Practitioners and scholars often refer to the existence of an international pecking order—an informal hierarchy of status among states. Indeed, international relations scholars rely on status to explain important phenomena, such as hegemonic wars and the foreign policy of emerging powers. Yet, despite the prominent role of status both in international practice and theory, little is known about what status is, how it works, or where it comes from.

My book adopts a relational approach to address this puzzle. To begin, I propose a theory that focuses on state relations rather than state attributes. Whereas previous research defines status in terms of state attributes such as wealth or nuclear weapons, I use Max Weber’s classical definition to conceptualize status as an effective claim to social esteem in terms of privileges. Status depends on recognition: it concerns identification processes in which an actor gains admission into a club once they are deemed to follow the rules of membership. Status emerges from systematic relational processes that cannot be reduced to state attributes. First, because status results from peer attribution, it is self-reinforcing: the more a state is receives recognition, the more others deem it worthy of recognition. High-status states tend to act as standard-setters, by defining the rules of membership for a club, and as gatekeepers, by restricting access to resources and privileges.

Second, social closure shapes status relations. Effective claims to status typically entail the establishment of a boundary between the group and outsiders based on the group’s distinctiveness. Social closure implies that relations are denser within a club and sparse with outsiders. Therefore, connectedness or sharing relational ties, especially with high-status actors, brings status. In addition, clubs differentiate themselves from outsiders by adopting distinctive values and consuming distinctive goods that symbolize membership. Therefore, contrary to what conventional explanations argue, states do not necessarily recognize the states with the most resources. Rather, states recognize states that have similar values and resources as them. The relevance of a given attribute for status recognition is socially defined: attributes matter because of their symbolic, rather than intrinsic, value. When examining status relations, we should thus find clubs of states bound together by dense relations and common status symbols.

This theoretical approach enables me to move beyond ranking states based on attributes to examine empirically how status emerges from state relations. Using network analysis tools, I investigate status recognition in the context of diplomatic relations since the early nineteenth century. My approach is consistently relational: it uses a relational empirical strategy in the service of a relational theory of status. Previous studies of status in IR allude to relational patterns but do not investigate these patterns systematically. Given its relational nature, my empirical strategy can assess higher-order patterns in status relations that are not observable when the analysis only includes dyads or the major powers. Furthermore, the empirical strategy tests hypotheses about the determinants of status, instead of imposing on observations a set of status attributes chosen a priori. Because it does not rely on strict assumptions about status attributes or the international status ranking, my empirical strategy provides a flexible approach that can be used to investigate the determinants of international status during any historical period.

My analysis indicates that status recognition depends on a state’s relations, and only indirectly on its attributes. Status is relational—that is, self-reinforcing and shaped by social closure—rather than reducible to states’ attributes. The relational dynamics that shape status have opposite implications for high- and low-status states. High-status states enjoy considerable advantage in the status game—which originates from their position in status relations, rather than from the possession of attributes per se. For emerging powers, on the other hand, relational dynamics imply that moving up the status ladder is very difficult. States that lack close connections with a club’s members are much less likely to gain admission into the club.

Finally, although traditional approaches emphasize material resources as status attributes, I find that fundamental values, such as democracy and economic liberalism, are also important for status. This suggests that the role of status in international politics may be broader, and more complex, than previously assumed. Existing studies tend to equate status-seeking behavior with aggressive behavior. But while status may exacerbate conflict, it can also promote global governance. Because fundamental values like democracy are relevant for status recognition, there may be structural incentives for states to adopt prevailing international norms. This carries with it important implications. Among them: status-seeking behavior may also be cooperative behavior—that is, status may contribute to the maintenance of international order. Therefore, although the conventional wisdom suggests that the great powers manage global stability using military instruments, my research suggests that great powers also lead by example. Great powers set standards that the other states, especially those seeking recognition, adopt. Maintaining global stability thus requires upholding these standards not only internationally, but also domestically.