Rhetorical Reframing: Reflexive Discourse in Environmental Deliberations


This paper presents a literature review of rhetorical devices that have been used in human rights issues to enable a balance of power, and then examines how these strategies have been used to further environmental issues in global governing systems. Primarily looking at Brent J. Steele’s theory of Reflexive Discourse, this paper argues that this tactic can be used by environmental interest groups and equatorial countries who are most at risk by the dangers posed by climate change to reframe the environmental issue as a humanitarian one in order to gain leverage in the up-coming climate negotiations.

Negotiating responsibility and action in human rights is one of the most prominent and contentious subjects in global governance literature. No issue exemplifies these challenges better than the international environmental deliberations and the crisis posed by climate change. The resounding problematic here is one of agency and inequity; while wealthier nations are the greatest contributors to climate change, the least wealthy tend to be those that are the greatest impacted by it. Smaller African nations in particular are most at risk, as an increase by only two or three degrees centigrade can result in thousands of deaths and an even greater agricultural crisis. 1

But while Africa faces this existential threat, they have little agency in international environmental deliberations, little influence over energy policies in the developed world and thus, little control over their own destinies. By illuming the issue of climate change, this paper seeks to examine an essential macro puzzle in global governance: what rhetorical conditions will enable less powerful actors to define the context of international debate? How can rhetoric turn a policy issue into a human rights issue? How do the environmental deliberations illuminate the greater challenges of inequity in global governance today?

More specifically, this paper seeks to investigate how African nations are using rhetoric to amend this inequity. The research presented here argues that reflexive discourse has enabled the deliberative conditions necessary for African leaders to recontextualize the environmental issue as a human rights issue at the Copenhagen Climate Conference of 2009. The reflexive discourse in the case study provided challenges the United States’ reputation as a world leader in human rights, moral authority and generosity.

This examination merits comprehensive inquiry for three reasons. First, there is a large body of scholarly work addressing the issue of inequality between wealthier nations and poorer nations in global governance, but a disproportionate amount of research focusing on specific rhetorical tactics being employed by poorer nations to combat these inequalities. Second, the timely conference on climate change in Copenhagen presents a new and particularly relevant case study for a rhetorical analysis on environmental deliberation. Third, this paper contributes an alternate dimension to professor of political science Brent J. Steele’s theory of reflexive discourse and demonstrates how his theory is relevant in other topics of international relations. The goal of this paper is to shed light on an instance in which by challenging the ontological security of wealthier nations poorer nations have been empowered, insofar as they have influence over the context of the debate. 2

In meeting this goal, I first provide a comprehensive theoretical account of the importance of ontological security in international deliberations, primarily looking at Steele’s essay “Making Words Matter: The Asian Tsunami, Darfur, and ‘Reflexive Discourse’ in International Politics.” In his paper, Steele argues that the United States could have intervened in the genocide of Darfur had other nations used reflexive discourse to challenge the United States’ assumed position as a world leader in humanitarian issues. He then cites how it was used in the Asian Tsunami crisis to persuade the United States to contribute more funds to the relief efforts. Steele’s evidence of this through human rights bears close similarities to the humanitarian threat posed by climate change and the possibility of inaction (or insufficient action) taken by the U.S. and other major greenhouse gas emitters. I will also examine how other authors build upon Steele’s work to emphasize that states seek security of the self in an international community in order to remain a credible negotiator in global governance. To complement this theoretical perspective, I then provide a comprehensive case study that explains the existential threat that environmental inaction imposes on African countries, discuss how this situation is intimately similar to Steele’s case, and explore how reflexive discourse is being used by African nations in Copenhagen to frame the environmental issue as a humanitarian crisis. Although the Copenhagen deliberations are still taking place, this preliminary research suggests that African nations have successfully reframed the environmental debate as a human rights issue in the mass media.

Relevant Literature on Rhetoric and Identity

It is no surprise that identity plays a prominent role in global governance. It is at the center of the world’s most pressing global issues: migration, tribal feuds, ethnic warfare, and religious conflicts. While it may be less obvious, identity also plays a large role in global environmental issues. Just as the environmental deliberations in Montreal, Kyoto and now Copenhagen assembles state, corporate and civil society actors for policy negotiation, they are also social assemblies. These events reveal what Alexander Wendt and others suggest is a social nature of states- one that facilitates interaction and relationships between state actors (Wendt, 1999:122-126). Similarly, realists argue that a state’s survival is the essential driving factor of policy decisions. Does this not then mean that the survival of one’s identity and international reputation is necessary for survival? How do state interactions and volatile relationships affect the outcomes of negotiations? How are identities and values negotiated across these social interactions? A more thorough discussion of the state as a social entity is needed to understand how challenges to identity can create insecurity and influence the context of environmental negotiations.

