A Theory of Emotional Choice for International Relations

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Robin Markwica *

Why do states often refuse to yield to military threats from a more powerful actor, such as the United States? Why do they frequently prefer war to compliance? International Relations scholars generally employ the rational choice logic of consequences or the constructivist logic of appropriateness to explain this puzzling behavior. Max Weber, however, suggested a third logic of choice in his magnum opus Economy and Society: human decision-making can also be motivated by emotions.

Drawing on Weber and more recent research in sociology and psychology, my new book introduces the logic of affect, or emotional choice theory, into the field of International Relations. Emotional choice theory posits that individual-level decision-making is shaped by the dynamic interplay among norms, identities, and five key emotions: fear, anger, hope, pride, and humiliation.

While norms and identities represent important long-term underlying conditions in decision processes, emotions function as essential short-term catalysts for change.

The logic of affect is not an oxymoron. After two decades of research, neuroscientists and psychologists have shattered the orthodox view that “passions” stand in opposition to rationality. Their work indicates that the capacity to feel is a prerequisite for reasoned judgment and rational behavior. Moreover, they have found that each discrete emotion, such as fear, anger, or sadness, has a logic of its own. They are associated with specific “appraisal tendencies” and “action tendencies” that guide judgment and choice selection in systematic ways.

An emotion’s appraisal tendencies influence what and how we think, while its action tendencies affect what we want and do. People who are angry, for example, tend to make optimistic risk estimates and feel impulses to confront the source of anger with the aim of removing it. On the basis of these tendencies, the book puts forward a series of propositions that specify the affective conditions under which leaders are likely to give in to or to reject a coercer’s military threats.

To assess emotional choice theory’s analytic power, I apply it in two historical case studies: Nikita Khrushchev’s response to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and Saddam Hussein’s decision-making during the Gulf conflict in 1990-91.

The Cuban missile crisis, 1962
On October 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy learned that Moscow was clandestinely furnishing nuclear missiles to Cuba. After a week of secret deliberations with his senior advisers, he announced a naval quarantine of the island, demanding the removal of the weapons.

Nikita Khrushchev’s response was defiant. He refused to withdraw the missiles and accused the White House of precipitating a third world war. The ensuing confrontation between the two countries is widely seen as the most dangerous moment in recorded history. Five days later, however, Khrushchev agreed to take the rockets out. What had led him to change his mind?

The book shows that Khrushchev’s initial defiance was not only shaped by his hope that his technicians in Cuba would soon complete all missile installations. It was also influenced by his sense of humiliation and anger at what he saw as the Kennedy administration’s refusal to recognize him as leader of a power co-equal to the United States.

In the last four days of the crisis, however, the decline of Khrushchev’s hope, anger, and humiliation, the absence or low level of pride, and a growing fear of nuclear war shaped his preference for giving in to US demands. His fear was not triggered by JFK’s alleged resolve to attack Cuba, as most existing accounts imply. Rather, it was elicited by a growing belief that the US president might lose control over bellicose hardliners in his administration.

Khrushchev’s identity dynamics help to explain why he did not experience any humiliation when he finally decided to withdraw the missiles from Cuba. He interpreted a message from Washington at the height of the crisis to mean that Kennedy was at long last recognizing him as leader of a co-equal power. This perceived validation of his identity enabled him to preserve his self-esteem in retreat.

The Gulf conflict, 1990-91
On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein caught the world off guard when he invaded the neighboring emirate of Kuwait. The George H. W. Bush administration pursued a strategy of coercive diplomacy to get him to withdraw from the emirate. It assembled more than 700,000 US and allied troops in the Gulf region and threatened to attack if Baghdad did not pull out. Nevertheless, Saddam Hussein refused to comply, and the United States went to war. Why did he not back down in the face of this array of military power?

The documentary record suggests that Saddam Hussein’s behavior was shaped by a complex set of emotions: He found it difficult to give up on Kuwait because its conquest served as a continuous source of pride for his narcissistic self. He also came to nourish hope that he would be able to defeat the American troops with the support of foreign volunteer fighters from across the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, he tried hard to down-regulate his fear of a US attack, partly because his identity as the “Arab knight” placed a taboo on the experience of this emotion.

Toward the end of the crisis, any fear that Saddam Hussein may have felt came to be overlaid by a deep sense of humiliation and anger at what he saw as the Bush administration’s degrading behavior.

The combination of these emotions and identity dynamics influenced his desire to resist in the face of all adversity.

The emotional construction of social reality
The case studies show that emotions can guide decision-makers in subtle and profound ways. The acceleration of politics and policy-making that instant communication has brought about is bound to make the role of affective experience even more salient.

As leaders are facing growing volumes of information, time pressure, and distraction, they are more likely to be under the influence of strong emotion when they assess potential courses of action.

Furthering our understanding of how affect shapes behavior is thus more important than ever. If we wish to better comprehend this world of our making, we need to take into consideration that it is not only socially but also emotionally constructed.

*Robin Markwica is a Max Weber Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. His book is entitled Emotional Choices: How the Logic of Affect Shapes Coercive Diplomacy and will be released by Oxford University Press in March 2018.

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