Dominique Moïsi’ s 2009 The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation and Hope are Reshaping the World, is not the text I was looking for when I picked it up, but has much to say of salient and immediate importance.

I have long imagined that an explanation for the alacrity, haste and repetitiveness with which we humans go to war has its sources in deep, inescapable, barely understood and  contagious emotions, especially those of Humiliation and Resentment, Vengeance, Contempt, Fear and Greed, among others.  We own them from millennia of evolutionary response to the world. Some may be more basic than others –our true genetic inheritance;  some may be socially built out of those. No matter.

Armies come second.  The rational fore-brain, drawing on the imperatives of its underpinning emotions, organizes men into armies, usually in anticipation of, though sometimes in response to, what other men are doing, or feared to be doing, and thereby provide loop-back nutrients for the sustenance and growth of the primary emotions.  If there is no enemy presently on stage, there is always one  in the wings. Since the French Revolution and the first national army,  this has happened not just among small professional armies, or the levies of men forced from time to time to aid them, but among whole populations,  across class, gender and age.   So, I hoped to read from someone smarter than me, explaining all this. Something like Barbara Ehrenreich set about in her Blood Rites: Origin and History of the Passions of War — about how the long fore-ground of being prey not predator shaped the human genome and our species-long war-happy behavior.

This is not that book.  Rather, it is a set of Thomas Friedman like essays, using personal anecdote, observation and capacious, though unexamined, ideas like hope, fear and humiliation,  applied to an International Relations perspective, to explain enormous national-social events.


Moïsi, a student of, and commentator on, international affairs, takes as a given that such wide, shared social/national emotions exist.  He does not explore them, their foundations, growth or persistence though social life, or indeed how one emotion departs and another arrives.  He does say that the motivation for wars can be found here – and that this has not been much studied.

Describing himself as a “passionately moderate man,” he hopes to “provide a corrective to the simplified views — such as those of Frances Fukuyama or Samuel Huntington– that tend to dominate most discourse on International Relations.”  He wants to look at ” the mix of emotions and shades of gray most truly characteristic of our world.”

In six chapters, of 160 pages, he sets out his thesis — that the cultures of Hope, of Humiliation, and of Fear, act globally, shaping the tensions and providing the motivations for much national behavior.

He has chosen these three emotions rather than others, such as anger, despair, resentment, because  “they are closely linked the the notion of confidence,” which he has been struck by in people he has met in lectures and meetings around the world; lack of confidence in their own future, in their ability to shape their lives or participate in what they experience of the world, a world heavily weighted by the processes and results of globalization.

What he wants to do is to “map” the emotions  to see patterns of behavior that might explain what is going on, much as resources,  demography, languages, illness, have been mapped for decades.

Mapping emotions is a difficult project, he agrees.  Even the old mappings are far less “objective” than they are taken to be.  And emotions are far less tangible.  They may vary among small, intermixed populations, dominant Sunni and dominated Shia as but one example; they may change as headlines change.  Nevertheless, it is worth doing.  Thinking about International Relations in terms of oil, access to the sea, fertile land may benefit by adding certain emotions to the mix.

For Moïsi, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the”archetypal encounter between two of the primary emotions — hope and fear.  But larger than that, he finds in his three central chapters that Asia, particularly “Chindia” — China & India–  is the geography of Hope, or resilient confidence.  Europe and America are caught up in Fear and Anxiety while the Arab-Muslim world is sharply marked by feelings of Humiliation.

Following the broad brush strokes of nations predominantly exhibiting one of the three emotions he looks at the “Hard Problems,” citing six nations which do not readily fall into a single camp, but have with in them more or less equal measures of several:  Russia, for example, hopeful and humiliated, fearful and xxxx



A lot of this makes a kind of intuitive,  perhaps “common” sense.  If I feel humiliated I imagine revenge, so must others; if many do, then their nations/societies must as well. Yet, as I read this I am more and more uneasy.  Can an emotion, a property of all individuals, yet expressed differently in each, properly be said to pertain to a Nation?  Certainly there is some integral calculus of shared emotion, such that the many is felt as one.  Tulip manias and lynch mobs show us that.  But that is not what is being investigated here.  Ever since the infamous books during and post WW II with titles such as Understanding the Japanese Mind   I’ve been suspicious of these understandable but fraught thought-experiments which anthropomorphize society from the shared behavior of those comprising  it.