An underlying problem in scholarship on identity in global governance is a “failure to investigate systematically the complex linkages between identity formation and the expressive practices of political actors,” (Cruz, 2000:275). In his article “Identity and Persuasion: How Nations Remember their Pasts and Make their Futures,” Consuelo Cruz argues that collective memory is formed through a combination of rhetorical construction and a “factual” narrative that appears to be vertical. For both Cruz and Steele, a sequence of historical acts and how those acts are rhetorically postulated constructs a state’s internal and external biographical narrative, reputation and identity (Steele, 2007:905-907). 3 Influenced by Wendt, these formulations contribute to an understanding of how actors relate to and interact with one another, establishing behavioral expectations consistent with a national identity. Over time, states constantly refer to their own identity or biographical narrative to assure they are upholding the narrative and affirming their identity (Giddens, 1991:54).

Anthony Giddens, Jennifer Mitzen and other theorists have compared the state’s identity in the international arena to that of the individual. Like an individual, a state’s identity is largely founded on its values, history and social relationship to others in the community. When these elements are challenged in any fashion, there is an inherent anxiety and need to reaffirm their ideas about their self and project their value system through action and posture (Giddens, 1991:42-47). This proves to be extremely important in international policy formation because political actors tend to either uphold identity or undermine it, emphasizing that identity is not merely a rhetorical construction alone, but is inevitably informed by action (and inaction) and the articulation of this action together. As Mitzen describes, identity is “a dynamic process from which action flows and in turn sustains identity,” (Mitzen, 2006:344). In one section, Mitzen describes Giddensian “routinization,” which, “regularizes social life, making it, and the self, knowable,” (Mitzen, 2006:346). As Steele explains, routinization is about security in answers to simple questions, the routines that orchestrate everyday life and provide a sense of order to the chaos of an unpredictable society (an amelioration of the anxiety it can cause) (Steele, 2005:526). This is precisely why daily routines are so fragile- they are deeply trusted, proven, and are necessary for organization. Not only do these social boundaries, or norm construction exist in small communities, but this is particularly relevant in the international community, where actors have protocols that confirm the relevance of their own ideologies and national identity in the greater order of the international governing body. These norms and interacting identities socially construct the network of relationships in the international community.

In this way, national identities are often projected as myths, and like myths, are reinforced by rhetorical historical narratives to create a moral characterization that is adopted domestically and projected internationally. Such narratives “add Lose Weight Exercise to a particular discourse and give additional meaning and importance to an event. Myths exist as collective representations and possessions of a given community or culture and are not manifestations of any one individual,” (Skonieczny, 2001:440). Since these identities are rhetorical constructions, they are also in a constant state of flux and require constant affirmation (Giddens, 1984:78-80). This is particularly critical to the environmental deliberations where many of the policies put forth require compliance with annual measurements of progress.

Ontological Security and Reflexivity

Cases like the deliberative discourse in Copenhagen are important because they illustrate how identities interact on the national stage and “invoke beliefs, ideas, and culture to supply inputs and to serve as coordination devices in games with multiple equilibria,” (Krebs & Jackson, 2007:37). Furthermore, they demonstrate how abstract ideas of national identity materialize as matters of security. Security plays a significant role in most aspects of global governance, but while physical security, economic security, and environmental security are often addressed in separate forums, securing ones deliberative power and credibility constantly need to be maintained and considered. An understanding of Giddens’ theory of ontological security and further interpretations of it will provide insight into how security can be challenged, threatened and leveraged in international negotiations.

In his article “Ontological Security and the Power of Self-Identity: British Neutrality and the American Civil War,” Steele broadly asks: what we mean when we discuss security and suggest that one’s survival is at stake? For answers, he looks to Giddens’ idea of ontological security- security of one’s identity, biographical narrative and reputation in society (Giddens, 1984:78). For both an individual actor and an international actor (nation or state) have the need to secure their identities, explaining, “Ontological security, as opposed to security as survival, is security as being. Being a human being means knowing both what one is doing and why one is doing it,” (Steele, 2005:526). As this abstract definition of security as “being” suggests, the anthropomorphic metaphor transcends the individual and extends to the state- where the individual seeks security of self, so does the state. But as Mitzen argues, the type of ontological security that states seek is notably different and she offers three explanations to specify why the analogy is relevant.

