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Moral authority and status in International Relations: Good states and the social dimension of status seeking

  • William C. Wohlforth (a1), Benjamin de Carvalho (a2), Halvard Leira (a3) and Iver B. Neumann (a4)

We develop scholarship on status in international politics by focusing on the social dimension of small and middle power status politics. This vantage opens a new window on the widely-discussed strategies social actors may use to maintain and enhance their status, showing how social creativity, mobility, and competition can all be system-supporting under some conditions. We extract lessons for other thorny issues in status research, notably questions concerning when, if ever, status is a good in itself; whether it must be a positional good; and how states measure it.

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*Correspondence to: Halvard Leira, Senior Research Fellow, NUPI, PB 8159 Dept, 0033 Oslo, Norway. Author’s email:
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1 Renshon, Jonathan, Fighting for Status (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 3 .

2 de Carvalho, Benjamin and Neumann, Iver B. (eds), Small State Status Seeking (Milton Park: Routledge, 2015).

3 Renshon, Fighting for Status, p. 33.

4 Ibid., ch. 2.

5 Ringmar, Erik, Identity, Interest and Action: A Cultural Explanation of Sweden’s Intervention in the Thirty Years War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). See also Kristin Haugevik, ‘Status, small states and significant others: Re-reading Norway’s attraction to Britain in the twentieth century’, in De Carvalho and Neumann (eds), Small State Status Seeking, pp. 42–55.

6 De Carvalho and Neumann (eds), Small State Status Seeking.

7 Wallace, Michael D., ‘Power, status, and international war’, Journal of Peace Research, 1:1 (1971), pp. 2335 (p. 24); Lebow, Ned R., Why Nations Fight (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 74 .

8 Our claim is not that status concerns are constant – there are, for instance, obvious differences between satisfied states seeking to maintain status and aspiring states seeking to increase status. Thus, while we expect all states to be concerned about status, we see the scope and intensity of this concern as variable.

9 Dafoe, Allan, Jonathan Renshon, and Paul Huth, ‘Reputation and status as motives for war’, Annual Review of Political Science, 17 (2004), pp. 371393 .

10 Brow, Rupert and Haeger, Gabi, ‘Compared to what? Comparison choice in an inter-nation context’, European Journal of Social Psychology, 29 (1999), pp. 3142 .

11 Cline, K., Rhamey, J. P., Henshaw, A., Sedziaka, A., Tandon, A., and Volgy, T. J., ‘Identifying regional powers and their status’, in T. J. Volgy, R. Corbetta, K. A. Grant, and R. G. Baird (eds), Major Powers and the Quest for Status in International Politics: Global and Regional Perspectives (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011);

T. J. Volgy, P. Bezerra, J. Cramer, J. P. Rhamey Jr, ‘The case for comparative regional analysis in international politics’, International Studies Review (2017), available at: {www.}.

12 The Utstein Group itself was initiated by Norwegian Minister of International Development Hilde Frafjord Johnson in 1998, and can be seen as an attempt to institutionalise Norway’s peer group.

13 Frank, Robert H., Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

14 Volgy et al. (eds), Major Powers and the Quest for Status in International Politics.

15 Given our argument is that small and middle powers follow distinctly different strategies than great powers, and the fact that the boundary between small and middle is both socially constructed and permeable, we do not distinguish explicitly between small power strategies and middle power strategies here, focusing instead on their commonalites.

16 See, in particular, Larson, Deborah, Paul, T. V., and Wohlforth, William (eds), Status and World Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Renshon, Jonathan, Fighting for Status (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017); Lebow, , Why Nations Fight ; Steven Ward, Status and the Challenge of Rising Powers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

17 Lilach Gilady, ‘Conspicuous Waste in International Relations’ (unpublished PhD thesis, Yale University, 2006); Xiaoyu Pu and Randall Schweller, ‘Status signaling, multiple audiences, and China’s blue-water naval ambition’, in Larson, Paul, and Wohlforth (eds), Status and World Order, pp. 141–61; and Murray, Michelle, The Struggle for Recognition in International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

18 Larson, Deborah and Shevchenko, Alexei, ‘Shortcut to greatness: the new thinking and the revolution in Soviet foreign policy’, International Organization, 57:1 (2005), pp. 77109 .

19 See Steven Ward, ‘Lost in translation: Social identity theory and the study of status in world politics’, International Studies Quarterly (forthcoming); and Jacques E. C. Hymans, ‘Applying Social Identity Theory to the Study of International Politics: A Caution and an Agenda’, paper originally prepared for presentation at the International Studies Association convention, New Orleans, Louisiana (24–7 March 2002), on p. 6.

