

and institutionalization within a unipolar power system. According to Martha Finnemore, “unipoles must legitimate [power] and in the act of legitimating their power, unipoles must diffuse [power].” Western unipoles like the United States diffuse their power by delegating it to allies, such as “…powerful Western states …[these states] use rational-legal authorities—law, rules, institutions—to do at least some of the legitimation work. Unipoles can create these institutions and tailor them to suit their own preferences. Indeed, the U.S. expended a great deal of energy doing exactly this kind of rational-legal institution building in the era after WWII.”4 

Luxembourg is a member state of both the EU and NATO, thus being firmly entrenched within the US’s system of western alliances. As such, the US has diffused certain powers and legitimacy to Luxembourg that China does not have, at least in the eyes of the United States. The system of US alliances and the liberal framework that democracies such as the US maintains determine that allies like Luxembourg may matter more to the US rather than adversaries like China on certain issues, due to institutional and ideological alignment. 

I argue that what explains the conditions that are required in order for Luxembourg’s stance about a divisive global event to matter more than China’s stance is if the country receiving both stances and making the value judgment is a democratic unipole allied with Luxembourg, and the global event in question is one that is more relevant to soft power capabilities rather than hard power capabilities. This is the case because of the liberal framework and distribution of institutions that Western unipoles and hegemons, like the US, build their international systems around, rather than relative power capabilities. This reliance on institutions means that in soft power situations where a military response is not necessary, Luxembourg’s opinion on a global issue may matter more to the US than China’s. 

For example, during the original COVID-19 outbreak, vaccines became of utmost importance to distribute and negotiate, in order to prevent the virus’s impacts from spreading to more global communities. These distributions became determined by vaccine diplomacy, or the use of vaccines to increase the influence of a country. If the institutions within the United States decided to implement a new vaccine distribution program. In addition, that plan then criticized by China’s institutions but supported by Luxembourg’s. Thus, these soft power plays operating under a liberal framework would allow for the US’s status as a unipole to derive legitimacy from Luxembourg’s support, thus strengthening both the US and Luxembourg’s institutions.

China, on the other hand, is an entity that tries to combat the US’s world order, thus, their opinion on a topic that deals with institutional relations would matter much less, as the liberal framework demands that the US’s institutions derive no legitimacy from China’s statements, positive or not. As COVID-19 and the vaccine represented a divisive global event with states using vaccine diplomacy in order to increase their influence, it represents a perfect example of how Luxembourg’s opinion may matter more than China’s, when the one making the judgment is the United States. 

There are a few counter arguments to this claim of Luxembourg’s relevance. The first is the prominence of international organizations and institutions over individual states (particularly weaker and smaller states) in the liberal framework. For example, when the US supports its allies, it is most often doing so through the lens of supranational organizations such as the United Nations, European Union and NATO. These international organizations form the foundation of the liberal framework, as well as being the primary form of multilateral communication that the US tries to use. Thus, Luxembourg and other smaller countries often become subsumed into these umbrella organizations when trying to communicate with the United States, having little individual power to sway international diplomacy.

Signs in front of the Centre Drosbach on the Cloche d’or, in the city of Luxembourg.

Moreover, this caveat ensures that the United States can continue to exercise consistent influence on its allies, with little regard to the externalities that result from individual, state interests. In addition to the loss of national decision-making, the prominence of institutions within a liberal framework could lead to both domestic and supranational “political institutions [incorporating] other, more subtle biases of interest articulation, such as those favoring short-term interests, encouraging inefficient decision making or distorting preferences on single issues through the selective mobilization of interests.”5

Furthermore, even within these supranational organizations, the voices of larger, more powerful states may dominate those of smaller states. Germany and France’s diplomatic opinion, due to their leadership and hard power, likely matters more to the overall opinion of the European Union than Luxembourg’s opinion. These discrepancies that exist between individual states, even at an supranational level, show how hierarchy prevents the interests of states like Luxembourg from being as powerful as China. Although the European Union as a whole may be on somewhat equal diplomatic footing with the world’s foremost powers, its existence as an organization and not a state presents its member states with challenges. 

However, these explanations fail to take into account the emphasis the United States places on self-determination and individualism of its allied nations. The US is still likely to consider Luxembourg’s individual opinion on certain topics using regular diplomatic channels, rather than multilateral ones, if the topic is specific to Luxembourg. 

Another counter argument to Luxembourg’s relevance is the lack of historical testing for the liberal framework, under which Luxembourg’s relevance operates under. According to Moravscik, “Even those social scientists who have contributed the most to our current understanding of Liberal international relations theory sometimes treat it as inherently more 5 Moravcsik, 10. normative than explanatory.

Historic map (undated) of Luxembourg City’s fortifications.

Robert Keohane, for example, contends that Liberal theories cannot meet the social scientific standards of parsimony set, if not always attained, by Realism.”6

If the United States’s system of liberal alliances become shaken, which will almost certainly happen because of the inherent instability of a unipolar system. As a result, Luxembourg’s relevance as a source of legitimacy for the United States would also become shaken. When compared to China, the soft power approach taken by Luxembourg and other European countries seems far more dependent on the United States. By relying on a unipole, the foundations of Luxembourg’s diplomatic approach seem far weaker when compared to China’s independent, hard power foundation. 

However, by relying on the European Union and NATO, Luxembourg ties itself to the western world order, thus guaranteeing itself safety without the cost of having to individually maintain a hard power foundation. By doing so, Luxembourg is able to focus on strengthening the institutions that protect it at a far lower cost than if the hard power alternative was pursued. 

The question of Luxembourg’s diplomatic standing when compared to China raises questions about the use and relevance of a liberal framework over a realist one when analyzing the anarchic state of international relations. Soft and hard power oftentimes clash to determine the superiority of one system over the other. By operating in a liberal framework, Luxembourg can gain increased diplomatic and soft influence when dealing with states that choose to view international relations with similar frameworks. 

Written by Josh Kim

1 Andrew Moravcsik, “Liberalism and International Relations Theory.” (Google Books, Center for International Affairs, Harvard University), 12.

2 John Mearsheimer, “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power”, 56. 

3 Nuno Monteiro, “Unrest Assured:Why Unipolarity is not Peaceful”, 10-11.

4 Martha Finnemore, “LEGITIMACY, HYPOCRISY, AND THE SOCIAL STRUCTURE OF UNIPOLARITY Why Being a Unipole Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be”, 60.

5 Moravcsik, 10.

6 Moravcsik, 3

Works Cited