First, she argues that claiming that states need ontological security is equally problematic as claiming they need physical security (what constitutes a state’s body or territory? Are citizens included? How many?, etc.) and that what is really at stake is “state personhood” (Mitzen, 2006: 352). Second, states socially seek ontological security through their interactions within their own community. This revisits Mitzen’s adoption of Giddens’ theory of routinization (Giddens, 1984:60-64), where actors unconsciously comply with social norms within society in order to achieve cognitive stability, which she claims is essential for individual security. Lastly, Mitzen argues that it is a “micro-level assumption [that] helps us explain certain macro-level patterns,” (Mitzen, 2006: 352). For example, throughout the 20th century U.S. presidents responded comparably to the Soviet threat – despite their distinctly different ideological perspectives. This uniform Cold War strategy suggests national consciousness.

Some of Mitzen’s explanations are objectionable, in that they deliver a rather vague notion of what is included in the state (are not only citizens, and land, but also traditions, national ideologies, economic systems that exceed international boarders included?). She addresses this but does not elaborate. 4 Secondly, how do non-state actors figure into the idea of the state? For example, are American corporate interest groups necessarily invested in protecting American ideologies internationally, or are they only concerned on how international policies will impact their business’ bottom line. Despite a few debatable objections, Mitzen’s main claim, that states seek ontological security, is no more problematic than other assumptions that correlate state and individual action in issues of global governance and international relations.

This paper is most concerned with what happens when ontological security is challenged, when the trust generated from routinization threatened and states are forced to act in defense of their self identity. This is, in a sense, self-preservation. In “Making Words Matter,” Steele categorizes a state’s response to this threat in two ways: fear and anxiety. From a Freudian perspective, fear is a response to a specific threat while anxiety is a generalized emotion where the threat is imminent but uncertain (Giddens, 1991:43-44). Steele explains this more specifically, “Fear can be thought of, for our purposes, as a response to something that threatens one’s survival; anxiety is an emotional reaction produced when a person’s self-identity is challenged. Someone who suffers from anxiety for a period of time is insecure insofar as their sense of being is challenged” (Steele, 2005:526). Choosing actions or policies that are consistent with one’s self identity are essential for ontological security, but anxiety changes the nature of the individual (or state’s) relationship to its society.

A constant challenge of identity overtime is destabilizing, in that it “tends to threaten awareness of self-identity, since, awareness of the self in relation to constituting features of the object world becomes obscured,” (Giddens, 1991:45). Citing Giddens and others, Steele describes this self-awareness as reflexivity, where individuals are constantly monitoring their behavior, checking to see if their actions reinforce their notion of self-identity. The social routinizations are “produced and reproduced in our day-to-day activities” and “are reflexively monitored by the agents as part of ‘on-going’ in the variegated settings of our lives. Reflexive awareness in the sense is characteristic of all human action,” (Giddens, 1991: 35). This self-reflexivity can be healthy and moderated in a productive and confident manner (Mitzen, 2006:350) or, it can generate a sense of personality crisis. This is similar to what Kierkegaard’s psychological description of dread in which the anxiety begins to inform our sense of personhood, place in the world and in the social structure. Giddens explains, “anxiety is both normal and neurotic: normal because the mechanisms of the basic security system always involve anxiety-generating elements, and neurotic in the sense that anxiety… Has a crippling effect on the personality,” (Giddens, 1991:45). Mitzen suggests that high or low levels of anxiety can be detrimental because certain states are more prone to high-reflexivity (perhaps, in liberal democracies) or low-reflexivity (autocracies) (Mitzen, 2006: 351-353). Most importantly, this sense of anxiety is social- it is based on the way one feels they are perceived in the community, affects their behaviors in that community and can negotiate power. How can ontological security (and lack thereof) be used to persuade states in policy decision? How does this ontological security negotiate power between states? Can it help diffuse power? These questions are explored in more detail in the next section, outlining Steele’s theory of reflexive discourse.