20 Cooper, Andrew F., Higgott, Richard A., and Nossal, Kim, Relocating Middle Powers: Australia and Canada in a Changing World (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1993), p. 19 . For a critique, see Black, David, ‘Addressing apartheid: Lessons from Australian, Canadian and Swedish Policies in southern Africa’, in Andrew F. Cooper (ed.), Niche Diplomacy: Middle Powers after the Cold War (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1997). See also Patience, Allan, ‘Imagining middle powers’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 68:2 (2014), pp. 210224 ; Niels N. Schia and Ole Jacob Sending, ‘Status and sovereign equality: Small states in multilateral settings’, in de Carvalho and Neumann (eds), Small State Status Seeking, pp. 73–85.

21 Jordaan, Eduard, ‘The concept of a middle power in International Relations: Distinguishing between emerging and traditional middle powers’, Politikon: South African Journal of Political Studies, 30:1 (2003), pp. 165181 ; also Ikeda, Satoshi, ‘Zonal structures and the trajectories of Canada, Mexico, Australia and Norway’, in Marjorie Griffin Cohen and Stephen Clarkson (eds), Governing Under Stress: Middle Powers and the Challenge of Globalization (London: Zed Books, 2004), pp. 263390 .

22 Carr, Andrew, ‘Is Australia a middle power? A systemic impact approach’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 68:1 (2014), pp. 7084 .

23 Chapnick, Adam, ‘The middle power’, Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, 7:2 (1999), pp. 7382 (p. 76).

24 See Benjamin de Carvalho and Jon Harald Sande Lie, ‘A great power performance: Norway, status and the policy of involvement’, in de Carvalho and Neumann (eds), Small State Status Seeking, pp. 56–72.

25 ‘Foreign powers buy influence at think tanks’, The New York Times (6 September 2014), available at: {}.

26 Miller, Jennifer L., Cramer, Jacob, Volgy, Thomas J., Bezerra, Paul, Hauser, Megan, and Sciabarra, Christina, ‘Norms, behavioral compliance, and status attribution in international politics’, International Interactions, 41:5 (2015), pp. 779804 .

27 See the discussion in de Carvalho, Benjamin and de Coning, Cedric, Rising Powers and the Future of Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding (Oslo: NOREF, 2013).

28 Nina Græger, ‘From “forces for good” to “forces for status”? Small state military status seeking’, in de Carvalho and Neumann (eds), Small State Status Seeking, pp. 86–107.

29 Durkheim, Émile, Professional Ethics and Civic Morals (London: Routledge, 1992 [orig. pub. 1913]), p. 75 .

30 Since this normative framework is socially and historically constituted, what confers status even in this alleged tradition is also changing. Status research would thud do well to integrate the insights of, for example, Towns, Ann, Women and States: Norms and Hierarchies in International Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010), Zarakol, Ayse, After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Adler-Nissen, Rebecca, ‘Stigma management in international relations: Transgressive identities, norms, and order in international society’, International Organization, 68:1 (2014), pp. 143176 .

31 Sweden’s policy of active neutrality during the Cold War might serve as an example of such a strategy of moral competition.

32 Cf. Bull, Hedley, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (London: Macmillan, 1977).

33 There is a fundamental difference between these actions and great power systems maintenance, not least that whereas a lapse in the latter might lead to systemic upheaval, a lapse in the former will most likely just increase transaction costs.

34 Our take on good powers is relatively close to Lawler’s, with the caveat that in our perspective, ‘goodness’ is defined by context; Lawler, Peter, ‘The good state: In praise of “classical” internationalism’, Review of International Studies, 31:3 (2005), pp. 427449 .

35 SG/SM/6639, Kofi Annan, ‘Secretary-General Lauds Role of Small Countries in Work of United Nations, Noting Crucial Contributions, Press Release’ (1998), available at: {}.

36 See fn. 60. Note how such recognitions confirm often explicitly expressed ambitions and expectations on behalf of middle and aspiring small powers. Beeson’s claim is surely generalisable: ‘Australian policymakers have always harboured a desire to “punch above their weight”’. Beeson, Mark, ‘Can Australia save the world? The limits and possibilities of middle power diplomacy’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 65:5 (2011), pp. 563577 (p. 563).

37 See, for example, Mercer, Jonathan, Reputation and International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996).

38 St. tid. (1864), p. 21. All translations from Norwegian are by the authors of this article. ‘St. tid.’ refers to the verbatim records of parliamentary debates.

39 This statement is taken from the account of Canadian foreign policy found on the website of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment Museum. It is not an account from an academic treatise but rather an everyday account of Canadian foreign policy. Available at: {}.

40 Neumann, Iver B., ‘Institutionalizing peace and reconciliation diplomacy: Third-party reconciliation as systems maintenance’, in Ole-Jacob Sending, Vincent Pouliot, and Iver B. Neumann, Diplomacy and the Making of World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 140167 .

