The Commentator Award

Nation states are as sensitive as humans

Just before Alexis Tsipras was elected Greek prime minister in January, he made a vow to the voters: ‘On Monday national humiliation will be over. We will finish with orders from abroad.’

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Anyone tempted to dismiss this stress on national humiliation as a Greek eccentricity should look around the world. When I think about the four international issues that I have written most about over the past year – Russia, the eurozone, the Middle East and east Asia – a theme that links all of them is the rhetoric of national or cultural humiliation.

One of Mr Tsipras’s first acts as prime minister was to visit a memorial to Greek resistance fighters executed by the Nazis in the second world war. This gesture was all about national pride: reminding voters of past heroism while inflicting a little return humiliation on the Germans, who led the pack of eurozone creditors.

The Greek government came into office promising to slash the country’s debt and ditch economic austerity. But even though Syriza’s confrontational approach did very little to achieve these goals, voters enjoyed the show of defiance. Syriza’s poll ratings went up, even as deposits in Greek banks shrank.

Russia’s confrontation with the west, like Athens’ clash with its creditors, feeds off a sense of wounded national pride. President Vladimir Putin and his generation of leaders once served a larger and more powerful nation – the Soviet Union. Now Mr Putin insists modern Russia should continue to be treated as a ‘great power’. While the ostensible reasons for intervention in Ukraine are all about the defense of concrete interests – naval bases, markets and borders – Moscow’s rhetoric seethes with a sense of national humiliation. Russia, it insists, can no longer be slighted and ignored.

The Russians will show that they can not be bullied by the arrogant Americans. Mr Putin reaches back into the past to summon the spirits of his nation’s finest hour: the Great Patriotic War of the 1940s. And officials boast about Russia’s nuclear arsenal as a totem of their great-power status and a reason for others to fear them.

A sense of national humiliation is also central to China’s approach to the outside world. History textbooks and the national museum in Beijing dwell on the ‘century of humiliation’ – lasting from its first encounter with western imperialism in the 1840s through to the defeat of Japan in 1945. The message drummed into young people is that a weak China was humiliated and exploited by foreign powers. Modern China, they are told, will never be pushed around.

President Xi Jinping calls for a ‘new type of great power relations’ – a demand that China should be treated as an equal by the US.

Islamic fundamentalists also trade on the idea that the west has humiliated and oppressed Muslims. In 2003 Tom Friedman, a New York Times columnist, noted a speech on this theme by Mahathir Mohamad, then prime minister of Malaysia, and argued that the ‘single most under-appreciated force in international relations is humiliation’. Mr Friedman suggested that a sense of humiliation was driving both the Palestinian revolt against Israel and the armed rebellion against the American occupation of Iraq.

Solving international conflicts may involve thinking as much about emotions as interests

When revolutions broke out across the Middle East in 2011, it seemed that many Arabs had decided it was their own governments that were the real causes of their misery and humiliation.

Since then, however, it has once again become fashionable to blame outsiders and the west. The government of Iran and the jihadis of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) loathe each other but they share a rhetoric that promises to reject perceived humiliation by the west – whether it is Iran insisting on its right to have a nuclear programme or Isis preaching against western values.

Across the years, various theorists and philosophers have written about the role of pride and humiliation in human affairs. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment philosopher of the 18th century, argued that the source of man’s corruption lay in the human desire to be acknowledged as superior to others.

Status anxiety (as Rousseau did not call it) was the root of much evil. Centuries later, ‘realist’ theorists of international relations argued that states were driven by many of the same emotions as people. The realists stressed the state’s lust for power. The reverse side of that emotion is a desperation to avoid powerlessness and the humiliation that goes with it.

The implication of all this is that solving international conflicts may involve thinking as much about emotions as about interests.

Sometimes the concession required to address a sense of national or cultural humiliation may be impossible. Nobody is going to concede a caliphate to tend to the wounded feelings of Isis.

But sometimes the gestures required to restore a sense of national pride may be relatively minor. Greece does not seem to have extracted significant concessions from its creditors. Nonetheless, a display of national defiance, combined with some linguistic and technical changes, appears to have mollified the Greeks for now. As the west contemplates a dangerous conflict with Russia and the ambitions of China, it might remember that symbols can sometimes matter almost as much as substance.


This article was translated into English and shortened to fit in the 36 pages of De Groene Amsterdammer special European Press Prize 2016 edition.

[The original article was published in The Financial Times](ft.com/intl/comment/columnists/gideonrachman)