Emotional Choices: How the Logic of Affect Shapes Coercive Diplomacy

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Emotional Choices: How the Logic of Affect Shapes Coercive Diplomacy by Robin Markwica. Oxford University Press, 2018, 384 pp.

How are you feeling right now? Would the person next to you be able to accurately tell? How about someone 4,800 miles away, separated by different cultures, deep-seated suspicion, and cognitive biases? If you are a state leader and you or your opponent’s emotions are misleading, it could result in nuclear war. Emotions have been critical drivers of state security policy since the beginnings of the state, but the quest to study and categorize these emotions, and their effects, is just beginning to bear fruit.

Robin Markwica, a Max Weber Fellow in the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute, steps into this growing field of inquiry with Emotional Choices: How the Logic of Affect Shapes Coercive Diplomacy. The promise and peril of coercive diplomacy, as Markwica describes, are that it can “persuade” a weaker opponent to accede to the stronger actor’s demands short of war, but history shows repeatedly that such threats—even from a clearly militarily superior power—have a low success rate. The rational actor model of state action is hard pressed to explain why this is the case, as is the constructivist model. Both models have valuable insights, but Markwica believes a “theory of affect” (an examination of leadership emotions) can help fill the gaps of knowledge as to why leaders of weak states choose to submit to or resist great power coercion.

The two broadly defined academic groups that seek to explain human decision making in international relations are the rationalists, who view man as homo economicus, making decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis of consequences, and the constructivists, who view man as homo sociologicus, making decisions based on social norms and appropriateness within a community. Markwica seeks to add a third group to help explain decision making: homo emotionalis, “emotional, social, and physiological beings whose emotions connect them to and separate them from significant others.” Markwica notes that these three groups are not mutually exclusive and often work in an interrelated, if complicated, manner.

He identifies five primary emotions—fear, anger, hope, pride, and humiliation—that, if they dominate a leader’s emotional state, could increase the likelihood of either compliance or noncompliance with the coercer’s demands. All five of these emotions could lead to noncompliance, but Markwica identifies only two that could also lead to compliance: fear and humiliation. Thus, the coercer’s dilemma: to succeed, the coercer must instill the fear and humiliation of noncompliance, but not to the point where those same emotions could prompt the victim state to resist. This dilemma yields perhaps Markwica’s greatest insight of the book: “Coercers not only need to develop a good understanding of target leaders’ identities and emotion norms. They also require empathy, i.e., the capacity to infer how someone else is currently feeling and to imagine how someone will likely feel in response to certain signals.”

To test his theory of “how and to what extent” emotions play a decision-making role within the context of coercive diplomacy, Markwica examines two case studies, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the lead up to and beginning of the Gulf War in 1990–1991. In each case, Markwica examines eight pivotal decisions of the coerced state leadership and whether, or how intensely, emotions played a role. To his credit, Markwica readily acknowledges when there is not enough evidence to support the expression of certain feelings and the relevance of the emotions he does find evidence of, using five categories (unknown, irrelevant, minor, relevant, and important) to describe the role of each of the five emotions.

Markwica provides adequate primary source citations so the reader will feel mostly confident in the presence and relevance of each emotion for each decision, but the nagging thought that the historical record may be grossly undocumented remains. Again to his credit, Markwica acknowledges that some emotions remain undocumented due to a lack of recording by participants, forgotten memories, or the most likely reason: leaders keep their emotions to themselves or mask them in cold rationality. In group dynamics, for example, strong tendencies toward groupthink and social acceptance disincentivize expressing certain emotions. In this the reader must humbly accept, as Markwica does, that in the human condition, uncertainty is a feature, not a bug to be fixed.

While Markwica does an admirable job explaining the number of ways emotions can be documented, his work falls short in acknowledging that state leaders have often sought to mislead or deceive other state leaders by expressing false emotions. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt famously sought to manipulate a desperate Joseph Stalin by inundating him with concessions to gain personal rapport and a better bargaining position.1   One thinks of Sun Tzu’s famous advice, “If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.” Markwica’s model, which advocates attempting to recognize and exploit the opponent’s emotional state, will be frustrated by the clever bluffer, and history shows there are many. Markwica may fairly argue that such bluffs bedevil both the rationalist and constructivist camps, but the emotional theory he advocates is especially vulnerable. State leaders often believe they can connect with each other on an emotional level, a la George W. Bush looking into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and getting “a sense of his soul.”2

Another flaw in Emotional Choices, though somewhat minor, is the lack of discussion of what factors may influence certain emotions, particularly the effect on mental illness. Pres. Abraham Lincoln and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill undoubtedly had some form of depression that affected their emotions, and thus, decision making.3  In some cases, these illnesses helped them to avoid the trap of unjustified optimism, or “hope” and “pride” in Markwica’s terms. As political psychologist Jerrold Post has written on prolifically, narcissism ranging from the benign to the malignant to the clinical/psychopathological surrounds political leaders in many cultures.4  Thus mental illness from the mild to severe may play a constraining role in how leaders are able to regulate their emotions and therefore their decisions.

That being said, this book lays an excellent foundation for future research both in the areas of psychology and international relations. For instance, in the latter area, did how the coerced felt emotionally match with how the coercer wanted them to feel? Were the coercers successful in producing the desired emotions, or did they produce different emotions than intended? Did the coercers even realize they produced certain emotions within the coerced? What signals did the coercer focus on as a check on whether a certain emotion was produced with the desired result?

Another fruitful area for research lies in the psychological realm, by exploring how test subjects react knowing that another subject may be trying to manipulate their emotions. Humans have a natural tendency to think they are in control of their emotions or have the ultimate say over how they feel. But knowing that someone else, whether someone stronger or in authority, is trying to make you feel a particular emotion may induce a natural desire to resist.

Markwica brilliantly combines the latest insights from neuropsychology and international relations to produce an excellent framework for understanding how emotions can affect state leaders under the most stressful circumstances. His findings have great theoretical value and provide policy makers with insight on the psychological processes involved in coercive diplomacy, their relevance, and the great caution they should induce. Markwica’s insight that “the capacity to empathize is just as important to the success of coercive diplomacy as the perceived credibility of threats” may be his most important. “Think of how others will feel” is not just an important piece of advice our parents told us, it may be one of the primary determinants in the success of diplomacy and the avoidance of war.

Matthew R. Costlow


[1]. Gary Kearn, “How “Uncle Joe” Bugged FDR,” CIA.gov, 2003, https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol47no1/article02.html.

[2]. Jane Perlez, “Cordial Rivals: How Bush and Putin Became Friends,” New York Times, 18 June 2001, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/06/18/world/cordial-rivals-how-bush-and-putin-became-friends.html.

[3]. Nassir Ghaemi, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness (New York: Penguin Books, 2012).

[4]. Jerrold M. Post, Narcissism and Politics: Dreams of Glory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."