When the “evidence” is anecdotal –encounters on the lecture trail–,  or polls taken of “confidence,” or “are things getting better or worse,” I sense even more strongly that, while interesting to speculate about, these are difficult sands to build a house upon.  As an essai, a test of ideas, it is interesting.  He calls as witnesses many informed and intelligent commentators –Olivier Roy, Edward Said on the Middle East,   Amartya Sen on India for example.  But it is interesting in the way certain dinner party conversations are  interesting — suggestive, novel, plausible but not, without much more detail and structure, very useful for understanding what is happening now in the world, or what might happen next.  We can’t even easily distinguish among the various species of hope in the genus —  false-hope, well founded hope, earned hope, straw-clutching hope, much less say India is a continent of hope.  We can understand that some Muslim youth feel humiliated, and act upon it, in some cases “getting revenge” and putting and end to their emotion by ending their own lives. But there would seem to be many species of humiliation, as well.


For those interested in more detail …

Hope is the first chapter-long dive into his meaning.  “Hope is confidence,” he begins, using a Chinese worker in Angola to exemplify what this means, at the individual level: “If we try our best and work hard, the future is beautiful.”  “Hope today is about economic and social empowerment,” he says “and it’s chief dwelling place is in the East.” He gives examples of bold new architecture of China, of the confidence to merge of musical genres, medical practices of East and West, of presenting new icons of fashion.  He acknowledges some caveats to his idea; Asian is a Western construct (though not as much as he claims, I believe.) Laotians do not see themselves as similar to Chinese as we in the West do.  However, Hope, as he sees it, pervades the region — enough to lift through the despair and poverty of millions of fellow citizens and somehow carry the nation forward.

Much of what we read, however, is not about Hope, the emotion, and how it might operate, but is the language of familiar diplomatic norms and categories. China is playing a positive role in defusing the North Korea problem;  the rise of economically successful and non democratic countries; economic progress and political stagnation; the Tibet problem; the eclipse of American influence.  In other words, this is a book not of psychology or even mass-psychology but International Relations.

Besides China, a major part of his evidence is India.  In fact he uses the portmanteau word “Chindia,” coined by an Indian journalist,  to refer to the shared rise of both.  about which he has interesting observations, both as to confidence  and yet uncertainty.  Bollywood movies are popular far outside of India, for example.  The GDP has been growing at 10% a year, compared to anemic rates in the west.

Japan, however, is not a full participant in this Asian Hope.  Being historically, and more aggressive to its neighbors, and more influenced by the West, it had its moment of Hope following WW II, which collapsed in the 1990s.  Since then it has had more of a culture of Fear, or self-doubt.

The second major chapter is The Culture of Humiliation..

“If hope is confidence, humiliation is impotence … a feeling that you are no longer in control of your life, either collectively as a people, a nation, a religious community, or individually, as a single person.”

Humiliation, he says,  exists in all cultures but there is good humiliation and bad. Some humiliation is motivational –to work harder–  as Taiwan and South Korea responded to Japan’s growth following WW II.  It can act on nations, as on individuals, to reinforce the instinct of competition.  Humiliation without hope, however, leads to despair and nurtures ideas of revenge  Humiliation is now largely prevalent in the Arab-Islamic world.  He gives a brief survey of Ottomans’ rise and fall.  Humiliation tracked a sense of historical decline which began, he says, in 1683, and the failure to take Vienna.  The Arab defeat in the Six Day war “was perceived not only as a military set back but more profoundly as a form of moral judgement.”

Of course, the existence of Israel is “absolute proof of their own decay,” not only the existence of Israel but the “multiplication of controls and roadblocks” through which they have to pass, reinforcing this sense of powerlessness on a daily, and personally felt level.

Globalization adds to sense of humiliation as the growing success in Asia and high material standards in the West are compared to the lack of the same in the Arab-Islamic world.

The culture of humiliation underlies the attraction of many Muslims to terrorist violence, he says quoting Lebanese journalist  Samir Kassir, that  … jihadist Islamism  is “the only ideology that seems to offer relief from the victim status the Arabs delight in claiming.”

Again, there is much to unpack here.  Humiliation at the end of an empire would seem to be different than humiliation from being made to feel, subservient on a daily basis.  Who exactly was humiliated when Vienna would not fall, and wasn’t that a good thing?  Many feeling humiliated do not experience it on a personal, experiential level, but on behalf of those who “lost” one thousand years ago.

