From the Locker Rooms to Executive Offices: International Relations & Boys Club Culture

by James Mesiti

While I am honored to be given this platform to discuss questions of international relations, I was hesitant upon learning the theme of this edition of Argus. Being a white male from the United States, I struggled to conjure a topic that not only I would feel confident writing about but also one that I felt I had the right to address. The theme of feminism is one that should and must be important to all of us even if it only directly impacts half of the world. What I know more than anything is that I embody many of the challenges that have historically faced women. In most questions of equality, what I represent is rightfully the standard of comparison; it is a matter of what I have and what women do not.

With that being said, feminism cannot be a one-voice struggle. What being a white-male from the United States has taught me is that gender equality is not simply a question of ensuring equal rights and equal opportunities. Gender separations are woven in the very fabric of society at times in ways more psychological than physical. Specifically, Boys Club or masculinity culture that occurs in the locker-room also exists from congresses and parliaments to executive cabinets. Distinguishing between the culture that surrounds a sports team and a nation’s government is a much greater challenge than what one may expect.

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Masculinity culture is often hard to narrow to one particular definition or circumstance partly due to its structural qualities. What is certain, however, is that it is seen from schoolboys to career politicians. It is closely related to the “be a man” attitude which shapes the lives of many boys from a young age. Masculinity teaches that emotion is better left dug deep inside rather than in the open air to be discussed and properly addressed. Being a “man” is translated into taking rash actions that flex physical strength more so than mental; it means objectifying women.

The repercussions of Boys Club Culture in international relations are obvious. All too frequently, situations become a zero-sum game straight out of classical realism’s playbook. This is true even if a given decision is veiled and reasoned as coming from one of the other traditions of international relations, such as liberalism and constructivism.  Males in positions of power by nature are prone to treating politics like a sport match where at the end of the season or the end of one’s term there is one winner and always many losers.

Perhaps masculinity culture can best explain the squabbles between US President Donald Trump and supreme leader Kim Jong-un of North Korean. “Rocket Man” and “mentally deranged” are just some of the sentences used between the two heads of state that appear to be better suited for a locker-room than the international political community. Yet, aside from Trump and Kim Jong-un’s antics, masculinity culture may best personify itself in matters of national security. Diplomatic measures may tend to be more overlooked than they should be and the result is all the more sportive: foreign policy becomes a contest of who has the bigger guns. As Vladimir Putin earlier this month bragged about his new atomic arsenal and the United States and South Korea agreed to a new schedule of military training exercises, the irony of such actions is obvious. Many knew that Putin’s remarks, which included a video demonstration of a missile hitting a piece of land eerily similar to the US state of Florida, and the scheduling of the seemingly 1000th joint military exercise between the US and South Korea were largely just smoke. This is not to say that the military capabilities of said countries is in doubt, but rather that they were already well-accepted facts.

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Photo credit: DonkeyHotey on Visual huntCC BY-SA

Unfortunately in Boys Clubs of all forms, when women do enter they are treated differently than their male counterparts. Hillary Clinton throughout her political career has experienced such disparity. She has been called a “bitch” more times than any person deserves primarily for showing strength and confronting her colleagues and Boys Club Culture at large. In fact, she has commented on famous interactions with Vladimir Putin during her time as United States’ Secretary of State.  According to Clinton, apart from a consistent misogynistic undertone, Putin was notorious for “manspreading” which is an obvious symptom of masculinity culture.

Combatting Boys Club Culture is challenging. It requires transforming and reimaging what it means to be a “man”, which may or should be something similar to what it means to be a woman. On a practical level, the teaching of young boys to express themselves rather than hide their emotion and also to respect women should not be taken for granted. These are structural societal reforms which will take time to change even as they must. Empowering inclusion in vital decision-making and ensuring that women assume more leadership roles should also be encouraged both in the international and domestic politics. It is not until both the public and private sector reflect the demographics of our populations that better and more representative decisions will be made.

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Admittedly, this article has presented more questions than it has answers but what having a beautifully intelligent and hardworking older sister (I love you Francesca J) has taught me is to know when to be patient but to also to know when to grab opportunity when it presents itself.  It appears as though both women and men need to take advantage of the advancements of this century to push for the equality of women. Even it is true that I may not be the best voice to speak to feminism and its importance what I still do hope is that that being a “man” no longer also implies limiting women.

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