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Understanding the term 'crisis' in International Relations

The word 'crisis' is often used in the field of International Relations. Whether the 'crisis' is an economic, political, environmental or migratory event, the word helps to attract attention to the issues at hand. However, the constant use of the term can make it seem like a concept with no specific meaning. Hence, it is relevant to show the different perspectives that can be used to construct the idea of 'crisis', aiming to analyze these events more thoroughly. Therefore, this piece will discuss four perspectives on the matter, and use the case of far-right populism as an example of a crisis.

Crisis as dislocation

For starters, 'crises' can be associated with the discourse on the concept of dislocation. According to Dirk Nabers (2016), in Ernesto Laclau's discourse theory 'dislocation' is the moment when the dominating discourse can be challenged and rearticulated. No discourse is in complete control: dislocation means that alternative discourses can take over the current status quo and rewrite the norm. In other words, discourse is articulated in mainstream discourse (chains of equivalence) and alternative discourses (chains of difference). Chains of difference point to "a logic that secures the identity of a specific element (which can be a demand, a group, a voter, etc.) by differentiating it from other elements; it is a logic that produces particularity by way of distinction" (Kølvraa, 2017, p. 101). Alternatively, a chain of equivalence is the mainstream discourse, "a logic that tends toward the universal, in that it actually weakens distinctions between elements" (Kølvraa, 2017, p. 102).

To showcase this, one can see that the far-right populist discourse (an alternative discourse) in some European countries gained traction during the EU refugee crisis, which would suppose the moment of dislocation. This would mean that the rise of far-right populism is a crisis itself.

Figure 1. Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the far-right populist party called Sweden Democrats

A security issue

Another way to look at crises is in terms of security. To nominate a problem as a 'security issue' implies that the event is an ‘existential threat’. Using the term thus awakens a sense of urgency to eradicate the threat because, otherwise, it could result in the downfall of a group (Waever 1996). When talking about 'existential threats', Jennifer Mitzen's work (2006; 2018) highlights that actors need ontological security. Ontological security means the security of the self's identity. Fear and anxiety can often dominate international politics. When they do, they cause actors to look for a home to stabilize their identities. In the context of this definition of the term 'crisis', if a phenomenon threatens the stability of the idealized home, it is a crisis.

Once again, it can be exemplified by taking right-wing populism in the EU as a case. Populist groups, in their understanding of home, led them to propose harsh anti-migration policies during the EU migration crisis. This is because migrants were framed as an 'existential crisis' that needed to be stopped urgently.

Figure 2. Representation of crisis as a security issue

Performing a crisis

Another definition for the term crisis could also be a 'performance by populist groups'. There are two requirements for such a performance: the existence of a failure and the escalation of said failure. The failure then evolves from a regular event into a cathartic phenomenon that stresses the urgent need for political and cultural changes (Moffit, 2014).

According to Benjamin Moffit (2014), populist groups first identify as 'failure' a certain degree of political relevance, then elevate the failure into a 'crisis'. Afterward, populist discourse presents it as the cause of other issues, so that it looks like a large-scale problem that was created by an evil actor, that is against 'the people'. The failure goes through a spectacularization process through the media. Once the crisis is validated, the populist actors come up with simple ideas that can fix the crisis and justify their political actions. This is exemplified very notoriously by the ex-president of the United States, Donald Trump, who famously framed migrants as the cause of all the national problems the US had, and portrayed himself as a hero who would fix everything by simply building a wall between the US and Mexico.

Figure 3. Donald Trump at the US-Mexico border wall

'Rally round the flag'

Lastly, the perspective of the ‘round-the-flag' is an insightful observation that notes the volatile increases in the popularity of politicians. Alan J. Lambert, J. P. Schott, and Laura Scherer (2011) have thoroughly analyzed this phenomenon and observed that emotions have a distinctive role in how people approach specific political issues, especially anger. If individuals are reminded of the occurrence of a ‘crisis’, they can react differently to political issues embedded in said traumatizing moment.

This theorization differs from the idea of anxiety as a fuel for labeling 'existential threats'. According to their study, adverse events, such as terrorist attacks, that can trigger anger function more noticeably than positive ones, such as military success (Lambert et al., 2011). This type of effect showcases how emotionally powerful crises can be, and the mark they can leave on the collective psyche. Populist discourse has the potential to exploit collective emotions, which has been demonstrated again by Donald Trump, when he appealed to his followers' anger and stirred the January 6th Capitol riot.

Figure 4. 2021 United States Capitol Riots


The notion of 'crisis' can be analyzed through different perspectives, considering the mechanisms in which they have been constructed and their effects on subjects. As the field of International Relations is consistently analyzing crises, a glance at how they can be understood and articulated is necessary for further expanding knowledge about these issues, their causes, and consequences. By using right-wing populism as an example, the importance of how crises are observed and analyzed is demonstrated.

Bibliographical References

Kølvraa, C. (2017). The discourse theory of Ernesto Laclau. In R. a. Wodak, The Routledge Handbook of Language and Politics, Routledge, 96-108.

Lambert, A. J., Schott, J. P., & Scherer, L. (2011). Threat, politics, and attitudes: Toward a greater understanding of rally-’round-the-flag effects. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(6), 343-348.

Mitzen, J. (2006). Anchoring Europe's civilizing identity: habits, capabilities and ontological security. Journal of European Public Policy, 270-285.

Mitzen, J. (2018). Feeling at Home in Europe: Migration, Ontological Security, and the Political Psychology of EU Bordering. Political Psychology, 1373-1387

Moffitt, B. (2015). How to perform crisis: A model for understanding the key role of crisis in contemporary populism. Government and Opposition, 50(2), 189-217

Nabers, D. (2017). Crisis as dislocation in global politics. Politics, 37(4), 418-431

Wæver, O. (1996). European security identities. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 34(1), 103-132

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Rodrigo Bielma Silva

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