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World politics is a stage that comes with a backstage. For international leaders, the theatrics of performance before cameras and behind the podium is highly public and often tightly calibrated. But every summit and every meeting includes moments of less on-display activity. In these spaces, asymmetric rhetorical attacks, insults, jokes, and jibes can shape how negotiations play out.
In “Backstage Mockery: Impoliteness and Asymmetry on the World Stage,” Eric Van Rythoven examines how insults play out in the informal settings behind highly formal events.
“For a higher-ranking party, impoliteness from a subordinate can be perceived as a denial of deference and esteem, and even a challenge to the hierarchy itself. For a lower-ranking party, acts of impoliteness from a superior can be perceived as an abuse of position, which foreshadows threats to their autonomy,” writes Van Rhythoven.
The pairing of status and mockery is vital because it shows that the same styles of speech can have wildly different effects depending on who is using it and how. Van Rhythoven opens the paper by discussing a 2019 incident at the 70th anniversary of NATO. In a video of the incident, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte can be seen laughing. The audio cuts out, but several jokes about US President Donald Trump can still be heard. After the release of the video, Trump left the summit early, refusing to partake in further events with national leaders seen mocking him.
“Conversely, the same parties can use impoliteness as a kind of friendly teasing or ‘jocular humor,’ which strengthens solidarity and the bonds of amity,” writes Van Rhythoven.
NATO was likely never in danger of falling apart under the Trump administration. However, the leaders of states less powerful than the United States were still able to, through humor, reassure each other that the alliance was more durable than the fickle moods of one particular president.
When it comes to responding to powerful states, writes Van Rhythoven, “Any act of overt ridicule comes with the risk of political, economic, or — in extreme cases — military retaliation. Weaker actors, however, can avoid retaliation by employing strategies to evade attribution.”
This could include laughing as part of a crowd or tweeting an image with plausibly deniable content. Masking intent and identity are two ways to respond without drawing direct retaliation. Backstage mockery allows the weaker party to save face while still challenging behavior. It can build solidarity between other smaller powers. And, like the video at the NATO anniversary, the mockery can be known through unofficial channels.
“While the main audience in the backstage are the aggrieved, lower-status members, evidence of ridicule can spill over into a broader field of perception. Whether gleaned through diplomatic networks, savvy journalism, or intelligence services, reports of backstage mockery from subordinate powers can signal problems to transgressive governments—including pushback against their behavior,” Van Rhythoven writes.
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