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Walter Lippmann, emotion, and the history of international theory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 October 2021

Eric Van Rythoven*
Carleton University, Ottawa, ON, Canada
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


The recent ‘emotion turn’ in international theory is widely viewed as a cutting-edge development which pushes the field in fundamentally new directions. Challenging this narrative, this essay returns to the historical works of Walter Lippmann to show how thinking about emotions has been central to international theory for far longer than currently appreciated. Deeply troubled by his experience with propaganda during the First World War, Lippmann spent the next several decades thinking about the relationship between emotion, mass politics, and the challenges of foreign policy in the modern world. The result was a sophisticated account of the role of emotional stereotypes and symbols in mobilizing democratic publics to international action. I argue that a return to Lippmann's ideas offers two advantages. First, it shows his thinking on emotion and mass politics formed an important influence for key disciplinary figures like Angell, Morgenthau, Niebuhr, and Waltz. Second, it shows why the relationship between emotion and democracy should be understood as a vital concern for international theory. Vacillating between scepticism and hope, Lippmann's view of democracy highlights a series of challenges in modern mass politics – disinformation, the unintended consequences of emotional symbols, and responsibility for the public's emotional excesses – which bear directly on democracies' ability to engage the world.

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Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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