In a previous column, I noted that there are currently several tiny sovereign states scattered across Europe such as Liechtenstein that are fulfilling unique and irreplaceable roles as far as traditional European powers are concerned.
Another prime example of these small countries is the tiny European republic of San Marino, which is located in the northeastern corner of Italy and has been in existence as an independent political entity for more than a thousand years.
Smaller in size than Hong Kong Island with a population of around 30,000, San Marino has been of particular interest to international relations experts.
The tiny republic is a textbook example of how a small sovereign state manages to survive and prevail in world politics by being able to walk a careful line among the great powers and hedge its bets right.
San Marino saw its biggest ever diplomatic crisis in the mid-19th century, when the unification movement on the Italian peninsula was in full swing.
At one point, its annexation by the newly unified Italy appeared both imminent and inevitable.
Luckily, however, San Marino managed to ride out the crisis intact and maintain its status as a sovereign state, thanks to its hospitality towards Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the founding fathers of modern Italy, when he was taking refuge in the republic after having suffered a major military defeat.
However, by providing sanctuary for Garibaldi and his defeated army, San Marino had rattled the cages of both the Pope and the Austrian Empire under the House of Habsburg, both of which were key players in the war of unification in Italy.
Deeply grateful to San Marino for its great help in his times of difficulties, Garibaldi, along with Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of the unified Italy, eagerly agreed to uphold the status quo and guarantee the independence of the republic.
Meanwhile, San Marino also quickly extended the olive branch to both the Pope and Austria in a bid to mend fences by disarming Garibaldi’s army which was still staying on its soil at the time and handing over all the weapons to the two.
As a matter of fact, the chief guiding principle that governed San Marino’s foreign policies in those days was that the country must always grant political asylum to “dead-enders”.
As the political balance on the Italian peninsula was constantly shifting throughout the 19th century, there were simply no permanent victors or losers. And the best way for San Marino to hedge its bets was to always play both sides.
In the 19th century, there were no such things as the League of Nations or the United Nations to uphold international order, not to mention that the definition of “sovereign states” still remained pretty vague.
But the leaders of San Marino in those volatile days already had the foresight to seek a guarantee for their country’s continued independence by relying on a new international order.
It is against this background that San Marino eagerly approached the youngest and biggest democracy at that time, the United States, and aligned itself with Washington.
In 1861, the chief executive of San Marino wrote an official letter to US President Abraham Lincoln, in which he proposed “special relations” between the two countries and offered Lincoln an honorary citizenship.
In his written reply, Lincoln accepted the honorary citizenship, and said that he had been deeply inspired by San Marino’s democratic system.
In fact, some historians believe that the moral cause championed by Lincoln during the American Civil War could have had its origin, at least partly, in the millennium-old democratic values embraced by San Marino.
Today, the bust of Lincoln erected in 1932 is still a must-see tourist attraction in San Marino, and serves as a strong “reminder” of the country’s powerful foreign support.
San Marino has been able to survive the political chaos and foreign aggression in Europe over the centuries and still remains an undisputed sovereign state today, whereas most of the other medieval European city-states have long been gone.
This is definitely a testimony to the political wisdom of its rulers.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 14
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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