Mean Hegemons

The common perception of the 2004 film Mean Girls is a memorable teen comedy. This is wholly incorrect. Mean Girls is a primer on the risks of an unrestrainedly realist approach to hegemonic transition, and a stirring endorsement of multilateral arbitration. 

The story begins when Cady Heron, previously home-schooled, arrived at North Shore High School. While not an immediately revisionist power, she is new to the international stage. She described the cliques of the school as akin to the animal kingdom – a savage state of nature. Further, she befriended the socially isolated Janis and Damian. There are parallels to the emergence of the US as a great power at the end of the 19th century. Cady combined significant potential with a bemusement, perhaps disdain, for the normal rules of conduct. 

Her emergence did not go unnoticed. The Plastics, a hegemonic alliance dominated by Regina George, sought to co-opt Cady into their group. They defended her against a sexist and conducted intelligence sharing via the Burn Book. This integration into the existing hegemon’s world order is a classic way to forestall and manage hegemonic transition. A key example would be the Clinton and HW Bush approach to China, seeking to make it a responsible stakeholder in an American-led international order. Even if the rising power eclipses the regnant, the transition will favour status quo values. This can be witnessed in the ‘safe passage’ from British to American power. 

From Co-Option to Conflict

However, this strategy of co-option was derailed by unwise aggression from Regina. Cady expressed an interest in Regina’s ex-boyfriend, Aaron Samuels. She understood this to be acceptable. Regina did not, but she failed to communicate this important red line to Cady. Instead, she took precipitate action, kissing Aaron in a public display as a message to Cady. This show of force was intended to make Cady back down. Instead, it guaranteed her enmity against the Plastics. A point of comparison might be the Third Taiwan Crisis in 1996. Chinese sabre-rattling over Taiwanese elections led Clinton to send a carrier battlegroup through the Taiwan Strait. This forceful crisis management technique worked in the short-term, but only cemented Chinese hostility in the long-run. 

Following this alienation, Cady began a covert campaign against Regina. Her strategy was indirect, targeting allies and resources. It was highly effective, but the aggression alienated her former allies Janis and Damian. Cady became, in effect, a ‘garrison state’, given over entirely to the prosecution of the confrontation. This damaged her alliance networks and eroded her values – particularly around accountability to parents. 

The campaign was discovered by Regina. She struck back with an intelligence-led approach, using the Burn Book to incite violence while blaming Cady for authoring it. This was an effective manoeuvre, painting the rising power not as a liberator against the hegemon but as a dangerous destabiliser. 

Melian Defied 

In a traditional realist telling, the story would end there, with a great power war. The systemic pressures of the Cady-Regina clash, coupled with poor red-line communication, and the erosion of peace-building values, led to catastrophe. 

But in North Shore High School, catastrophe had a competitor. His name was Ron Duvall. 

Duvall, the school’s principal, was alerted to the outbreak of mass violence. He moved swiftly to condemn it and named & shamed Coach Carr as an opportunist malcontent in the process. This approach, as with many condemnations of conflict by multilateral agencies, fell on deaf ears. Duvall would not be deterred. He activated the sprinklers, enforcing a mutually hurting stalemate – that is, if they kept fighting, they’d all get wet – and ordered them to attend a multilateral conference. This is a classic case of a non-state actor applying non-kinetic to facilitate negotiations. Duvall knew he could not enforce peace permanently, but he could open a window for a peaceful resolution.  

At the conference, the math teacher Ms. Norbury, with Duvall’s assistance, encouraged the parties to recognise each other’s mutual humanity and apologize for their actions. Critically, this was not focused on just the warring hegemons, Cady and Regina. Rather, by including all actors at North Shore, the Norbury Process reshaped the international order. Comparisons to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 seem somewhat apt. The durability of this process was proven when one actor, Janis, refused to apologize and openly condemned Regina. Despite causing individual problems for Regina, there was no return to violence. This strongly speaks to the success of international mediation and arbitration. 

Victory for Peace 

Mean Girls clearly indicates that poor red-line signalling and a lack of restraint in the conduct of grey zone operations during hegemonic transition causes war. However, it also shows that multilateral arbitration and mediation can defuse such conflict – if sufficiently empowered to create mutually hurting stalemates. Unfortunately, in the real world, states are loath to surrender such power to organisations they cannot control. Yet the examples of both history and North Shore High School indicate that without it, the risk of great power war increases dramatically – to everyone’s detriment. 

About the Author: Matthew Ader is a first-year War Studies student at King’s College London. He’s previously written for the Army Mad Scientist Blog. He has a Twitter account (@AderMatthew) which he doesn’t really use.

Honorable shout-out to @evo_kositz, whose tweet inspired this piece.

About the Editor: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare. Support this blog’s Patreon here.

Cover image: ‘Mean Girls,’ 2004, Paramount Pictures

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