The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Insulting international politics

March 30, 2006

The role of insults — and the corrolary role of honor — in world politics represents an odd topic in international-relations scholarship. Everyone knows insults and honor matter a great deal. Some scholars write about them — or, at least, related topics like “prestige” — but no one seems to be able to get a convincing handle on how they work, how they matter, and so forth. One of the few pieces I’ve seen on the topic that I found plausible was a manuscript I reviewed for a major journal. It got an R&R, but the author apparently never resubmitted it. One of my graduate students is interested in the topic of honor; Ned Lebow has a major project going on the subject. Yet how honor and attacks on honor drive — or do not drive — international relations remains a ripe topic for further exploration.

Chrstopher Toothaker’s AP article reminds me of this continuing lacunae:

The U.S. ambassador to Venezuela said Wednesday he hopes to see more constructive dialogue and less name-calling rhetoric from President Hugo Chavez.

Chavez often calls President Bush “Mr. Danger,” and also has labeled him a “madman” and a “drunkard.”

William Brownfield addressed the issue Wednesday when asked how Chavez’s recent reference to Bush as a “donkey” was affecting U.S.-Venezuelan relations.

“Hopefully, in the future we can express our differences and discrepancies in a manner that doesn’t include rhetoric like — I don’t know — donkey, drunkard, murderer, demented person, terrorist,” Brownfield told the Venezuelan television station Televen.

“Those kind of words don’t contribute to mutual understanding, and I hope the differences can be expressed perhaps without getting into words as strong as those,” he said.

Now, one working hypothesis is that insults just don’t have the force they used to. Bismark manipulated Napoleon III into the Franco-Prussian War through the creative use of insults and honor. Questions of “national honor” (the displacement, arguably, of dynastic and individual honor onto the populace) still seem to matter a great deal. But the “honor cultures” of the ancient world, early-modern Europe, and other times and places have given way–at least among the advanced industrial democracies–to more pedestrian concerns about “interests.”

I’m not entirely convinced by this sort of argument, however. Iranian intransigence on nuclear enrichment may involve issues of honor. Honor, one could argue, lurks behind aspects of the US debate over what to do in Iraq. It is entirely possible that a major difference between foreign attitudes towards the Clinton and Bush administration stem from the way that the former did a better job of massaging the honor and egos of foreign leaders (and publics).

I don’t have any answers; just a call for more sustained exploration of honor, insults, and defference as factors that influence the conduct of international affairs.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.