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? If you talked to someone next to you, would that person be able to accurately tell how you are feeling? 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, the result could be 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 his book Emotional Choices: How the Logic of Affect Shapes Coercive Diplomacy. The promise and peril of coercive diplomacy, as Markwica describes, is 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 social norms / constructivist model. Both models have valuable insights, but Markwica believes a “theory of affect”—an examination of leadership emotions—can help fill in the gaps of knowledge as to why leaders of weak states choose to submit or resist great power coercion. 

Two broadly defined academic groups seek to explain human decision-making in international relations: rationalists view man as homo economicus, making decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis of consequences, while constructivists 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 quickly, and correctly, notes that these three groups are not mutually exclusive and often work in an interrelated, if complicated, manner.  

He then identifies five primary emotions——fear, anger, hope, pride, and humiliation—that, if dominating a leader’s emotional state, could increase the likelihood of either compliance or noncompliance with the coercer’s demands. Although all of these emotions could lead to noncompliance with the coercer’s demands, Markwica identifies only the emotions of fear and humiliation as also potentially leading to compliance. Thus, the coercer’s dilemma is that to succeed, the coercer must instill the fear and humiliation of noncompliance in the victim state but not to the point where those same emotions could prompt it 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 . . . [but 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 role in decision-making 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―91. In each case, Markwica examines eight pivotal decisions of the coerced state leadership and whether, or how intensely, emotions played a role in their decisions to comply or resist. To his great credit, Markwica readily acknowledges when there is not enough evidence to support either the expression of certain feelings or their relevance, using the categories of unknown, irrelevant, minor, relevant, and important to describe the role of each of the five emotions in each decision for each case.  

Markwica provides adequate primary source citations, so the reader will feel mostly confident in the presence and relevance of each emotion for each decision; however, the nagging thought that the historical record may be grossly undocumented remains. Again, to his credit, Markwica acknowledges that some emotions that may even play a major role in decision-making will remain undocumented as participants haven’t recorded those instances or have forgotten them. The most likely reason for the scarcity of such evidence, however, is that leaders generally keep their emotions to themselves or mask them in language of cold rationality. In group dynamics, for example, there are strong tendencies toward groupthink and social acceptance, which disincentivize expressing certain emotions. In this the reader must humbly accept, as Markwica does, that in the human condition, uncertainty is a feature and not a bug to be fixed. 

While Markwica does an admirable job of explaining the number of ways emotions can be documented, his work does fall short in acknowledging that state leaders have often purposely sought to mislead or deceive other state leaders by expressing false emotions. President Roosevelt famously sought to manipulate a desperate Joseph Stalin by inundating him with concessions to gain personal rapport and a better bargaining position.i 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. In response, 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, à la George W. Bush looking into Putin’s eyes and getting “a sense of his soul.”ii 

Another flaw in Emotional Choices, though somewhat minor, is the lack of discussion of what factors may influence certain emotions, particularly the effect of mental illness on emotions. President Lincoln and Prime Minister Churchill undoubtedly had some form of depression affecting their emotions and thus decision-making.iii 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.iv 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 researchers to explore, both in the areas of psychology and international relations. For instance, in the area of international relations, were the coercers successful in producing the desired emotions, or did they produce different emotions outside of those intended? Did the coercers even realize they produced certain emotions within the coerced? What signals did the coercer focus on as a check for whether a certain emotion and the desired result were produced?  

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, of course, have a natural tendency to think that 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.  

The author 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 not only have great theoretical value but also provide policy makers 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  

"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."