Emotions in International Relations - A brief introduction of the role emotions play when it comes to political movements and terrorism

Emotions in International Relations - A brief introduction of the role emotions play when it comes to political movements and terrorism

Harnessing the power of emotions such as anger and solidarity has provided societies with a resource and allowed them to initiate positive change and create communities around the world. Anger can be linked to political change, and solidarity to creating a sense of community. The political and social dimensions of emotions when it comes to international diplomacy and political movements, can be used to an advantage following emotional outcry. Communities sharing their grief, collective loss, or shared suffering provides space for further solidarity, camaraderie and community on an international level. Political movements initiated by anger have started a new discourse on anger and its uses within society as a call to action. Terrorist attacks can create a sense of community in the aftermath and these communities help people worldwide focus on a future of peace. Emotions are often disregarded when it comes to international relations and public policy, however I argue that they should be taken into consideration more seriously within the sphere of political science.

Anger - Political Movements

Whilst anger as a positive political force is a very prevalent viewpoint in society today, it has roots back to the 1960s when African Americans began fighting for their equal rights. The constructive and ultimately positive use of anger generated change and equality for the African American population in America during both the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in 2020. The literature now has begun to highlight the changing social and emotional contexts and make a persuasive case when combined with empirical examples such as BLM.  

In the past, most commonly anger was viewed as a primitive emotion, opposing white fragility and ‘higher emotions’, often combined with using racist remarks to describe how anger is provoked.  Sue Campbell’s text ‘Being Dismissed’ combines social context with how people view anger stating “anybody can become angry…but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody's power”.  Within the context of racism and systemic oppression, anger and power can be negotiated through language, actions and just simply by being the person you are, leading to anger being viewed differently. Historically, white people in specific contexts were the ‘right people to be angry’ and thus most literature, elites and scholar also reflected this. 

When anger leads to destruction it can often be heavily criticised by theorists. When anger is constructive it can be a force for hope and greater equality. Both political movements initiated by black communities in America attempted to do just this. Utilising emotions to “attack [the] agent committing [the] remaining offence”  and engaging in acts derived from anger as a resource for their marginalised group. Campbell in her text also refers to the social uptake to the success of emotions and the ability to incite change. Emotional expression can be blocked by social contrasts and feeling rules , so whether in the 1960s protesting to end segregation or in the 2020s protesting to have equal rights in society, black Americans have attempted to use their anger to push through racial and emotional stereotypes for positive change (which they did successfully).

African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement were successful in achieving change and able to achieve a positive outcome when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 banning segregation. The BLM protests sought more accountability for people in positions of power and bring those who died at the hands of lawmakers to justice which they too succeeded in when George Floyd's (a prominent figure in the BLM protests who was murdered at the hands of police) killers were arrested and sentenced to jail.  Empirical examples like these movements have provided a very persuasive case for how anger can be used positively as a force for good and how emotions are interconnected in political events.

Solidarity - Terrorism

The traumatic 2002 Bali Bombings provided not only a sense of loss at the time but continues to do so on the anniversaries of the attack, which has led victims worldwide to come together in solidarity, sharing their grief. On the 12th of October 2002, two bombs were set off at popular nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia. “The explosions killed 202 people, 88 of whom were Australian, and wounded hundreds more”.  News of the attack quickly spread to Australia where the media "recounted the crisis and trauma in relation to numerous national concerns and hegemonic cultural and historical frames: dominant conceptions of Australian nationalism, patriotism, culture and identity as well as military mythology”.  Challenging perceptions of the very framework that makes Australians Australian, the attacks provided a critical space for community, empathy and solidarity to grow.

With many Australians wounded or killed in this attack, there was a significant amount of involvement from the Australian government and the wider Australian population. The term ‘Mateship’ was introduced and used to connect Australians who were feeling grief due to the bombing from countries all around the world. Mateship and its connotations to camaraderie, solidarity and friendship are significantly ingrained in the Australian culture and sought to generate community spirit in the wake of terror and fear.  “Victims’ pain was swiftly referred to as that of a nation. And an ensuing sense of trauma – the shock and the gravity of loss – was invoked as damaging Australia’s ‘collective soul’”.  Australians stood in solidarity with their ‘mates’ and empathised with the struggles of losing a loved one in such a horrific way. In this way, the event successfully created a sense of community due to the collective shock and horror from the bombings. The attacks further provided an opportunity for community to flourish, and for the Australian community to band together. The 2002 Bali Bombings, through Australian ‘Mateship’, solidarity and camaraderie, ultimately did create community due to the collective loss and emotional connotations for the Australian population and others worldwide.


In the past few years we have seen an increasingly large majority of theorists depart from the idea emotions are not needed in political science and move towards using emotions as a political tool and a force for good. Anger, when used in specific situations can generate a call to action an initiate positive political change. Solidarity and sympathising with strangers who’ve shared the same collective or national loss, can create communities and support networks. Emotions play a big role in our everyday lives and something as simple as choosing what to eat for breakfast can be connected to an emotion. So why not acknowledge and integrate our emotions into government and public policy?


SGPP-Intern - Australia Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP) 2022-2023

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