Emotions in International Relations

In class yesterday, I mentioned that there have been recent attempts to interpret international relations in novel ways beyond the mainstream frameworks. In 1993, Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington shook up the IR community when he wrote about what he viewed as a coming “clash of civilizations”. The provocative concept has continued to be debated even now – nearly four years since Huntington died.

In class, I noted the connection that IR theorists have made between realism and the “tragedy”. Consider John J. Mearsheimer’s 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, which looks at the concept of “offensive realism”. (Read another review of the book here and this 2004 interview with Mearsheimer.)

More recently, as I noted, there has been some discussion in IR circles about the “culture of emotions”. In 2007, French political scientist Dominique Moïsi wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs on what he called “The Clash of Emotions”, in which he discusses how he sees fear, humiliation and hope driving geopolitical relations:

Thirteen years ago, Samuel Huntington argued that a “clash of civilizations” was about to dominate world politics, with culture, along with national interests and political ideology, becoming a geopolitical fault line (“The Clash of Civilizations?” Summer 1993). Events since then have proved Huntington’s vision more right than wrong. Yet what has not been recognized sufficiently is that today the world faces what might be called a “clash of emotions” as well. The Western world displays a culture of fear, the Arab and Muslim worlds are trapped in a culture of humiliation, and much of Asia displays a culture of hope.

Instead of being united by their fears, the twin pillars of the West, the United States and Europe, are more often divided by them — or rather, divided by how best to confront or transcend them. The culture of humiliation, in contrast, helps unite the Muslim world around its most radical forces and has led to a culture of hatred. The chief beneficiaries of the deadly encounter between the forces of fear and the forces of humiliation are the bystanders in the culture of hope, who have been able to concentrate on creating a better future for themselves.

These moods, of course, are not universal within each region, and there are some areas, such as Russia and parts of Latin America, that seem to display all of them simultaneously. But their dynamics and interactions will help shape the world for years to come.

This essay was the basis of a 2009 book by Moïsi – The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World



One thought on “Emotions in International Relations

  1. Ida Leung

    The recent dispute over Daoiyu (Senkaku) Island is an illustration of clash over emotions. For many years both China and Japan have been using a moderate approach and behave in a very controlled manner in the handling of the issue, although both countries claim that the island is “an inalienable part of its sovereignty”. Both countries focused on economic growth rather than on a political problem descended from history. Since 2010 there have been more frequent clashes on the issue between both governments. While every time each country stated their usual position, recent conflicts seem to have genuinely affected relationship between both countries not only politically, but also on the economic and cultural aspects. The trigger point, according to China, was caused by the Japanese government nationalizing the ownership of the island through purchase from a private owner. There were a lot of emotions involved in the incident. China holds that the time of Japanese invasion of the country was a time of great humiliation in its history. It has always wanted Japan to send a formal apology over its acts. China may also see the recent conflict as a sign of the revival of militarism in Japan (of course there are some arguments that both Japan and China are eyeing on the natural resources underneath the seabed of the island) Japan has always seen the island as part of its territorial right. After the war the country focuses on economic development and from its military spending and set-up, there was little sign that militarism is reviving in the country, although its position over the sovereignty of the island has always been strong. The recent incidents are like playing tug-of-war. After China sending what it claimed as historical proofs about Daoiyu Island belonging to China, it began what Japan called as “information warfare” by putting up advertisement in Washington Post and New York Times claiming sovereignty of Daoiyu Island, then another full page advertisement in an English newspaper in Pakistan today. On the other hand, Japan seems to be taking a more flexible approach recently with the new Cabinet in place. The appointment of both Seiji Maehara and Tanaka into the cabinet means the government will continue to take a hardline but at the same time leave some leeway for a softer approach towards China. Up till now, the situation is still at a deadlock. Only when both countries stop responding emotionally and adopt a more pragmatic approach and return to the negotiating table, otherwise the situation cannot be resolved and there will be genuine damage to the benefits of both countries, particularly in the economic aspect. .


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