Editorial - Why Psychology is a Key Factor of International Relations


By Romain Bertolino is the General director at Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée, co-author of Atlas géopolitique du monde contemporain (Ellipses, 2022).


This text is the editorial of the Revue Diplomatique n°18 - Special issue - of the Institute for Applied Geopolitical Studies, available for order here

How to cite this publication

Romain Bertolino, "Why Psychology is a Key Factor of International Relations" (ed.) in Revue Diplomatique n°18, 2, Exploring the Central Role of Psychology in International Relations, Paris, July 2022

Psychology has always been a key variable in international relations, through all of its components, be it military strategies, diplomatic relationships, geoeconomic disputes, or more. As Sun Tzu pointed out: « If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant ». [1]

Glimpses of persuasion, or even manipulation, can be caught through different, if not unexpected, lenses. For instance, the concept of 'culinary diplomacy' has been a major French asset for centuries while conducting negotiations. Great food has a power of winning hearts and minds through stomachs, which French diplomats have been capitalising on when negotiating with their counterparts. [2]

Elements such as the mindset or emotions influence people's and groups' behaviour. Crowds, for example, have their own ways of behaving. [3] They can even be used, if not manipulated, by public speakers in order to achieve political goals. Revolutions, such as the French or Bolshevik ones, often change the course of international relations. Revolutions reach their aim due to many reasons: the necessary leadership to rally a massive population is one of them. Yet, the concept of groups goes beyond this mere example. Communities, such as religious groups, nations or ethnies, are entities of their own. They share an identity, which can feel threat, suffer from traumas, etc.

Despite its impact on decision-making, psychology is often considered as the poor sibling of international relation studies. In France for example, psychology is almost absent from foreign affairs courses. Therefore, practising international relations in a psychology-compliant manner can almost only be done through self-teaching. Unsurprisingly, it may lead to an oversight of the 'phsychological variable' or worse, to the induction of misconceptions in decision-making or analysis. A recent yet relevant event tells a lot: prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, numerous analysts tended to qualify the attack as « impossible », since according to their own interpretation, it would have constituted a "lunatic move" from Putin.

In light of this major challenge, came the idea to compile a collection of thoughts about the management of international relations activities through a psychologically-aware lens. Therefore, the focus of this special issue is to show how, through concrete and hands-on topics, psychology can be used when one is an actor of international relations.

Following this line of thoughts, the diversity of such topic has become central in this issue, so that each reader can use and apply these principles in their own foreign affairs-linked activities. While introductory words meant to deconstruct one's preconceived ideas about psychology, other contributions are meant to plant new seeds in one's virgin reflexion, freed from groundless past influences.

First, the said contributions tackle psychology for an individualistic perspective. Negotiations for example, beyond offering a platform for the meeting of different national interests, remain the interaction of two or more people who bring on the table their cultural bias, their personal fears, etc. Leaders' personalities (and their roots, stakes, etc.), as shown in multiple articles of this Revue diplomatique, are also one of the key elements to understand international relations. Through their management and leadership styles they drive a population's behaviour. Moreover, the relation between leaders and their peoples cannot be forgotten. As such, the concept of populism will be analysed, through cultural disputes between neighbouring countries or the governance of immigration. Words convey powerful ideas, and the art of rhetoric is more than ever important while seducing a population. Thus, it is all the more natural that this issue encompassed this topic. Similarly, war, as an advanced form of dispute between groups, is tackled in this corpus.

Unsurprisingly, identity as a topic has received a lot of attention. Indeed, identity lies at the core of each individual, and defines one's mindset or needs, etc. Additionally, identity draws people with similarities closer, therefore creating groups of influence and power. Finally, identity implies intergroups relationships: concepts such as 'perceived legitimacy' are studied in that matter.

This issue attempts to assessing as many areas as possible: Europe, Africa, Latin America, Northern America and Asia. Studying the Middle East was also crucial, as most of its conflicts (the Israeli-Palestinian relations, the Kurdish asserting, the American-Iranian relations, etc.) have as one of the core reasons psychological factors, and especially -but not solely - self-esteem or even pride.

Finally, this issue wanders off the beaten track, with topics such as sport diplomacy (sport being a driver of emotions), new technologies (used to spot our psychological weaknesses), or even nation branding (how to use marketing, therefore psychology, to promote a country).

Even though this issue is abundant in its research topics, it would be misrepresentative to assert that it is exhaustive. Indeed, psychology frames international relations on every aspect, and not a single publication could deal completely with each specificity. Thus, this issue provides the reader with hands-on applications of psychology in international relations, but also tools to develop one's own awareness of psychology. Therefore, may this issue be used as a handbook.

[1] S. Tzu, The Art of War, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018.

[2] L. Kihlgren Grandi, La diplomatie culinaire des villes face à celle des États : entre rayonnement et développement durable (conference), Institut EGA (presenter : Romain Bertolino), 16 September 2020.

[3] G. le Bon, Psychology of Crowds, Sparkling Books Ltd, 1 October 2009.