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The Role of Emotion in Geopolitics

Aparna Pande

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.

We live in a world where the main actors are states governed by their national interests. These national interests are framed by policymakers on whom not only hard geopolitics but morals, principles, and even symbols have an influence. South Asia is a culture heavy on symbolism and emotions, and so the latter’s influence on the international affairs of the countries in the region should not come as a surprise. It is true that signaling and labeling play a role in diplomacy, but we need to acquire the right balance between our emotions and realpolitik.

South Asia occupies a key geostrategic location in the world today which the countries in the region can take advantage of if they harness their strengths. South Asia is on the positive side of the demographic curve, as it is one of the few regions in the world where the youth exceed the elderly and where governments have invested in education and social development. The resourcefulness and entrepreneurial skills of South Asians is also evident in the economic growth of India, which can spread to other countries of this region.

However, in order to do this, in Moisi’s words, the policymakers of the region need to seek the right balance between good and bad emotions. In this case, what it means is build relations with your neighbors by playing to your strengths and your historical and cultural ties. Try to resolve those issues that you can, but those which are difficult must be left on the backburner for now.

Of the two countries about which Moisi speaks, China has adopted this policy very effectively. China has amicably resolved its border issue with Russia and its border with Pakistan was settled long ago. In the case of the Sino-Indian border, over which the two countries fought a war in 1962, China’s policy since the late 1990s has been to build political, economic, and even military ties with India while periodically discussing the border issue without expecting to resolve it anytime soon. India and Pakistan have yet to reach that point in their relationship.

The strong emotions evoked by the history of the two countries remain a barrier to pragmatic decisionmaking in New Delhi and Islamabad.

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