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Governing from the Gut: Emotion in World Politics

Although often painted as problematic for rational decision making, emotion is a human trait that must be accounted for in analyses of real-world decision making processes.

Sometimes I find that classroom conversations from years ago have new relevance in the present period. I recall a classroom debate in the York University International Relations Core Course during my PhD program, over the strategic basis of nuclear deterrence. After reviewing the various claims and counter claims about the cold logic of mutually assured destruction, and inspired at least in part by Carol Cohn’s groundbreaking work “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals”,* I found myself questioning the rationalist foundations of nuclear strategy. “But (I said with all of the confidence of youth), don’t nuclear scientists and strategic game theorists care about their families and their fates? How can they be so dispassionate about contemplating total annihilation? How can they go to work and talk about clean bombs and counter value targeting (a euphemism for attacking cities) and then go home and hug and kiss their kids?”  The reason, I was told, is that they do what they do BECAUSE they care….they are dispassionate because that is how they, and we all, end up alive.  Their caring is what motivates their clear thinking.

This answer still strikes me as unsatisfying in many ways.  What precisely does it mean to ‘care’ in strategic decision making?  ‘Caring’ is an emotional response. Although often painted as problematic for rational decision making, emotion is a human trait that must be accounted for in analyses of real-world decision making processes.

There are many examples of ’emotions gone wrong’ in world politics.  George W. Bush’s strong desire to attack Iraq in 2003 was in part a personal and emotional reaction to how he perceived his father had been threatened by Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. The first attack on Iraq in 1991 was itself in part motivated by shock at widely-reported atrocities by Iraqi forces after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. These reports later turned out to be false, but the outraged reaction fed into the public’s willingness to support a new narrative of Iraq, and Hussein in particular, as a savage and villainous leader.

Before launching his invasion of Kuwait, Hussein had been considered a strategic ally, despite his use of chemical weapons against Iran and his own people. In a famous meeting between American diplomat April Glaspie and Saddam Hussein on the eve of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Glaspie said that the US had “no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait”. This, perhaps inadvertently, suggested a green light for Iraq to invade, a miscommunication with consequences still being felt years later.

“It is striking that people often preserve their images in the face of what seems in retrospect to have been clear evidence to the contrary” ~Robert Jervis

Analysts have approached the subject of emotion in decision making from a variety of different angles. To the extent that emotions result in misread signals and a tendency to rash action, these are viewed as highly problematic for peace, stability, and prosperity in 1426009world politics.

During the high stakes and high tensions of Cold War diplomacy, governments sought advice from experts who could help them better understand how emotions could impair rational decision making. One of those experts was Robert Jervis, whose master work Perception and Misperception in International Politics was first published in 1976.

Among the many insights in Jervis’s enduring work, the idea that cognitive dissonance, or an inability to cope with the tension between real experiences and beliefs, motivates people to misread the signals and intentions of others. As Jervis stated: “It is striking that people often preserve their images in the face of what seems in retrospect to have been clear evidence to the contrary (143).”  So true.

Jervis’s work was part of a larger conversation between realists and their critics over whether decision making could be truly rational. Realists and others argued that decision making could and should be prudent, deliberative, objective, and rigorous, if it was to be effective.  Critics, like Jervis, argued that ‘pure’ rationality was elusive, and at any rate not necessarily desirable since even the most ‘rational’ decisions can create irrational and suboptimal outcomes. The Prisoners’ Dilemma is the prime example of how ‘rational’ decision making can create less desirable outcomes than those that might come about with more trust, empathy, and communication between leaders.

One of the most important observations made by Jervis was that “perceptions of the world and of other actors diverge from reality in patterns that we can detect and for reasons that we can understand.” But is this still the case in the age of Trump?

Major policy decisions and international diplomacy now appear to be made virtually on the fly, with little deliberation, on the spur of emotional reaction that appears to have little pattern or reason. Emotion has moved to the centre of decision making, moving from the margins to be a primary driver of governance at elite and popular levels. Virtually no one sees ‘governing from the gut’ as a positive development, given the volatility of, for example, relations between the US and a potentially nuclear-armed North Korea.

The Guinness Book of World Records said between 12 and 14 million people came out to protest the Iraq War on February 15th, 2003, the largest protest in the history of the world.

Is there an upside to recognizing the role of emotions in decision making? As well as being volatile, emotions can also lead people to identify and empathize with others, an important human capacity that leads to movements for peace, development assistance, and generosity during humanitarian disasters or suffering.  Just as hatred for Hussein led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, empathy and caring led hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks to protest that war in the largest demonstrations in history.  As I pointed out in class, caring is key and should be central to understanding motivations.

As well as being volatile, emotions can also lead people to identify and empathize with others, an important human capacity that leads to movements for peace, development assistance, and generosity during humanitarian disasters or suffering.

There is a marked erosion of empathy in the world today, whether caused by donor fatigue, news fatigue, or a rise in the general level of fear and threat. Anxiety ‘crowds out’ empathy.  In this context, the realist/rationalist effort to banish emotion from decision making, in both practical and theoretical terms, seems misguided.  What is needed is a reframing of the role of emotion.

Emotional reactions exist, but so do emotional connections. Empathy is needed to ‘temper’ tempers. In an ‘age of anger’ it is healthier to recognize, name and acknowledge the role of emotions in human decisions than it is to pursue an impossible goal of pure, cold, and clinical rationality. Deliberation, democracy and debate, whether on social media, in the Oval Office, or between negotiators, should be based on a mutual recognition of emotions as part of the discussion.