41 Halvard Leira, ‘The formative years: Norway as an obsessive status-seeker’, in de Carvalho and Neumann (eds), Small State Status Seeking, pp. 22–41.

42 Neumann, Iver B., ‘This little piggy stayed at home: Why Norway is not a member of the EU’, in Lene Hansen and Ole Wæver (eds), European Integration and National Identity: The Challenge of the Nordic States (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 88129 .

43 Leira, Halvard, ‘“Our entire people are natural born friends of peace”: the Norwegian foreign policy of peace’, Swiss Political Science Review, 19 (2013), pp. 338356 .

44 Halvdan Koht, ‘Nøitralitetssagen’, Dagbladet (6, 7, 8, 11 September 1902).

45 Bjørnson, Bjørnstjerne, Mine brev til Petersburgskija Vjedomosti m.m. (Kristiania: Olaf Norlis forlag, 1898).

46 [Untitled editorial], Dagbladet (23 April 1896).

47 Leira, Halvard, ‘Drømmen om en ny utenrikspolitikk’, Nytt Norsk Tidsskrift, 29:4 (2012), pp. 383394 .

48 Neumann, Iver B. and Leira, Halvard, Aktiv og avventende: Utenrikstjenestens liv 1905–2005 (Oslo: Pax, 2005), pp. 241242 .

49 Egeland, Jan, Impotent Superpower – Potent Small State: Potentials and Limitations of Human Rights Objectives in the Foreign Policies of the United States and Norway (Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1988).

50 In Norwegian: engasjementspolitikk, also translated as ‘policy of engagement’.

51 See, for example, Tamnes, Rolf, Norsk Utenrikspolitikks Historie, Volume VI: Oljealder 1965–1995 (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1997); Matlary, Janne Haaland, Verdidiplomati – Kilde til Makt? En Strategisk Analyse av Norsk Utenrikspolitikk (Oslo: Unipub, 2002).

52 Matlary, , Verdidiplomati, pp. 4647 .

53 Neumann, Iver B., ‘Peace and reconciliation efforts as systems-maintaining diplomacy: the case of Norway’, International Journal, 66:3 (2011).

54 Tamnes, Rolf, ‘Ettpartistat, småstat og sikkerhetspolitikk’, Nytt Norsk Tidsskrift, 3 (1986); Halvard Leira, 2007 (ed.), with Borchgrevink, Axel, Græger, Nina, Melchior, Arne, Stamnes, Eli, and Øverland, Indra, Norske Selvbilder og Norsk Utenrikspolitikk (Oslo: NUPI, 2007).

55 Quoted in Matlary, Verdidiplomati, p. 61.

56 Quoted in ibid., p. 60.

57 Quoted in ibid.

58 Kristoffersen, Lene, Interesser i Norsk Engasjementspolitikk (Oslo: IFS, 2009).

59 Einar Hagvaag, ‘I krig for fred’, Dagbladet (12 October 2002).

60 In Røen, Sølvi, Risvik, Jan, and de Carvalho, Benjamin, ‘Utenriksministrene Thorvald Stoltenberg, Bjørn Tore Godal, Knut Vollebæk, Thorbjørn Jagland, Jan Petersen og Jonas Gahr Støre i samtale med Jan Egeland’, Internasjonal Politikk, 68:1 (2010), p. 102 .

61 This statement was ambiguous in status terms, as the boxing metaphor was favoured by Obama when describing smaller states. See {} (25 November 2011), emphasis added.

62 Ingvild Johnsen, ‘Gifts favor the giver: Norway, status and the Nobel Peace Prize’, in de Carvalho and Neumann (eds), Small State Status Seeking, pp. 108–25.

63 Neumann, ‘Peace and reconciliation efforts’.

64 Mauss, Marcel, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (London: Cohen & West; Sahlins: Marshall, 1972); Mauss, Marcel, Stone Age Economics (Chicago, IL: Aldine-Atherton, 1970 [orig. pub. 1925]).

65 Borchgrevink, Axel, ‘Aiding rights? Dilemmas in Norwegian and Swedish development cooperation with Ethiopia’, Nordisk tidsskrift for menneskerettigheter, 27:4 (2009), pp. 452466 .

66 Luard, Evan, Types of International Society (New York: Free Press, 1976).

67 Lebow, Why Nations Fight; Lebow, Ned R., A Cultural Theory of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); see also Wohlforth, William C., ‘A matter of honor’, International Theory, 2/3 (2010), pp. 468474 .

68 See, for instance, Græger, ‘From “forces for good” to “forces for status”?’.

69 David A. Lake, ‘Status, authority and the end of the American century’, in Larson, Paul, and Wohlforth (eds), Status and World Order, pp. 246–70.

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