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International security in 2017: The politics of outrage

Image credit: StockSnap (Pixabay: Creative Commons)

With a new year comes the opportunity for reflection on the year that has passed, and contemplation of the year that will be. For Japan, such reflection starts in December, when citizens choose a kanji character to embody the social and political developments of the preceding year. The kanji character chosen for 2017, “” (kita or “North”), particularly reflected the escalating nuclear situation with North Korea.

It is interesting to consider what word could be chosen to represent the zeitgeist of international security in 2017. The United Nations and Wikipedia both provided lists of key news developments in 2017. Analysing these key events, it is clear that 2017 was dominated by one particular emotion – “outrage”.

Before considering these events in detail, it is necessary to clarify how exactly outrage played a political role in international security in 2017. Until very recently, there was little theoretical engagement with the political roles that emotions play in IR. In their seminal work published in 2014, Emma Hutchinson and Roland Bleiker sought to provide clear theoretical outlines for an ongoing research agenda. The key, they argued, was to theorise the actual processes through which individual emotions become collective and political.

Jonathan Mercer and Neta Crawford stressed that emotions are ‘inner states’ described to others as feelings. However, more than this, Mercer and Crawford emphasised the inter-subjectivity of emotions. Emotions are always related to and shaped by social, cultural and political contexts. They acquire political significance when they transcend the confines of an individual, physical body.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “outrage” as an emotion: ‘an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock or indignation’. As such, outrage becomes a collective emotion with political significance when it is a common response to international developments.

In 2017, several key events relating to people, place and power provoked a collective outpouring of outrage. First, in terms of people, President Trump consistently responded to international events with a barrage of insults. This was especially evident with his threats against North Korea, calling Kim Jong-un ‘rocket man’ and warning that the regime would be ‘utterly destroyed’.

Furthermore, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres joined other United Nations officials in demanding action on behalf of over 20 million famine-stricken people in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria. He expressed outrage by stating, "[i]n our world of plenty, there is no excuse for inaction or indifference".

Likewise, the military operation against the Rohingya in Myanmar sparked international condemnation. This was verbally expressed by numerous international figures, including Turkey’s President Erdogan who labelled the actions "genocide", and Pakistani Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai who said, “I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment. I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same”. Outrage was also expressed by a number Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia. Indeed, the Maldives severed trade ties with Myanmar and Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi met with Suu Kyi and other officials to pressure the government into doing more to resolve the crisis.

International conflicts in places were similarly characterised by the emotion of outrage. After the United States’ missile launch at an airbase in Syria, Russia immediately labelled this an act of aggression that would significantly damage US-Russia ties.

In addition, world leaders united to condemn North Korea’s numerous nuclear tests and missile launches in 2017. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron stated that North Korea had "reached a new dimension of provocation" and the UN adopted tough new sanctions on North Korea in December.

And, the United States’ response to international outrage after declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel was to threaten General Assembly members. As Ambassador Nikki Haley declared, "the US will remember this day, in which it was singled out for attack in the General Assembly for the very act of exercising our right as a sovereign nation".

Finally, in terms of events relating to power and ideas, President Trump withdrew from international agreements such as the Iran deal, the Paris Accord and UNESCO, labelling them as "bad" deals.

In sum, all the above events were characterised by the political emotion of outrage. Yet, most interestingly, while outrage was a collective response, it did not result in constructive political action in 2017. Instead, the world largely remained paralysed when it was confronted with such troubling international developments.

But there is hope. Success in 2017 occurred when international responses were characterised by the emotion of calmness or tranquillity, "the state or quality of being free from agitation or strong emotion". This was particularly evident in action relating to power and ideas such as global action on climate change, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear weapons, the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the peaceful resolution to the conflict in Colombia.

Ultimately, meaningful change occurs when our collective political response is calm and measured. Such quiet transformation, perhaps already occurring in North and South Korean diplomatic talks, is the real lesson going forward in 2018.

Rebekkah Markey-Towler is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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