The point is not to exclude emotions from world politics in favour of an ideal of detached rationalism. The point is to avoid confusing emotional expressions with strategic decisionmaking.  To return to the original discussion about nuclear strategy, it is the caring that creates the strategy, the desire for self-preservation that motivates rational thinking.

The world’s history of miscommunication, misunderstanding and unintentional effects do not bode well. The key ingredients of nuclear deterrence are capability and credibility, and Trump is sorely lacking in the latter.  In the game of war, confusions of intent are, and have been, deadly: from 1914 to 2003, and up to today. To the extent that rationalist theory urges clear eyed thinking and deliberation, it can contribute to keeping cooler heads. But even rationalists should not seek to banish all emotion, since a lack of caring leads to less human decisions that ultimately may end up threatening all of us.



*I highly recommend Cohn’s piece, if only for her great lyrical analysis of gendered language in defense strategy, with terms like “vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted
versus spasm attacks” (page 693).

How to Follow the News: 10 Rules of Thumb

After following the news for many years and thinking about world events, I’ve been able to observe some things about news gathering. I’m an advocate of reasoned and dispassionate analysis based on information, but it can be hard to be impartial when so much of the news today is biased one way or another.  However, I don’t believe that reasoned thinking about international events is incompatible with advocacy.   The strongest and most defensible points of view are those that are supported with evidence and with thoughtful and informed reasoning.  Sometimes, though, it’s hard to be informed when the media obscures the truth.  The rise of the internet has not made it any easier.  In fact, speculation and accusations are given even a wider audience when things go viral.  So, here is some advice, feel free to take it or leave it, and try to keep an open mind.

  1. There are angels and devils on both sides, but this doesn’t mean the claims and arguments of both sides are morally equivalent.

In the aftermath of rage over the killing of 3 Israeli teens, many Israelis protected Arabs attacked by crowds on public transit.  Many Palestinians have worked inside and outside Israel for peace and understanding between the two sides.   Ordinary people on both sides want the same things everyone wants:  a chance to live peacefully, make a living, and enjoy some freedom.  Nevertheless, the costs of the long conflict have not been borne by both sides equally, and this reflects the large power imbalance between the two sides. This imbalance should be a factor when deciding one’s view.   Here is an analysis that puts this conflict in context, and considers the ethical arguments.  Here is another.

2. Real life events are [almost] always more complicated than they seem.

Folly, lack of foresight, incompetence and brutality can produce unexpected outcomes for all sides.   Indeed, the last few months have seen an unprecedented array of crises emerging in a variety of global locales.  In a highly competitive market, so-called ‘hard reporting’ has been replaced with shallowness at best, and inflammatory styles of reporting at worst  One consequence is that there are few able to offer a strategic analysis of a event.   One must often wait, or dig deeper, to get a better understanding of the big picture.  Try to find out about what happened in the immediate weeks prior to the event, or read about the country and regions involved to get a sense of the context.

3. People and systems are distinct things.

Individuals, whether in a leadership position or not, develop cognitive frames over the course of their lives to understand the world and their position in it.  Both people and systems will actively protect those frames, but systems take much longer to change course, partly because they are supported by longer generational memories. Systems are more permanent, and every system demands allegiance, but be careful not to identify individuals as symbols for systems, they are not the same thing.  People behave differently in a group than they do as individuals.

4. Sometimes good people do bad things, and vice versa.

Beware of the ad hominem argument.  An examination of the actor is often insufficient to explain any given behaviour or action.  A given actor usually cannot be reduced to a single bad (or good) decision.

5. Opportunism is far more common than planned conspiracies.

It is almost never good strategy to organize and plan an attack on one’s own people in order to gain sympathy.   The risks of discovery are high, and the results can backfire.   For example,  some explanations of the Odessa event of May 2nd 2014, in which dozens were killed in street clashes between pro-federalist and nationalist forces in Ukraine, strain credulity by claiming ‘agent provocateurs’ were responsible.  Similarly, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu tried to paint a negative view of the opposition by stating that: “Hamas wants civilian casualties”.   Be skeptical of such oversimplified characterizations and convoluted theories. Recognize that different sides will opportunistically use images to elicit anger and sympathy for their cause.   Have anger, and have empathy.

6. People don’t like inconsistencies, but these are frequent and often deep in human events.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that happensPhilosoraptor when information is contradictory. Individuals often go to great lengths to overcome  the discomfort, including ignoring contradictory information, oversimplifying the facts, and narrowing the frame of reference.  Try to recognize these strategies in yourself and others. Try to become comfortable with contradiction, blurriness, messiness, and complexity.

7. Every report becomes part of a track record, don’t forget the past.

Don’t base your decision on a single report, study, or bit of information.  Compare today’s headlines with those of the past. Don’t forget when today’s reports conflict with those of yesterday. Follow stories that are given less attention, so you will know more about them.

8. All sides will try to appeal to emotions.  Beware of manipulation.

The internet and television news are eminently malleable, with out-of-context quotes, selective information, and even photo manipulation. Watch for terms like “appears to be” and for leading questions that raise doubt or provoke.   Think about what the media is choosing to focus on when preparing a story. Consider the effect of the format and phases of revealing a story.

9. Look deeply, look widely, and compare reports from a variety of sources.  Look for hard evidence, not eye witness accounts.

Personal interviews are a mainstay of video reporting.  They are ALL edited, and eye witnesses, even when sincere, are unreliable.

10. Beware of appeals to authority.

Even those with inside knowledge, high levels of education, and recognized credentials can sometimes lie.   People can also be mistaken in their facts and biased by their education.   Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other UN agencies have long established track records and can generally be trusted when other sources are more questionable.  However, they are also not infallible.