Why is status central to understand how international clubs like the G20 and G7 work? Dr Tristen Naylor, a Fellow in the Department of International Relations, explains ‘international social closure’ theory from his new book, Social Closure and International Society.
Before he became an academic, Dr Naylor worked for the Canadian government in foreign policy. These career experiences highlighted the contrast between how academics studied international relations and how diplomats carried out their work.
Dr Naylor says: “This divide underpinned my doctoral research and served as one motivation for this book. How diplomats understand status and membership in international clubs like the G7 and G20 is fundamentally different from how such things are written about in the academic literature.”
“Both solitudes have something important to say, and my research is in part about bridging the divide between them so that we can better explore questions about status and international hierarchies.”
The book focuses on the workings of international status groups, from the club of great powers in the 19th century to the G20 today, each established to help provide stability in the face of international crises.
In the case of the G20, while it was first established to respond to the global financial crisis, the group endures to help countries come to agreement in areas such as financial regulation, anti-corruption, and climate change.
Dr Naylor says: “What’s especially interesting is looking at those countries who aren’t part of these international clubs, but who want to join in order to gain the status and privileges that come from membership."
Inside these groups, there is a lot of jockeying for position; all of this activity is related to status.”
International social closure is Dr Naylor’s theory to explain how membership in these international clubs functions, which he explains in an analogy with school friendships: “When you think about cliques in high-school, there are the cool kids, the jocks, and those of us who spent too much time the library. Each social group has different degrees of social power and social status within the school’s social hierarchy.”
So in the same way you might say, ‘how do I become one of the cool kids? Is it the clothes I wear? Is it the music I listen to?’ We can ask the same questions about states operating in the international arena.”
How do you get to be a great power and join the elite global clubs? Is that the size of the military, is it the size of the economy, or is it the activities you engage in and prioritise on the world stage?”
One country that Dr Naylor identifies as successfully enhancing its own status within the international community is Mexico. He says: “Mexico got into the G20 by presenting itself as a good global citizen. Its leaders embraced a foreign policy which was deemed to be cooperative and progressive to win support for their inclusion. They achieved this despite not being an obvious top ranking power, however you define it.”
Status can also help explain the internal political developments that leading global powers and members of the G7, such as France, Britain and America, have seen in recent years.
Populist uprisings, with surges in support for National Rally in France, the Brexit campaign in Britain, and the election of Donald Trump, have each shared a common theme of criticising the global clubs that each country is a member of.
Dr Naylor says: “The major grievances of these political campaigns concerns ideas around status. Think of the case of the American president, Donald Trump, who ran on the idea of making America great again. That was fundamentally about status and the feeling of being wronged, a reaction against what is perceived to be America’s declining status in the world.”
We can look at Brexit in exactly the same way, where a country feels it is not getting what is due to it. This in turn fuels very nationalist tendencies based on a sense of grievance.”
According to Dr Naylor, these developments do not bode well the advancement of a progressive global agenda. He says: “Whether in terms of the health of the global financial system, or when it comes to climate change, what this suggests is that these groups and clubs will need to focus their energies on maintaining status quo against countries that had previously been the champions of the global governance agenda.”
This means that there is unlikely to be further integration within these international clubs; instead we will see rear-guard actions that are just trying to keep hold of the international order as it exists now.”