Ever seen a teenager who willingly sits down at the kids’ table at a Christmas party?

‘Not that he has anything to contribute at the grown-ups’ table. But sometimes it’s better to be a little fish in a big pond, than the other way round’, says Senior Research Fellow Halvard Leira (NUPI).

This logic applies to small and middle-sized states like Norway, too, according to Leira and colleague Benjamin de Carvalho, writing in the Review of International Studies. Their article is based on findings from the project ‘Undermining Hegemony’, funded by the Research Council of Norway,

‘Status is very important. But the literature has focused on great powers, especially material concerns and war. We emphasize that status is important to all states, and that it can be studied in many ways – also in connection with moral authority,’ explains de Carvalho.

Doing the right things

In their article ‘Moral authority and status in International Relations’, Leira and de Carvalho, together with Iver B. Neumann and William C. Wolforth, show how states are social entities, and not just units bouncing mechanically around out there. How does this social dimension affect what states are trying to achieve?

‘Position in international society is far more linked to status than to power. A country like Norway may have much to gain from taking advantage of this, by doing the right things’, Leira says.

Wanting moral authority

The examples are many. Norway apportions 1 per cent of its dazzlingly large GDP to development aid.  Further, UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security has its origins in Norway, and the country is known for its work in peace mediation.

‘This has provided Norway with a platform from which it can raise its voice with some authority. Norway has been quite good at branding itself’, Leira points out.

He continues:

‘That means a focus on drawing attention to the positive and toning down the negative – for example, as regards controversial weapon sales.’

‘Norway is very good at spending large sums of money so as to be thought of as moral and credible. The country has deliberately gone about projecting itself as moral in a way that others have not’, notes de Carvalho.

According to the two researchers, this approach to studying status can provide a much clearer image of why Norway behaves as it does.

Status opens doors

But why has status been so important to this small state?

‘Among the small states, Norway is the biggest because we have a lot of money. If Norway becomes accepted as a middle-sized state, we can gain authority over the smaller ones. Status is a good in its own right,’ Leira explains.

Status can also be exchanged for other things is not insignificant, de Carvalho points out:

‘Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Børge Brende, made sure Norway was included in the Syria peace negotiations in Geneva. We didn’t have anything to say there, but Brende was ”in” – and that was important. It shows a certain degree of success. Status provides access, as seen when Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg was invited to the White House recently. If you’re talking about peace in Sri Lanka, for instance, you might be able to slip in a few sentences about salmon. Status is to some degree convertible into things you want to achieve.’