Reflexive Discourse, Darfur and the Tsunami in Southeast Asia

Ontological security can be challenged, manipulated and exploited as a form of rhetorical coercive action. In his article, Steele insists that this has been the foundation for persuading the U.S. to intervene in the genocide in Darfur. This paper is interested in how ontological security can be challenged to change the framing of environmental debate. Expanding on Gidden’s work on the individual, the state and ontological security, Steele puzzles about the ways that ontological security (and the anxiety produced from a lack thereof) can be used as a rhetorical tactic in negotiations. Particularly, he is vexed by an instance in which the US’s ontological security was challenged, leading to a significant policy reversal by a world superpower (Steele, 2007:914-918). This section will examine how Steele arrives at the theory of reflexive discourse and then examine his case study, which is remarkably similar to the one discussed later in this paper.

As anxiety is important driver of action, Giddens emphasized two specific types of anxiety that are the most dangerous to one’s ontological security. First, there is guilt, a primary driver of insecurity as a “manifestation which the anxieties thus stimulated provoke… anxiety produced by the fear of transgression: where thoughts or activities of the individual do not match up to the expectations of a normative sort,” (Giddens, 1991:64). Guilt in international negotiations occurs with the recognition that a state’s actions do not correlate to national values and identity. Guilt is the recognition of rules broken, lines crossed.5 It is the cause of anxiety’s second manifestation, shame, which “bears directly on self-identity because it is essentially anxiety about the inadequacy of the narrative by means of which the individual sustains a coherent biography,” (Giddens, 1991:65).

In the context of global governance, shame is notably more important. As established earlier, state actors are also social entities interacting in an international community. This social interaction facilitates the need for ontological security in the community, reflexivity and shame (anxiety) when the biographical narrative is destabilized. To further differentiate guilt from anxiety in an international context, Steele offers the example,

“…regimes may not feel guilty when they fail to act on a humanitarian crisis (because no rule existed requiring action), but they will feel shame because such inaction was inconsistent with their sense of integrity and self-identity, and because allowing humanitarian disasters to unfold threatens that regime’s sense of self-identity,” (Steele, 2005, 528).

Steele adds that liberal democracies may be more susceptible to criticism and shame imposed by internal civil society and external members of the international community (Steele, 2007:528). Additionally, he suggests that an understanding of ontological security from this perspective is extremely helpful in understanding humanitarian crisis intervention. Understanding a state’s proverbial psyche could lead to new ways of encouraging intervention in humanitarian crises in the future.

Reflexive discourse, then, is discourse that directly uses rhetoric to shame an actor, threatening their ontological security, reputation in the community and sense of self-identity. This is a way of showing a state that their action is not consistent with their biographical narrative. When one actor employs the strategy against another, they

“Must use this narrative in a reflexive discourse strategy to demonstrate to a targeted state the disconnect between a state’s assumed self-identity (narrative) and its actions (foreign policy), and therefore oblige the targeted state to justify what this means about the integrity of that narrative (and, thus, the integrity of the state’s narrative,” (Steele, 2007: 905).

“Demonstrating” to a state how an action would be compliant or non-compliant with their biographical narrative not outright coercion or welcomed consensus- it is somewhere in the middle where a state is forced to take self-reflexive action in specific terms (Steele, 2007:909). This is closely derived from Habermas’s differentiation of strategic and communicative actions, where in “strategic action one actor seeks to influence the behavior” as opposed to “communicative action [where] one actor seeks rationally to motivate another,” (Habermas, 1991:58). Steele tailors this tactic specifically to humanitarian crises, in which states will see (upon self-reflection) that it is essential to their biographical narrative to work within their capabilities to intervene in the crisis. He breaks this down into a simple formula, “capabilities and Principles = ‘Self’ of a State,” (Steele, 2007: 906). This formula speaks directly to the confines of reflexive discourse- it is insufficient for a capable state to denounce an act that causes a humanitarian crisis- they must be prepared to assert their capabilities and principles to satisfy their identity. Attempting to shame an actor that does not view or project itself as powerful is ineffective.

