The Wider View

Jun 26, 2024

Agitated Times: On the Importance of Emotions in Foreign Policy

Whether in addressing voters or assessing foreign policy crises, those who take into account emotional factors can have an advantage. Making the case for more “emotional resonance” and “strategic empathy” in international politics.

West Germany's Chancellor Willy Brandt kneels before the Jewish Heroes' monument in Warsaw, December 6, 1970.
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The world situation is threatening. The effects of global instability have gone beyond mere abstractions; they are becoming noticeable in people’s ordinary lives. Geopolitical upheavals are hitting insecure societies, already “exhausted by change,” according to Steffen Mau, professor of macrosociology at Berlin’s Humboldt University. As political scientist Herfried Münkler suggests in his 2023 book World in Turmoil, constant bad news leaves a residual impression of “threatening and frightening phenomena, [thus] ensuring that fears and worries make their way into general consciousness.” 

The age of polycrisis is characterized by an ongoing accumulation of geopolitical shocks and economic turbulence. With this comes an increase in fear, anger, and hatred. “We are living in agitated times,” observed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz earlier this year, not a man ordinarily given to emotional exuberance. Individual emotions and collective moods are powerful factors in foreign policy as elsewhere. “To act as if feelings do not exist is to overlook a fundamental dynamic of international politics,” according to Simon Koschut, chair of International Security Policy at Zeppelin University and an expert on norms and emotions in world politics, who was sounding a warning, and rightly so.

Recent work in neuroscience suggests that Homo Rationalis, the human being who acts solely according to rational cost-benefit considerations, is entirely a theoretical figure. This means that foreign policy opinions and the voting decisions they influence are always based on emotion. An electorate’s sensibilities can limit the scope of those in power to take action on foreign policy. But political actors can also put those sensibilities to use, in a targeted way.

In this context, historian Ute Frevert has highlighted the general trend toward a moral foreign policy, which can in turn lead to emotionalization. Foreign policy decisions can provoke significantly greater emotional reactions if they are no longer “only” a matter of national interests, but also of good and evil. This also means they hold greater potential for mobilization. 

An endless series of unfiltered images from conflict and crisis areas—often profoundly disturbing ones—flood through countless thousands of social media users’ timelines. This too has an emotionalizing effect. As early as the mid-1970s, the Canadian philosopher and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan noted that the Vietnam War was not lost not on the battlefields of Vietnam, but in American living rooms: in other words, the war was lost because television coverage conveyed its brutality in a particularly direct way.

Israel’s war against Hamas demonstrates how social media has become a contested arena in the “war of images,” with support for one side or the other mobilized with the help of media-created emotions. Here the rule is: the greater the outrage factor of a social media post, the further will be its reach. The American political scientists Peter W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking rightly emphasize the political significance of the “war of images,” arguing that “debates triggered in this way can shape public opinion and even influence diplomatic and military decisions.”

It should come as no surprise that societies tend to become more emotionally reactive in times of crisis. Their emotional “aggregate state” offers a welcome target for hostile external actors pursuing their interests, who use “warnings and threats to play on people’s fears, and increase them still further, so as to achieve their political goals more easily,” says Münkler. The nuclear threats made by very senior Russian officials—which are targeted at German public opinion above all—fall squarely into this category.

Populist Narratives

But populist forces within Germany are also making targeted use of emotions, negative emotions above all. Populist narratives make a particular appeal to anger, rage, and indignation. Narratives supported by these emotions, including the supposedly “simple solutions” based on them, have a good chance of surviving in a complex world, especially in times of crisis.

In her book The Emotional Life of Populism: How Fear, Disgust, Resentment, and Love Undermine Democracy, the French-Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz examines how right-wing populists exploit feelings like fear and disgust. She suggests that “Only emotions have the multifold power to deny empirical evidence, to shape motivation, to overwhelm self-interest, and to be responsive to concrete social situations.” Illouz also draws on the research into Donald Trump voters by the American sociologist Arlie Russel Hochschild, who suggests that political narratives now need no basis in fact: what matters is whether something “feels” true.

So how can societies become more resilient when faced with external influences and domestic populist messaging in these periods of heightened emotional reactivity? Important clues can be found in a study on Europeans’ feelings about their continent, conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) prior to the 2019 European parliamentary elections. The study suggests that, in European Union member states as well as elsewhere, present-day politics is as much about emotions as it is about ideas. For this reason, political communications campaigns that rely solely on factual arguments and refuting populist narratives have little chance of success. In times of crisis, what counts is “emotional resonance.” The study’s authors suggest that pro-European parties should look to a storytelling method, seeking to tell a “comprehensive and convincing story” about the future of Europe, one which takes voters’ concerns and fears seriously.

