Humiliation as a driving factor in world politics

Written 20 July 2015

A major consequence to being in a position of power is the relative immunity to feeling and understanding another’s humiliation. Look at many workplace relationships and you will see this: a boss may be genuinely surprised to hear that his workers think poorly of him, and may not understand how humiliating it may be for many of them to perform mundane and meaningless tasks for a wage. Although I do not mean to give career advice, this example does illustrate a major flaw in the United States’ understanding of global affairs.

Like the boss who is surprised when his employees mutiny, many Americans were surprised during many major world events when allies and partners turned against them. One of the most impactful is the Iranian hostage crisis. Whereas Iran had once been one of America’s greatest partners, it instead became one of the most hostile to the United States. If one were to understand the brutalities of the Shah’s rule, the overthrow of a legitimate government by the US and the UK in 1953, and the general sense of humiliation Iranians felt from being a client state, one can easily understand why they revolted.

A major recent event (or series of events) that has been motivated primarily by a sense of humiliation, is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Most Americans were genuinely surprised when Russia took action in The country after Euromaidan (I did not by the way), simply because they did not understand the great sense of humiliation which many Russians felt — including, most importantly, Putin — after the collapse of the Soviet Union. What had once been a superpower vying for dominance with the United States had been reduced to rubble, and what was left of it was subject to the “Washington consensus” of neoliberalism, shock therapy economic reforms — which worked in Poland, by the way — and a failed attempt at democratization.

During the 1990s, Russia was faring horribly in nearly all regards: the economy was in horrendous shape, Boris Yeltsin had proven to be an ineffective leader, corruption and inequality was growing through the rise of the oligarchs, and the successor to the world’s most powerful army had suffered a humiliating defeat in Chechnya. Democracy and liberalism had left a bad taste in Russian mouths and it was not surprising to see them rally in support of Putin.

Everything that was wrong with Russia in the 1990s had seemingly been fixed by Putin. One of his first actions when he ascended to the presidency was to quash the separatist revolt in Chechnya. He then attacked the oligarchs, forcing many of them to either flee the country or accept jail time. The economy rebounded (Putin’s oil politics share a large part of the credit for this) and the new president’s consolidation of power proved to make him an effective leader in many Russian eyes. Russia’s dignity had been restored.

But this was challenged by NATO’s expanding sphere into Eastern Europe. What had previously been an outpost to the Soviet army was now hostile territory, and the threat of further expansion was initially thwarted by Russia’s invasion of Georgia. It was thwarted again by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These moves are meant to send a clear message to the West: Russia is not the humiliated statelet that it was in the 1990s; it is now a great power.

United States domination of the Middle East is primarily motivated by two factors: energy security and Israel. Both factors contribute greatly to the humiliation that many Muslims feel in the region (Iran has already been mentioned). The helplessness of the Palestinians is the main complaint of many Muslims against the United States, including from states like Pakistan or Bangladesh further east. Motivated by energy security, the US has given its support to many brutal and corrupt regimes in the Gulf States. US protection of Saudi Arabia in 1991 enraged many Muslims as it saw Western forces being stationed in the country of two of Islam’s holiest sites.

These two factors contribute to making many Muslims in the region feel powerless. They have no means to hold their leaders accountable, and their weak states only contributed to supposed US and Israeli “expansionism” in the region. This sense of powerlessness and humiliation came to a head in 2011 with the Arab Spring leading to the overthrow of many regimes in the region.

But these sentiments have existed for a long time. Many militant Islamist groups, most notably al-Qaeda, tried to capitalize on them to lead the Muslim people to overthrow their corrupt regimes and establish a powerful Islamic caliphate. This is also the goal of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The group presents a well-organized and militarily strong image of itself to the rest of the Muslim world, and a large number of Muslims throughout the world do, in fact, support ISIL. For many, the organization presents a strong and dignified stand against the US, even though they may not always support its inhumane actions and brutality. Indeed, for these people ISIL is the organization which will avenge the humiliations that the Muslims have suffered in the past century.

Humiliation by its very definition is an emotional response, but it is one which has largely been forgotten in the West’s understanding of global affairs. In many cultures, humiliation is worse than death. It forces very irrational actions, such as revenge killings and ritual suicide. Many go to great lengths to overcome their humiliation, oftentimes ruining themselves and others in the process. Blood feuds have been known to destroy families and societies throughout the Mediterranean, oftentimes started by something as small as a comment taken as an insult. For many Japanese warriors, it was better to go through the extremely painful seppuku ritual than it was to accept a humiliating defeat at enemy hands.

When understanding it through these lens, it becomes clear why Russia does such a seemingly irrational act as invading a European country knowing full well that it would lead to their isolation, or why al-Qaeda committed a massacre of thousands of innocents in 9/11 only to result in the deaths of thousands more Muslims. These actors know full well the costs they will incur and are ready to accept them as long as their dignity is restored in their own eyes.

Understanding this provides many frightening implications for the future. One of the most important is in regard to the China-Taiwan issue. China to this day feels a bitter sense of humiliation after a century of Western and Japanese domination. Taiwan’s independence for many Chinese is just a modern extension of this defeat, as the island country was wrested from its control in the late 19th century. Retaking Taiwan is not only the last stepping stone to becoming a resurgent maritime power, but also the last thread by which they could avenge the humiliation they have felt over its loss. Considering how emotional many Chinese are about this issue, it is possible that we may see an emotional and irrational response by China in the future, perhaps antagonizing the whole world.

Since this topic is based around emotional reactions and not rational choice, it is difficult to make policy prescriptions or even geopolitical forecasts. However, the West should consider the issue more in its dealings with hostile powers. John Mearseheimer, a professor of International Relations at the University of Chicago, often asks his readers to imagine what the US reaction would be to Mexico aligning with Russia or China. I think he is correct, but I would also add: what if the United States was weak and powerless to do anything to combat foreign involvement (even if it was not aggressive in nature) in North America? How would Americans react?