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Man looking at himself in a small mirror.

Based on research on narrative psychology and narcissism, Linus Hagström defines four narrative forms on the basis of which great powers' conflicting notions of weakness and greatness can be described. He sees the study as an approach to an alternative theory of how international politics and great power politics can be understood.

Narcissism theory contributes to the understanding of great powers

Can great power politics be understood with the help of ideas taken from research on narcissism and narrative psychology? Linus Hagström is of this opinion, and in a recent article defines four narrative forms - shame, pride, denial and humiliation - on the basis of which great powers' conflicting perceptions of their own weakness and greatness can be described.
“These concepts play a central role in the construct of great power identities and in shaping the behaviours of great powers”, he says.

The idea for the article ”Great Power Narcissism and Ontological (In)Security: The Narrative Mediation of Greatness and Weakness in International Politics”, recently published in the journal International Studies Quarterly, was germinated almost ten years ago when Linus Hagström wrote a text about an incident in the East China Sea.

“A Chinese fishing vessel collided with two Japanese coastguard vessels. The event was described in a number of different ways, but in Japan it was interpreted almost unequivocally as that Japan was weak, that it had "lost" and was in decline. In an article I wrote about this incident, I argued for an almost opposite interpretation of the incident, but when I presented my analysis to researchers in Japan, no one wanted to hear about it, they were totally uninterested. I then started to think about what it is that makes states and even great powers get described as weak by people in their own country”, says Linus Hagström, who is a professor of political science at the Swedish Defence University.

Portrait of Linus Hagström.

Linus Hagström, Professor of Political Science at the Swedish Defence University.

Interplay of feelings of grandeur and weakness

He was thus puzzled as to why a great power such as Japan was so unanimously portrayed as weak, even though it was not necessarily so. When he later looked at other great powers, such as China, the United States and Russia, it became clear that even they within their own country were surprisingly often portrayed as weak.

“The fact that great powers speak of themselves as alternately strong and weak indicates that their narratives about themselves are not quite as stable and consistent as research has previously assumed. But what happens if a great power, which often presents itself as great, strong and powerful, suddenly speaks of itself as weak? How can the country then maintain its identity as a great power? Previous research has assumed that states strive not only for physical security, but also for "ontological security", ie security of identity.”

Linus Hagström also saw a pattern in how the great powers' stories of greatness and weakness stood in relation to each other. Based on research of narrative psychology and narcissism, he defined four narrative forms - shame, pride, denial and humiliation - on the basis of which great powers' seemingly contradictory notions of weakness and greatness can be described.

“I discovered that narcissism theory can reveal quite a lot about these narrative forms, which incidentally legitimise and enable actions that researchers in international relations are usually interested in. The feeling of humiliation is particularly interesting. When narratives that express humiliation are common within a self-identified great power, these are often followed by actions that want to disprove the perceived weakness, such as aggression”, says Linus Hagström.

In the article he uses political speeches by American and Chinese leaders in 2006-2020 to illustrate how countries construct their narratives around issues of weakness and greatness.

New alternative theory

Linus Hagström sees the study as an embryo to an alternative theory of how international politics and great power politics can be understood, but emphasises that much research remains for the theory to be fully useful.

“I am aware that it is a fairly ambitious approach, but as far as I know no one has written about this before. Of course, there are others who deal with ontological security, but the application to great powers and how I use narcissism is completely new in this context.”

Looking to the future, Linus Hagström hopes that the theory can be used to analyse large amounts of data, for example with the help of large-scale data extraction.

“By focusing on how feelings of greatness and weakness are negotiated in narratives related to shame, pride, denial and humiliation, one might even be able to foreshadow aggression and conflict.”

Josefin Svensson

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Published 2021-03-25 Updated 2021-03-25