Moreover, just as negative emotions can be consciously stoked, it is possible to promote positive feelings that motivate constructive behavior. These positive feelings might include pride in achievements or a sense of community. Attempts to influence people that are based on negative emotions can be rendered ineffective when topics—like the future of Europe—are deliberately linked with positive emotions.

All over the world, autocracies and autocratic-style politicians are on the rise. When decisions are made by a very limited group of people—in extreme cases solely by a “strong man at the top,” with no institutional “checks and balances”—the contents of the autocrats’ minds become very important, including their balance of emotions.

Supporters of the realist school in international relations are skeptical about this thesis. For these commentators, the actions of states in a largely anarchic world are oriented solely toward maximizing their own power and security. Individual leaders and their idiosyncrasies play only a minor role. In a much-quoted bon mot, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, generally seen as the incarnation of foreign policy realism, warned against the temptation to think of foreign policy as a subdiscipline of psychiatry. He seems to have feared that a one-dimensional focus on the leader’s psychological make-up would not do justice to the complex dynamics of foreign policy processes, ultimately leading to incorrect decision-making.

Putin’s Emotional Fixation

The objection seems legitimate. However, ignoring the personality structure and behavioral characteristics of decision-makers is just as likely to produce error, especially when it comes to autocratic systems. The political scientist Robert Jervis was among the first to systematically address “How Statesmen Think” (the title of one of his books), proving that “cognitive biases”—distortions in perception, memory, thought and judgment—on the part of statesmen and stateswomen, and their values and personal experiences, are often just as decisive as objective circumstances.

The example of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine makes clear that we can be led astray by ignoring a ruler’s personality-specific motivations when these do not accord with principles of state utility maximization. In the run-up to February 24, 2022, many observers considered it unthinkable that Russian President Vladimir Putin would invade Ukraine and thus bring massive political and economic damage to his country. Their analysis of the situation ignored Putin's emotional fixation on controlling Ukraine. Shortly after the full-scale invasion, Putin’s obsession was described by Fiona Hill, a veteran Russia expert, as a “visceral emotion … unhealthy and extraordinarily dangerous.”

So, what can we learn from analytical failures in the “Putin case”? In a Foreign Affairs article, “Why Smart Leaders Do Stupid Things,” the political scientist Keren Yarhi-Milo warned that “great powers and their mercurial leaders may miscalculate or act in irrational and neurotic ways.” The warning should be taken into particular account during crisis scenarios. As examples, consider Chinese President Xi Jinping’s dealings with Taiwan or former US President Donald Trump’s position on NATO: in neither case can decisions based on a purely rational cost-benefit calculation be expected.

In addition to individual emotions and cognitive biases, relationships between decision-makers can also exert a significant influence on world politics. Friendships and enmities can cast long shadows on bilateral relations, or indeed exert a positive influence. The well-known photograph of former US President Ronald Reagan and the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev relaxing at the Regan’s Rancho del Cielo in the Santa Ynez mountains in 1992 has gone down in history. “There’s a chemistry between the two of us,” Reagan supposedly said after meeting Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985, a moment which in retrospect was seen to mark the “beginning of the end of the Cold War.”

It is hard to determine whether “fraternization” between Putin and Xi Jinping, also staged for publicity, stems from personal sympathy, strategic calculation, or both. During Putin’s recent visit to Beijing, the Chinese president called his Russian counterpart an “old friend”; Putin said they were “like brothers.” Statements of this kind have had an impact on both Russian and Chinese public opinion, as well as on a wider global audience. If the most important men in China and Russia decide to present this kind of “Russo-Chinese friendship show,” as described by Christoph Giesen and Christina Hebel in a recent issue of German newsweekly Der Spiegel, it puts a deliberately emotional spin on their strategic alliance of convenience.

The recent exchange of blows between Iran and Israel has again increased concerns about an escalation of conflict in the region, particularly given the nuclear threat posed by Tehran. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has brought the nightmare scenario of escalation between two nuclear powers—“Armageddon,” in the words of US President Joe Biden—back into focus for decision-makers and for public opinion, a scenario long thought to have been overcome.

