Discourse and Affect in Foreign Policy

IIR Researcher Jakub Eberle’s new book sheds light on the role of language, identity in the Iraq War

How many identities do you exhibit? Are you a student? A Czech citizen? A parent? An engineer? Most people have more than one identity they relate to, and states are no different according to Institute of International Relations researcher Jakub Eberle. In his new book Discourse and Affect in Foreign Policy: Germany and the Iraq War, Eberle examines how language and the concept of German identity played into the country’s foreign policy during the Iraq War. The launch of the book will take place on June 26, 2019 at 5:00 pm in the library of the IIR, Nerudova 3, Prague 1. The launch will be accompanied by a discussion on the role of language, emotion, and identity in the theory and practice of international politics. In the discussion will participate Šárka Kolmašová, Petr Kratochvíl and Vladimír Handl.

“We need to get beyond the idea that identities of individuals and collectives are singular,” Eberle says. “In fact, they are more complex than that.”

Eberle’s book studies how language and the unconscious work together to make some foreign policies more likely than others.  “How many people in the world do we know who have been to Iraq?” he asks. “Probably not very many. So when something starts happening in Iraq or Iran, we make sense of it through the consumption of different resources which tell a story.” These stories ultimately persuade us by drawing on our existing emotional dispositions.

Germany’s position on and involvement in the Iraq War provides the perfect case study. In 2003 when the United States invaded Baghdad, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder gave a public address lamenting that “the logic of war prevailed over the chances of peace.” While many contend that Germany’s stance against the United States’ actions was strong, Eberle’s research suggests otherwise.

“The German case is more ambiguous than it may appear,” he says. Although it officially condemned the US’s actions, Germany at the same time allowed the US military to use its territory to facilitate the attack, something that went beyond the efforts of many in US President George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing.” In effect, these actions helped make the American’s military campaign possible, considering that it would be very difficult to transport troops to the Gulf without the use and protection of German bases, according to Eberle.

So considering the strong anti-war sentiment in Germany, why did it indirectly support the US’s actions? For Eberle, it ultimately boiled down to identity. After WWII, the German identity strongly associated itself as deeply anti-militaristic, where the use of force was used as a last resort. However, another key element of German identity is solidarity with its allies, like the United States. This resulted in a very inconsistent foreign policy that tried to please too many people at once, Eberle says.

“Identity is not logical,” he says. “It’s complicated and sometimes contradictory.” Our concept of identity plays a huge role in how some stories persuade us and others don’t.

The contradictory nature of identity also factors into Eberle’s current research, which looks at German arms exports during the late Angela Merkel era. Clashing again with its previously mentioned peacekeeping values, Germany is one of the best manufacturers of tanks, armored vehicles and other weapons. It is also one of the largest arms exporters to countries with terrible human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Indonesia.

In order to understand these contradictory identities, Eberle says you have to take into account how the world has changed in the last 30 years. In the 1990s, it was unimaginable that Germany would participate in any war other than a defensive one, but there were also several interventional wars. While Germans felt the need to protect peace, it also experienced pressure from allies. Now, Eberle says Germany is facing a tough decision on how it is going to face the world in the future, where it wants to “be the nice guy in the world, but you don’t achieve that much by being the nice guy.”

Ultimately, Eberle hopes readers of his book come away with the idea that emotions need to be taken more seriously when it comes to international relations theory. These concepts can also be applied to other contexts, like Barack Obama’s policy toward Syria, Brexit, or Central Europe’s stance towards migration, and can help us understand situations that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. 

“If the world is changing you can’t go on saying the rules of yesterday apply in the same context,” he says, “but the rules of yesterday make you who you are today.”

Register for the launch of the book here. Working language is Czech.

About the author

Nicole Ely is a journalist mainly covering the politics of the Balkans.