This paper approaches symbolic insult in diplomacy as the use of symbolic means by states to oppress the opponent’s sense of Self, to hurt its self-esteem and social status in order to achieve their foreign policy objectives, or as a reaction to a threat from Other. The paper posits that diplomatic actors are extremely sensitive to Self related matters, and may use such sensitivity for influencing each other, bargaining over the issues of importance, and simply defending their sense of Self while they confront the opponent. The enormous importance of collective Self in diplomacy may instigate a variety of social strategic games, including tacit and deceptive ones. The diplomatic actor’s acute sensitivity to recognition, honor and social status sharpens its sense of Self, which makes any humiliation painful. Therefore, protection of self-regard, dignity and public face becomes a critical issue in diplomatic practice. At the same time, that makes the diplomatic actor’s Self vulnerable, and provides the opposing Other opportunities for manipulation and symbolic abuse.
The paper argues that symbolic insult in diplomacy occurs in a highly normative environment, and depends on political objectives, shared knowledge, social perception and practices, and can negatively affect relationships between diplomatic actors, the opponent’s self-perception, self-feeling and security of Self—ontological security. I distinguish three forms of symbolic insult used in diplomacy: by misrecognition (“diplomatic bypassing”), direct confrontation (“diplomatic punch”) and concealed verbal or nonverbal actions (“diplomatic slap”). The paper focuses on the third, indirect form, or “diplomatic slap” which employs obscure symbolic insults as a means of tacit manipulation for influencing the opponent, or as an instrument of restoring social status.
By highlighting interest-based (political), value-based (moral), relationship-based (social) and right-based (legal) imperatives of international diplomacy, this paper shows that diplomatic actors can use symbolically expressed but subtle “slap” for balancing their interests and relationships in dealing with the opponent: Tacit or implicit symbolic insult usually appears ambiguous which may allow the offender to promote its interests but also to stay engaged with the victim.
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