Individual countries have always seemed like individual people to me. With their unique quirks, countries have all the idiosyncrasies of humans. They have distinct personalities, see themselves differently than outside observers, and judge their behavior based on intent while judging others based on action. Some countries are quiet, some loud, some big, some small, some fashionable, some plain (the comparisons continue).
To be clear, the collective “country” is distinct from the diverse collection of its citizens—the whole is different than the sum of its parts. That being said, countries are still like people, and what do all people want? Love and respect. Blatantly disrespect even the mousiest members of society and their blood will boil. Bullies are a product of overcompensation, self-image deficits, and lack of perceived respect. This universal need for respect helps explain much in global affairs.
As an obvious global bully, Russia simply wants the respect it feels it deserves. Seeing itself as a bastion of aerospace development, scientific research, military prowess, historical richness, Olympic champions, and cultural mainstays like art, ballet, and architecture, Russia may think, “We’re one of the greatest nations on earth. Why are we not given the relative level of respect that our status deserves? Let’s annex Crimea, then they’ll respect us!” Similar reasoning can be found in the seemingly antisocial behaviors of all sorts of global policies (not least, those of the United States). Self-centered, emotional, overly competitive, unaware, and simplistic—countries are not just like any people; they’re like school children.
There is one classroom that fits this metaphor well (although the teacher is nowhere to be found). The classroom is the G20—a group of the world’s twenty largest economies who get together to discuss global matters. Within “Classroom G,” as we’ll call it, there are all the features of a stereotypical schoolhouse. There are poorer kids, richer kids, extroverts, introverts, troublemakers, class clowns, slackers, bullies, brainiacs, and everyone in between. There are also social cliques (some even with labels).
Jocks, Preps, Nerds—these are unknown titles in Classroom G. Instead, the most well-known cliques go by other names (NATO, BRICS, G7, G4, and so on), but the most “popular” group is known historically as The Allies. The paradigm of World War I and II has continued for over 100 years and has evolved to roughly include an alliance between the world’s largest economies—the popular kids of the class (although, they are often not very popular with the rest of the students).
The in-group’s membership has changed many times throughout the decades. Where countries like Russia, China, Japan and Germany were once historical outsiders, they now have a seat at the table (but not officially in certain circles—the Group Seven or Permanent Five, for example).
There is an oversimplified explanation for this elite group of students: The trend-setting group in Classroom G is a clique of develop-ed countries on the inside and develop-ing countries on the outside (with a few choice exceptions). Economics supersedes historical alliance. And as trite and ill-defined as the terms developing and developed may be, they serve as the arbitrary (but necessary) boundary in which our classroom creates a status quo.
It is important to point out, however, that Classroom G countries are not teachers, but peers. Their authority is social in nature, not hierarchical. Therefore, we could hypothesize that international relationships conform to the same social and psychologic theories that humans do… But more on that next week.