We use the language of emotional states all the time. “Angry China” or “Remorseful Germany” and so on—we frequently describe states as outraged, frustrated, remorseful, even sympathetic. One could try to write this off as some form of sloppy anthropomorphization of states, but still, why is it so common? We see it in headlines, in the speech of policymakers, even in the discussions of academics who should in theory know better. What is more, this language actually seems to capture something about how states act and react on the international stage. But how could this be? States are not people, they are institutional actors. Pondering this question launched the project that eventually became my book, Emotional Diplomacy: Official Emotion on the International Stage.
I initially thought the answer must be that foreign policy is shaped by the collective emotional responses of people within states. My logic was as follows: people who share similar national identities should also share the same emotional reaction when something befalls their state. This shared emotion would then influence foreign policy, resulting in state-level emotional behaviour on the international stage. And voilà, one had an emotional state. I even had a snappy neologism to describe this—”the emotionalization of state behaviour.”
What I rapidly discovered when researching actual state behavior, however, was a much, much messier reality. Emotions do influence foreign policy, but the process is far from straightforward. Emotions mix, mingle, and compete with numerous other factors and considerations in any given foreign policy decision-making process, frequently leading to outcomes that in themselves do not appear particularly emotional. Moreover, the emotions of those involved are usually quite diverse and variable. Not only do emotions vary widely across policymakers and members of their constituencies, the emotions within individuals also can shift quickly. It was often difficult to pinpoint one specific, commonly shared emotional reaction that had an impact on state behavior. And on top of all this, I ironically found it quite common for the strongest emotions officials exhibited during foreign policy-making processes to be directed not at external events or actors, but rather one another. The hypothesis that there existed common, uniform emotional responses that bubbled up to “emotionalize” state behavior appeared unsustainable.
At the same time, I also encountered evidence of intentional policies by state actors—leaders, officials, diplomats, and others—to display a particular emotional stance or demeanor in their official interactions with other states. The appearance of states acting emotional was therefore not an illusion; but far from being a reflection of collective emotional responses, it was a deliberate policy choice. And yet this only raised a further question: namely, why would state actors intentionally seek to project the image of particular emotions with their words and deeds?
When we typically think of statecraft in international relations, we think of state actors applying coercive pressure, bargaining, bribing, or cynically appealing to common interests. Such are the traditionally theorized tools of diplomacy, and approaches that focus on these tools play an important role in helping us understand international politics. These tools, however, have their limits.
Let me give an example: if I have done wrong in the past, I cannot convince you that I have seen the error of my ways by threatening or bribing you. So what can I do? One option is to display emotional behavior, to seek to change your views by showing remorse. And this is what I found to be happening between states.
Consider relations between Germany and Israel. Today, Germany ranks for Israelis as the most popular state in Europe, and more than two-thirds of Israelis hold a positive opinion of Germany. Such a state of affairs would have been unthinkable when Israel came into existence and when animosity towards Germany was so strong that Israel marked its passports as valid for travel in all lands except Germany. In the early fifties, however, West Germany introduced a policy of officially displaying remorse towards Israel. This not only involved statements of regret and moral responsibility, it also generated a massive compensation agreement—the Luxembourg Agreement—which paved the way for the improvement of relations and their eventual normalization in 1965.
In short, West Germany appropriated a specific emotional response—remorse—for political purposes. And West Germany is far from alone when it comes to deploying emotional displays for political ends. In my book, for example, I also present instances of Chinese officials strategically showing anger to communicate red lines vis-à-vis Taiwan and Russian officials displaying sympathy in order to improve relations with other states.
All this is to say that apart from employing the standard forms of statecraft—bribing, coercing, and the like—state actors also engage in emotional diplomacy. That is, they coordinate state-level behavior in order to officially and explicitly project the image of a particular emotional response on the international stage. In general, the purpose of this is to achieve political goals that cannot be realized via traditional means. The result is that states can appear to be acting emotional.
So, to answer the original question, no, a state cannot have an emotion. But it can certainly behave as if it did.
Cover Image: "My God, help me to survive this deadly love" (1990), a graffiti painting on the Berlin Wall, by Dmitri Vrubel, depicting Leonid Brezhnev (Soviet Union) and Erich Honecker (German Democratic Republic) in their famous "fraternal embrace" in 1979. Image source: bp blogpost.