The Role of Emotion in Geopolitics

In a recent book titled The Geopolitics of Emotion, international relations scholar Dominique Moisi asserts that contrary to widespread belief, emotions -- and hence irrationality -- play a large role in international politics. To understand politics among nations, therefore, requires an understanding of emotions within and between nations.

Moisi’s book puts forth two contentions: that we can best understand the world we live in today only by “integrating and understanding its emotions,” and that there is a need to find the right balance between “good and bad” emotions.

Moisi’s book discusses in detail what he calls the cultures of hope, humiliation, and fear which are framing today’s world. Moisi gives examples of each, with India and China representing cultures of hope, countries in the Muslim world representing cultures of humiliation, and the West -- both the United States and Europe -- representing cultures of fear.

According to Moisi, both Europe and the United States after 9/11 are dominated by fears of the other and worried about a loss of national identity. This has resulted in a culture of fear. Moisi asserts that for most Muslims -- including Arab Muslims -- the  combination of a grievance culture with civil and religious conflicts, and exclusion from the benefits of economic globalization, has led to a culture of humiliation. In countries in Asia, like India and China, however, Moisi sees talk of hope of building a better future and a desire to seize the economic initiative and build a new world.

Moisi’s book reminds me of a conversation a few years ago with an American diplomat who spent many years working in South Asia. What struck him most during his stay in the region was that people never talked upfront but instead spoke in a roundabout manner (for example, by citing shayri, or Urdu poetry). In this setting it was often difficult to distinguish facts from wishful thinking.

Westerners who have worked in South Asia will acknowledge that emotions and symbols often seem to play a very large role in the region’s political culture. Whenever leaders in the region discuss relations with other countries, the historical and cultural aspects are given preference to the geopolitical and strategic ones. The nuts and bolts of any meeting or conference are often not as important as what that meeting will be called or where the meeting will be held. In the weeks leading up to the meeting between the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries in February 2010, there was more debate over what to label these talks than on the substantive issues to be discussed.