European Affairs

Psychological Fears and Hopes Transatlantic Wedge     Print Email
Garret Martin

National Emotions Have Growing Importance in Globalized Politics

Do emotions – and not just realpolitik or economics – play a key role in geopolitics? The thesis that they do powerfully shape international developments is masterfully argued by Dominique Moïsi in his latest book, The Geopolitics of Emotion: how cultures of fear, humiliation, and hope are reshaping the world (translated from the French for publication in New York: Doubleday, 2009)

He makes the eloquent case that globalization is providing fertile ground “for the blossoming or even the explosion of emotions” by its ability to cause insecurity and raise the question of identity.

Moïsi believes that, if the twentieth century was the “century of ideology,” the 21st
century is “the century of identity” -- and will become ever more so. Identity, he argues, is central in our world of fast change, interconnectedness and shrinking borders because of its intrinsic connection to the notion of confidence: “in a world dominated by identity, we are defined less by our political beliefs and ideas than by the perception of our essence, by the confidence we gain from our achievements and the respect we receive from others or by the lack thereof.” Confidence, in turn, is best reflected by the three key and mutually dependent emotions of hope, fear and humiliation.

These three emotions, reflecting either the abundance or absence of confidence, are defined as vital ingredients for human beings. Individuals “require these three elements in order to live in a healthy manner. But health depends on the right balance among them.” What is true for human beings also applies to societies; Moïsi contends that “emotions reflect the degree of confidence that a society has in itself”, as well as its ability to “rebound following a crisis, to respond to a challenge, and to adjust to changing circumstances.”

With that approach in mind, the author provides a very personal and sweeping mapping of emotions throughout the world. Using a broad brush, he depicts Asia (especially China and India) as the main locus of hope, the Arab-Muslim world as rife with humiliation, and the West as dominated by fear – although he does make a distinction between the fear that consumes the Unites States and that which paralyzes Europe.

While the main thrust of Moïsi’s argument addresses the confidence level of various societies, he does also briefly suggest that emotions can significantly affect relations between states. Specifically, he points to the fact that the differing types of fear that prevailed in the United States and in Europe in recent years helped to divide, rather than unite, the two allies. So should we therefore pay more systematic attention to the impact of emotions on transatlantic relations, as opposed to simply considering the more traditional binding elements such as common values, history and interests? Can emotions shed new light on the past, present and future of the partnership between the United States and Europe? Moïsi’s approach makes a convincing case that they do.

The “century of national identity” has supplanted a “century of ideology”

In the aftermath of World War Two, a healthy combination of fear, humiliation and hope helped to forge the lasting alliance between the United States and a devastated Western Europe. The threat of a communist takeover or of a Soviet military invasion naturally created convergence, but the fear of repeating the mistakes of the past also crucially motivated closer transatlantic ties. Unlike what happened after World War One, post-war Western Europeans wanted the United States to remain involved on the continent, and the latter was happy to oblige. Washington understood the necessity of establishing new international economic structures in order to prevent a complete breakdown as occurred during the Great Depression; and the Western Europeans nations realized that they needed to overcome the internecine conflict that had twice plunged the continent into chaos.

These dramatic changes reflected not only the humiliating position in which Western Europe found itself after the trauma and devastation of the two world wars, but also the profound hope that the demons of the past could be overcome. Thus, the process of European integration resulted in part from the belief that ever closer cooperation between nations could serve to transcend the former bitter enmity between France and Germany. The Western European states trusted that the United States could guarantee their security, and both partners in turn never lost the hope that Europe would eventually recover its unity.

Of course, Western Europeans and Americans often disagreed vigorously during the course of the Cold War, placing strains on the emotional foundations of the transatlantic alliance. They differed on the extent of the Soviet threat and at times worried that the division of Europe risked becoming more permanent. Yet, these moments of tension never managed to seriously indent the common sense of purpose, the combination of fear and hope that kept Europeans and Americans side-by-side during the four decades of the East-West conflict.

The peaceful end of the Cold War marked a moment of great triumph and hope for the partnership between Western Europe and the United States. However, the high optimism of that period would prove short lived, as the healthy combination of emotions that had underpinned transatlantic relations in the past has increasingly given way to the more imbalanced and stagnant present situation.

The collapse of the Soviet Union naturally created a vacuum in transatlantic relations, well defined by the quote in the Moïsi book of former Gorbachev adviser, Aleksandr Yakovlev: “We [the Soviet Union] are going to do something terrible to you; we are going to disappear as a threat. The glue of your alliance will no longer be there to keep you united.”

Naturally, the end of the Cold War did not mean the removal of all threats for the foreseeable future; but none of the challenges that emerged in the aftermath presented the same kind of present and clear danger that the Soviet Union had. Even the events of September 11th could not remedy that situation. Europe expressed genuine solidarity for its American ally in the aftermath of the attacks, but that did not translate into a sense of common fear. The “global war on terror” pursued by the Bush administration proved too vague and did not really win the allegiance of many European states. September 11th became, as Moïsi explains, example of a fear that divides rather than unites.

Moreover, aside from the lack of a common and binding fear, transatlantic relations also suffered as a result of humiliation experienced by the Europeans during the conflicts in former Yugoslavia. Their inability, in particular, to end the fighting in Bosnia without the help of the United States seriously rattled their sense of self-confidence while strengthening American scorn for their European partners.

Tied to this issue, despite the high hopes of the end of the Cold War, a reunified Europe has struggled to properly define its identity and purpose. Many of the former Soviet bloc states joined the European Union in 2004, but their integration is proving harder than anticipated. Thus, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is quite apparent that the emotional foundations of the transatlantic partnership are severely strained. Can we, like Moïsi does in the final chapter of the book, speculate on what the alliance between the United States and Europe might look like in 2025? Will the emotional decline persist, turning transatlantic relations into an empty shell? Or will transatlantic relations receive an emotional boost that gives a renewed sense of common purpose to the alliance?

Moïsi believes shared hope represents the best chance for renewing the emotional foundations of transatlantic partnership

It seems unlikely that fear will provide the impetus for closer ties; the chances that an existential threat like the Soviet Union will surface in the next few years remain rather small. It appears more probable that both Europe and the United States will continue to face an array of disparate dangers, known or unknown, including nuclear proliferation, terrorism, global warming or economic turmoil. Prioritizing these threats will not be easy, and they have as much potential to divide as they do to stand united. Likewise, the prospects of humiliation as a binding emotion are limited, and would surely need a dramatic economic turnaround, such as the West falling quickly behind the new economic powerhouses such as China or India.

So if fear and humiliation are not the answers, what about hope? Moïsi believes this represents the best chance to provide strong and renewed emotional foundations to the fragile transatlantic relations. A more ambitious and outward looking European Union, willing to take on a greater share of the burden, could encourage the United States to be more restrained, more cooperative and more inclined to respect its European partners. The Lisbon Treaty, about to enter into force, will prove to be a step in that direction.


Garret Martin has been an Assistant Professorial Lecturer at George Washington University, specializing in International History, and is editor at large at the European Affairs.