Review of Todd H. Hall, Emotional Diplomacy: Official Emotion on the International Stage 

Nov 30, 2015

Reviewed by Steffen Rimner

With a study that is rife with political lessons and rich with analytic achievements, Todd H. Hall has done more than one profession a great service. Combining rationalist and constructivist political science with contemporary history, he defines “emotional diplomacy” as “coordinated state-level behavior that explicitly and officially projects the image of a particular emotional response toward other states.” (2) Hall’s concept expands the study of state-level encounters, specifically among heads of state, by focusing on the premises, expressions and consequences of emotional practice as an element of political competence. The analysis can be summarized as follows. Before an official consensus or a shared perception between two or more officials has necessarily emerged, the initial act of emotional diplomacy communicates “that a normatively significant boundary has been crossed.” (4) This signal prepares the ground for the practice of emotional diplomacy, on the premise that the recipient does not discount it “as strictly instrumental” (8). At its most basic, then, the book points to the trust that can bind the signaler and the recipient (or “target”) into communicative engagement, with the hope of reaching a normative rapprochement. That trust does not prevent but rather enables the further, political use of emotional diplomacy. Targets can choose to “discredit it or elicit further substantive action, or alternatively […] to entrap its authors.” (6) In other words, emotional diplomacy can be both the quid and the quo of a quid pro quo; its deployment is interactive rather than unilateral.

To the author’s credit, the book travels between the lofty heights of conceptual abstraction and the empirical ground where case studies test political performance. Emotional diplomacy – “a completely different animal from personal emotion” – forages through a variety of habitats. Following a conceptual outline, Chapter 2 on “the Diplomacy of Anger” presents a lucid reconstruction of the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-96. China’s military response to the visit by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to Cornell in June 1995 was a response rife with the Chinese vocabulary of indignation (bianyici such as fenkai and yifen). The chapter identifies the factors that raised and lowered the political temperature and explains the long-term impact of the crisis. Chapter 3 on “the Diplomacy of Sympathy” reminds us that the first international leader to call the White House after 9/11 was none other than Vladimir Putin. His expression of solidarity was replete with the international vocabulary of condolence. Condoleezza Rice recalled in her 2011 memoirs that “I thanked him, and for one brief moment the thought flashed through my head: the Cold War really is over.” (80)

In many ways at the heart of this book, Chapter 4 reevaluates the history of the Luxembourg Agreement of 1952. Held in secret to prevent assassination plots by Jewish extremists, as Hall tells us, the diplomatic agreement brought together Israel’s foreign minister Moshe Sharett, Nahum Goldmann of the Jewish Claims Conference and Konrad Adenauer, the German chancellor. It designated 3.45 billion Deutschmarks worth of goods and services to flow from Germany to Israel with the explicit purpose of making amends. Needless to say that the human lives and suffering of the Shoah cannot be smoothly translated into monetary value, if they can be translated at all. The strictly political significance of the Luxembourg Agreement, however, is undeniable. How exceptional was the agreement? Hall’s more recent forays into its applicability to East Asian reconciliation still leave open many questions about the cross-cultural conditions of political lessons.

In his last chapter, Hall offers useful forays into the further potential of emotional diplomacy, providing snapshots of the Cambodian attacks on Thailand’s embassy in Phnom Penh in 2003 and Ecuador’s protest against Colombia’s attack on a FARC insurgent camp in 2008, among others. Throughout, his questions and explanations draw our attention to the very terms of political engagement and why these terms can shift substantially during and after experiences of crisis. In political emergencies, above all, the stakes for all sides are higher than during intervals of perceived routine. In such moments, the absence of an appropriate signaling of emotional diplomacy can carry greater risks, chiefly because the state primarily affected by the emergency finds itself already in an emotional mode of heightened sensitivity.

Curious historians, in particular, may wish to know by whom emotional diplomacy is “coordinated.” Which advisors, confidantes, friends or spouses help invent, recommend, mandate and synchronize emotional diplomacy, prior to the regular, top-down missives by a head of state that Hall aptly calls the script? Who wrote the script? Human beings, as Hall reminds us, “do not divest themselves of emotional experience by becoming policymakers.” (8) Even so, not all official emotion necessarily finds its way directly from the presidential heart to an ambassadorial assignment of appropriate behavior. It is, however, in the very interest of those compelled to deploy “emotional diplomacy” to keep the deliberate dramaturgy and the bureaucracy of emotional decision-making off the record. Sincerity and strategizing are uneasy friends, if they are friends at all. The less the “target” – and the public – knows about the managerial aspect of policy-planning in emotional diplomacy and the more strategic intentions recede backstage, the greater are the prospects of emotional diplomacy to succeed.

The bibliography ranges across scholarship and sources published in English, German and (simplified) Chinese. An unfortunate error is the repeated misidentification of NATO as the “North American Treaty Organization.” Readers in doubt will be reassured to know that the acronym still stands for the “North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” This book will appeal to scholars interested in ritual as a sociological concept, in the behavioral edge of political psychology, the history and analysis of international relations and the vastly unfamiliar terrain between these fields. Undoubtedly, the performance of emotions has been for a very long time the heart, if not the pulse, of diplomacy. This book was published before the Paris attacks. The international responses unraveling since give us more reason than ever to utilize the important findings here.