Published by EH.Net (April 2020)

Jari Eloranta, Eric Golson, Peter Hedberg, and Maria Cristina Moreira, editors, Small and Medium Powers in Global History: Trade, Conflicts, and Neutrality from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Centuries. London: Routledge, 2018. x + 240 pp. $124 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-138-74454-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Tobias Straumann, Department of History, University of Zurich


History is usually written by the victors, and since military victory is often linked to troop size and economic capacity, the victors are usually great powers. As a result, our memory tends to be biased towards a narrow understanding of war and victory, leading us to underestimate the fact that even great powers need alliances with small and medium nations in order to succeed. This book, edited by Jari Eloranta, Eric Golson, Peter Hedberg, and Maria Cristina Moreira, aims at drawing a more realistic picture of the role played by weaker states during greater conflicts and thereby fostering new research. Weakness is defined by relatively low military capacity and relatively high trade openness. The ten contributions study crucial episodes of European countries, the United States, and Brazil from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. As the editors write in the introduction, the main argument of most chapters is that weak states were able to expand their trade and discover new markets, thus increasing their economic importance for belligerents.

Part I deals with the interplay of trade and conflict in the long run, with most contributions focusing on the Napoleonic Wars. Jeremy Land, Jari Eloranta, and Cristina Moreira investigate the evolution of American trade from 1783 to 1830 when the United States were not a great, but a medium power on the world stage. The authors show that the U.S. was able to expand its trade despite difficult circumstances. Silvia Marzagalli studies the U.S. case during the same period, but concentrates on the American shipping and trade in the Mediterranean, which increased enormously from 1793 to 1815. She highlights the crucial role of American neutrality, not as a clear-cut status, but as a negotiable and flexible stance towards war and the belligerent powers. Maria Cristina Moreira, Rita Martins de Sousa, and Werner Scheltjens analyze commercial relations between Portugal and Russia from 1750 to 1850 and show how conflicts, blockades, and institutional problems hampered direct trade. Rodrigo da Costa Dominguez and Angelo Alves Carrara study the effects on the Napoleonic Wars on the governance of Brazil as a part of the Portuguese empire. On the basis of fiscal sources, the authors show how the shift of the Portuguese Court from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in 1808 was conditioned by the introduction of the Continental Blockade in 1806 and the desire of the Portuguese authorities to maintain their neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars. Peter Hedberg and Henric Häggqvist explain the patterns of Swedish trade and tariffs from 1800 to 1920, with a special focus on the opportunities created by Swedish neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War and World War I. Their data suggests that all three conflicts had a significant impact on Swedish trade and trade policy, positively as well as negatively, and that, overall, neutrality helped, but was not important enough to counteract the totality of war, especially during World War I.

Part II investigates the interaction between trade and neutrality in conflicts in the twentieth century. Eric Golson discusses the evolution of the concept of neutrality in wartime. He starts in the early 1600s, when Hugo Grotius came up with a first vague definition, explains how the Hague and Geneva Conventions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries institutionalized the concept, and describes its collapse in World War I, giving way to a “new realism.” Consequently, in World War II small and medium neutrals (Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland) were forced to make trade, labor, and capital concessions in order to preserve their territorial integrity. Knut Ola Naastad Strøm analyses how Norway coped with the western blockade of Germany during World War I. He shows how in the first half of the war neutrality and prosperity went hand in hand, while in the second half of the war the tightening of the western blockade drastically reduced Norwegian exports to Germany and imports from the UK and the U.S. Eric Golson and Jason Lennard investigate the impact of World War I on the Swedish economy by studying the history of the ball bearings manufacturer SKF. They find that World War I greatly benefited the company, as it increased its capital stock and provided a long-term dominating position in the international market for ball bearings in the 1920s. In a further chapter, both authors try to capture the macroeconomic effects of neutrality on the Nordic countries by calculating the long-term real output trend between 1900 and 1960 and measuring output gaps for the war periods. Their results suggest that the Nordic countries suffered only mildly from World War I, but significantly from World War II, while recovery was much swifter after 1945 than after 1918. Niklas Jensen-Eriksen deals with the role of neutrality in the 1950s, asking how successful the U.S. and its allies were in incorporating European neutrals (Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, Ireland) within their export control system. His survey shows that neutrals hardly resisted U.S. demands for cooperation, even if it ran against their principles of neutrality. In the early years of the Cold War, the U.S. was economically too dominant to be ignored.

Toshiaki Tamaki and Jari Ojala conclude the volume with an analytical summary and raise the question of how the historical experiences of small and medium-sized Western countries can be linked to a global history of neutrality and the contemporary reality in which larger units beyond the nation state have become increasingly more important.

Overall, the book succeeds in correcting the conventional picture of the role played by small and medium-sized states during major conflicts. The contributions which compare several countries and make analytical points provide especially valuable insights. The endorsement by Patrick O’Brien in the short foreword is highly deserved. On the other hand, as is often the case with edited volumes, the analytical level and the approaches adopted by the authors are quite diverse, and the unifying themes are not always as strongly visible as the reader would wish. Although the introduction and the concluding remarks go a long way towards bringing the contributions together, the main hypotheses remain general. Moreover, the title implying a global view overstates the range of the volume, as the focus clearly stays on the Western world with a particular emphasis on the experience of the Nordic countries. Nevertheless, the book makes a powerful contribution to a more nuanced understanding of war, trade, and neutrality, and deserves to be widely cited. Future research dealing with the economic history of the Napoleonic War and the world wars of the twentieth century should pay more attention to the importance of trade networks entertained by the great belligerent powers.


Tobias Straumann is Senior Lecturer of Economic History at the University of Zurich. He is the author of 1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler (Oxford University Press, 2019) and Fixed Ideas of Money: Small States and Exchange Rate Regimes in Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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