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The Role of Emotions in World Politics - Part 2

Image Credit: Evan Frost (Twitter: Creative Commons)

What do a raccoon scaling an office building and the US-North Korean meeting in Singapore have to do with each other and international security in 2018?

On Tuesday 12 June 2018, two remarkable events captured global attention. In Singapore, a US President and a North Korean Chairman met for the first time. They were to discuss denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Meanwhile, halfway across the world, in downtown Minnesota maintenance workers tried to rescue a raccoon stuck on the ledge of an office building. Frightened, the animal made its escape up a 25-story concrete office building.

Both stories share factual similarities. There were moments of doubt and uncertainty as events played out. President Trump called off the Summit on May 24 (citing "tremendous anger and open hostility") before officially announcing its renaissance on June 1. After a nap on the 19th floor, the raccoon began to descend the building at 10.30pm before deciding to continue to press on upwards.

Both events caused significant anxiety for observers, online and offline. And both offer a bittersweet conclusion. At the end of the meeting, President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-Un signed a historic joint statement. Yet, the future of diplomatic relations remains unclear. After 14 hours, the raccoon reached the top of the office building and was later released into the wild. Yet, we will no longer know what will happen to the creature.

However, both stories also offer insight for the future of international security.

At the start of the year, I argued that political events in 2017 were characterised by the emotion of ‘outrage’. Outrage did not lead to constructive political action in 2017. Rather, success occurred when international responses were characterised by the emotion of ‘calmness or tranquillity’.

With six months of hindsight, raccoon-gate and the Singapore Summit can be used to consider more deeply the actual role emotions play in world politics.

First, President Trump effectively used the emotion of ‘anger’, not outrage, in the lead up to the Summit. Cancelling the Summit was an act of anger rather than outrage because outrage is not premised on a genuine desire to communicate with others (see the G7 summit for an example of outrage). Trump remained open to change in the future. Anger can be effectively used to instigate action. It got Kim Jong-Un to the negotiating table by demonstrating the resolve of the US President.

But anger is limited in what it can achieve. Yes, Trump brought Kim to the negotiating table but many have argued that he failed to negotiate on the behalf of the international community. The US agreed to provide security guarantees to the North Korean leader, under whose rule millions have suffered and died, and announced that he would stop US military exercises with South Korea. He gave legitimacy to a dictator. In return, Kim made vague commitments to denuclearisation. This is a far cry from the demand for "complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament".

Second, a raccoon safely climbing an office building in Minnesota is not an international security event. But the response of the people watching and trying to help has implications for political action. The people demonstrated empathy and tranquillity. They watched and cared about the creature, united in their hope that it would survive.

Listening to others and working together is essential for good diplomacy. The raccoon story shows us the power of this. Yes, listening takes a long time and the results are not always tangible. But it can create change (see, for example, the work of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction at the moment). With ongoing laments about ‘fake news’ and ‘echo chambers’ in political discourse and with every side of the political spectrum convinced that they have the Truth, tranquillity and empathy can create change in international politics.

Emotions are a tool to communicate with others in international politics. With regards to anger and tranquillity, these are not ‘either or’ emotional tools but ‘and also’. They can be used to achieve different things. Anger can be used to spark action, but tranquillity can create long-lasting empathy and change.

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

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