The Importance of Small-State Leadership in 2018

Cody Given

January, 2018

Gender equality protest in Reykjavik in 2005

Gender equality protest in Reykjavik in 2005


New Year’s Eve means different things to different people. Often it comes with celebrations of hope for the coming year and, for some, the end of 2017 means putting to rest a year filled with questions about themselves, their beliefs and surroundings, including what it means to be a human in 2018. The New Year brought uncertainty around the globe, in large part due to a political wave that continues to reverberate around the world that often laughs in the face of progressive action, and seems reminiscent to a past where the rights of few matter more than the rights of all. With all of this uncertainty, a glimmer of hope came from what is perhaps an unexpected place.

On January 1st, the Legislature of the small North Atlantic country of Iceland, with a population smaller than London, Ontario, brought forth new legislation making it illegal for multinational corporations operating in Icelandic territory to pay women at a lower rate than their male counterparts.

The legislation makes it mandatory for companies with more than 25 full-time employees to analyze their salary structures on a regular basis to confirm that men and women receive identical compensation for identical work. Employers will be required to scrutinize employees’ salaries every three years to make certain that these requirements are being followed.

According to the New York Times, the new government leader Katrin Jakobsdottir has enjoyed broad support among the Icelandic people. In November, with 43.6 percent of survey respondents wished to see her to be Iceland’s new Prime Minister.

Iceland is a relatively small nation-state that often exists under the international radar. Rarely does a story about Iceland make its way into Western headlines and media outlets, however, this recent piece of legislation made its rounds across the globe, being reported in the New York Times, The Guardian, and other major news sources. With the small country of Iceland being able to make global headlines, it makes one wonder how much influence smaller states can have on global politics, and if these states can be leaders on global issues moving forward.

Over the past few years we have seen a dramatic change in the overall tone of international relations, which is in large part a result of the current President of the United States’ fondness for Twitter insults, threats and overall antagonistic behavior. This is what global politics in 2018 has become. Frequently engaging in a war of words, the current US President has a tendency towards escalation, which is leaving the rest of the world unsure of whether a global political power structure even exists. Many countries feel they can no longer look to the United States for guidance, and many believe this to be true for the United Kingdom as well. The enlightened leaders of years past no longer exist, and this leaves an opening for smaller states to look to each other for guidance and leadership. Iceland, and states like it, can now become leaders in their own right.

Small states have always played an important role in international politics, but the power of their voice has more potential now than ever before. The relationships between small and large states are primarily one-sided, with smaller countries often being used by larger global powers to either maintain or expand their sphere of influence. In the case of Iceland, their legislation on pay equality is an example of how influential smaller states can be. While relatively few people view Iceland as an influential country on the global scale, being the first state to introduce common-sense pay equity legislation can open the door for other small or middle-power states to pursue their own version.

This development can also act as a way to put pressure on other countries to follow suit, as the media has made this a prominent story that has gained a lot of traction, which may influence citizens within countries like Canada to pressure their own government to do more in terms of how they deal with pay inequalities. Many citizens in Canada voted for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party in 2015 for their stance on issues like pay equality, however, very little concrete action has been done to ensure these rights are protected. Like many large nations of the world, perhaps the Canadian government would be best served by looking to Iceland for an example of how to implement this long-needed change.

With the United States and their President insisting on operating outside of the norm with their international partners, there is now a void that is presenting itself to the country, or countries, who are willing to fill a role in being leaders on social issues. Iceland’s new legislation can act as a beacon of hope for countries around the world looking to pursue similar laws ensuring equality of pay across genders. Smaller countries like Iceland, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian states could now fill a larger role on the world stage, with the ability to look to each other for guidance, and hope.

As largely proven through Canada’s slow rise to becoming a global influencer of democratic principles, it is evident that there is room on the world stage for smaller countries like Iceland to continue to lead by example. The potential for small states to be influential in 2018 goes beyond just a single policy and the example of Iceland should give hope to the rest of the world that large issues can be tackled by small states.