Older research on nuclear deterrence is based primarily on the idea of the rational actor. Here, too, the work of Robert Jervis is relevant: Early on, he showed how psychological factors have an influence in practices of nuclear deterrence. The assumption had been that emotions should be eliminated from analysis, particularly in existential situations, like the reciprocal threat of nuclear attack. But the concept of deterrence is itself based on fear, a key emotion in international relations, cited even by realist theories. Fear must be aroused if the possible use of nuclear weapons is to be credibly conveyed. If the threat is implausible, the intended deterrent effect will fizzle out.

Consolidating Shared Identities

The fact that nuclear deterrence goes beyond the nuts and bolts of nuclear weaponry can be seen in an example from Alexander Wendt, a constructivist political scientist, who pointed out that North Korea’s five nuclear warheads are a far greater threat to the United States than the United Kingdom’s 500. The reason for this, according to constructivist ideas, lies in the partnership between the US and the UK, which stems from a shared understanding of the world, as well as common identities, ideas, and norms. Emotions also function as a tool here, to consolidate shared identities. Collective expressions of sympathy and a shared sense of injustice at the Russian attack on Ukraine have strengthened the self-image of NATO members, as belonging to an alliance of values, committed to peace, democracy, and the rule of law.

Anyone seeking to respond appropriately to emotions, on either a group or an individual level, above all needs empathy. The example of Willy Brandt in Warsaw—when the German chancellor knelt before the memorial commemorating the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising—shows how gestures of compassion and sympathy can be significant, even groundbreaking, in world politics. This is even more the case when emotions are expressed by heads of state or government. Chancellor Brandt’s visit to Poland on December 7, 1970 was the first by a West German head of government since the end of the Second World War and was intended to help “normalize” relations. Where words could not capture the full extent of German guilt, Brandt’s powerful gesture expressed deep shock, humility, and an appeal for forgiveness. Combining emotional and political meaning, Brandt’s gesture of kneeling marked a milestone in German-Polish rapprochement.

Empathy is related to sympathy and compassion, but it is by no means identical to them. What empathy actually consists of is the ability to think and feel another person’s position. In his book Battlegrounds, H.R. McMaster—general, historian, and briefly National Security Advisor to Donald Trump—applies the notion of empathy to foreign and security policy. He uses the concept of “strategic empathy,” which he understands as the capacity to understand both what drives others and also what limits their options for action. McMaster’s term—a counter-concept to “strategic narcissism,” coined by the German-American political scientist Hans Morgenthau in the 1970s—suggests that primarily self-referential understandings of one’s role as an international actor run the risk of one-sided misperceptions. These in turn can lead to poor political decision-making.

Recent examples of a failure to empathize would include US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the perspective of Kabul and Baghdad played a minor role, or none at all. This had serious consequences for all involved. Strategic empathy, by contrast, consciously traces the other’s point of view—this includes opponents, but also partners and allies—in what becomes an iterative process that should ideally produce better decision-making. “Empathy should lead to greater modesty in strategic questions, reducing the likelihood of hubris or arrogance, which can obscure decision-makers’ view of the reality of a situation,” Claire Yorke, who researches empathy in foreign and security policy at the Australian War College, told us in an interview.

Strategic empathy is becoming a vital foreign policy instrument, particularly for Western governments faced with a multipolar international system, with emerging Global South actors increasingly asserting claims to power and influence. According to Simon Koschut, “the established liberal world order is being challenged by new and old illiberal (emotional) communities, united in disappointment and anger toward ‘established’ actors.” In this context, strategic empathy means overcoming Western dominance-oriented thinking, but also recognizing others’ emotions, including disappointment and anger toward the West.

The basic prerequisite for strategic empathy is a willingness to “listen beyond one’s own echo chamber,” as the Emerging Middle Powers Report 2024 puts it, written by Carlos Frederico Coelho, Paulo Esteves, Julia Ganter, Steven Gruzd and Manjeet Kripalani, and published by the BRICS Policy Center, Gateway House India, the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA), and the Körber Foundation.

“States have no feelings” is a principle of classical diplomacy, but it can lead to an underestimation of the importance of emotions in foreign policy. Maintaining this principle would be particularly mistaken in the context of recalibrating relations between the West and the Global South. Forging new partnerships between established and emerging powers will also mean dealing with other actors’ emotions.

Clara Bredenbrock is Program Manager at the Körber Foundation.

Nora Müller heads the International Politics department at the Körber Foundation and directs the Foundation’s office in Berlin.


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