In an interesting aside, he cites a NYPD intelligence report that  “the search for identity and the failure of social and economic integration is playing a greater role than oppression, despair, or the spirit of revenge as incubators of radicalization.”  So are humiliation and identity related or not?  If shared hatred gives identity, a sense of belonging, is humiliation a foundational emotion or one invented to give reason to the rage?

As a counter example to the Arab-Islamic world being under the sign of Humiliation, he finds Hope alive in the Gulf Emirates.

This discussion of humiliation, is of course interesting, even beguiling, but I find still confusing about the locus of felt humiliation.  His mentor, Bertrand Badie,  uses it more precisely in his Humiliation in International Relations: A Pathology of Contemporary International Systems:

“…some states often deny the legal status of others, stigmatising their practices or even their culture. Such acts of deliberate humiliation at the diplomatic level are common occurrences in modern diplomacy. In the period following the breakup of the famous ‘Concert of Europe’, many kinds of club-based diplomacy have been tried, all falling short of anything like inclusive multilateralism. Examples of this effort include the G7, G8, G20 and even the P5. Such ‘contact groups’ are put forward as if they were actual ruling institutions, endowed with the power to exclude and marginalise.

Today, the effect of such acts of humiliation is to reveal the international system’s limits and its lack of diplomatic effectiveness. The use of humiliation as a regular diplomatic action steadily erodes the power of the international system. These actions appear to be the result of a botched mixture of a colonial past, a failed decolonisation, a mistaken vision of globalisation and a very dangerous post-bipolar reconstruction


The Culture of Fear in the West is an identity crisis that may be summarized as a sense of the loss of control over the future, whether due to unexplained economic events, or the impunity of those who brought them about, or to migrants changing the character of towns and traditional expectations about jobs, manners or gender relations or, as it occurs to me, to a country’s loss of the ability to dominate others, much as was true of the Ottomans following the defeat in 1683.

Traditionally the West has been described in terms of democracy not fear, he says,  but today “citizens on both sides of the Atlantic have a greatly diminished pride in their democratic models and their elected leaders…” contributing to this pervasive sense of Fear  … “which has pushed countries to violate their own moral principles based on strict respect for the rule of law.” Moïsi is particularly attentive to the cost of George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and all that followed.

The American Culture of Fear is distinct from, though related to, that of Europe. Fear has been part of America since the beginning but mixed then with hope. The Reagan victory  was a sign that fear was in the ascendancy…  “9/11 did not create American fear it gave it new depth.”

Moïsi finished his book in 2009, the year after Barack Obama’s 2008 election which, for all the world to see, was a campaign of hope vs fear.  Even with Obama’s victory, and the signal of hope it gave, Mwoisi remained doubtful.  America is insecure and fearful, he says   “Have we lost our soul — that is our ethical superiority:  Have we lost our purpose — unique national mission; have we lost our place in the world – are we in decline?”

The Hard cases –– countries that do not easily fit his typology

Russia: Humiliation, Fear and Hope, all three mixing

Israel: from Hope to Angst

Africa: Divided between Despair and Hope

Latin America: between Democracy and Progress

Two short chapter play out, fictionally, a future in which one emotion or another dominates.

What Is to Be Done?

“To respond to the challenges we face, the world needs hope.  This is, at bottom, the conviction and message of this book.”

To achieve this hope he prescribes education and knowledge to minimize ignorance and intolerance.  These are not policy prescriptions, but are themselves hopes, with which we must, I assume, bootstrap ourselves up from Fear into Hope.

It would seem to be that a tough investigation of the causes of these emotions would be in order.  Though all humans have Fear, Humiliation and Hope at the ready, they rise in response to our interaction with the world –much of it the human-created all pervasive and powerful social world.  What is causing fear, and is it justified? Is fear contagious and what are the counter-measures?  More usually we need to ask, Who is causing Fear to Whom? How do we stop, if we are the Fearsome; how do we keep others from becoming the Feared?

How much Humiliation is a response to actual acts of subordination and belittlement in the world and how much grows from wrong perceptions of reality, from not seeing ones own strengths? Can we actually, increase the applause and diminish the belittlement of others? Can we create an economic system, world wide, in which honest effort is rewarded in something like comparable ratios to others around the world?  Can we get to a place where hopes are placed on sports teams, and fear is reserved for nature’s inevitable catastrophes?

There is a possible rich lode in inquiry here, but not yet in this book.  I sure do like a book that makes me think, however.



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