To illustrate the use of reflexive discourse, Steele uses the case of the Tsunami in Southeast Asia on December 26, 2004. After an earthquake rating at 9.0 on the Richter scale occurred in the Western Indian Ocean, a devastating tsunami wave destroyed parts of India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia and parts of Eastern Africa, killing nearly a quarter of a million people. For millions of others, homes, villages and cities were destroyed resulting in a massive and urgent humanitarian crisis. Initial contributions to the tsunami relief effort from the United States were approximately $7 million, causing U.N. Undersecretary-General Jan Egeland to comment, “We were more generous when we were less rich, many of the rich countries. And it is beyond me why we are so stingy really, when…. The foreign assistance of many countries now is 0.1% or 0.2% of their gross national income, I think that is stingy, really. I don’t think that is very generous (United Nations Webcast 2004),” (Steele, 2007: 915). The reflexive discourse here is evident in Egeland’s use of the word “stingy,” and phrasing “I don’t think that is very generous.” These notions directly challenge the U.S.’s identity as a generous nation that has traditionally shown leadership in times of global humanitarian crises. The results from this rhetoric were almost immediate. In the following days, the Bush administration increased the U.S.’s contribution from $7 million to $350 million by the end of 2004. This also came with a heavy media-blitz by Gen. Colin Powell and others on cable news stations explaining that the U.S.’s change was really do to further American analysis on what the effort required for funding. From Steele’s perspective, the comments successfully generated enough insecurity in the Bush administration to warrant this media storm and to exponentially increase funds to the relief efforts (Steele, 2007:919).

One element from Giddens’ work that Steele fails to develop is how tightly bound shame is to trust. This is particularly important in the international community, where a brief failure of trust may corrode a long-standing relationship between nations (Giddens, 1991:66). The relationship is what provides expectations in the community where trust is essential to coherence and order. Giddens gives an example, “a person interprets – correctly or not – a response from another as indicating that her assumptions about others’ views of her are false, the result might be to compromise a whole set of trust relations which has been built up,” (Giddens, 1991: 66). In other words, coherence within the community as a whole is contingent on the stability, predictability and trust relations, which are dependent on the way an actor conducts itself in response to shame. In his argument, Steele leaves room for how reflexive discourse and shaming can be used not only as a means of soft coercion, but to recontextualize a debate.

An Illustration: Africa’s use of Reflexive Discourse in Copenhagen

“The United States is not as vulnerable as many other nations to serious losses from climate change, and that the expected damage, in terms of health, agriculture, and more, is comparatively low – and that in those terms other nations, such as India and those in Sub-Saharan Africa, are likely to loseWeight Exercise much more,” (Posner and Sunstein, 2007:3).

Between the issues of aid during the tsunami crisis, genocide in Darfur and the impacts of global warming in developing Africa, the central problems are justice and representation in global governance. Across all these topics are questions of agency, accountability and representation in the international community. Does being the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses obligate the state to pay the most for a new energy infrastructure? Why should China, India and Brazil be forced to curb their rate of growth and development when the U.S. and others had uninhibited development for more than a century? Is this simply one of environmental policy, or is it a matter of human rights? Steele’s case study on the Asian Tsunami relief effort demonstrates how the world can mobilize when there is an outstanding humanitarian crisis. He also points to a failure in global governance in the case of Darfur where international parties did not rise to meet the urgent need for intervention in Africa. Steele’s study makes us question whether or not we letting history repeat itself. The issues he raises show many similarities to the topics being debated in Copenhagen today. How can these issues in Africa become in the best interest of the US to stimulate action, and make it worth the cost of action? The goal of the following case study is not to solve these global dilemmas outright, but rather to explore them through the specific lens of the Copenhagen climate conference to investigate what rhetorical conditions are changing the ways these issues are addressed in global deliberations today.

Like the Asian Tsunami, the environmental threat that climate change poses to Africa, more specifically, Sub-Saharan Africa is potentially devastating. There are three significant reasons that Africa is substantially more vulnerable to climate change than the United States, Europe and wealthy regions of the world: adaptive capacity, economic dependency and standing climate conditions (Sunstein, 2007:12). First, compared to other regions of the world, many African nations lack the infrastructural capacity to adapt to an increase in global temperatures. Second, agrarian African societies are economically dependent on climate patterns that are already delicate, creating the potential for warming to cripple these economies. Third, Africa is by in large significantly warmer than most other regions of the world, which results in health problems across the continent. Nordhaus & Boyer note, “For Africa, much of the vulnerability comes from potential health impacts of global warming,” (Nordhaus & Boyer, 2000:98). Of course, health issues also contribute to the economic hardships, which would in turn result in less revenue for heath care, perpetuating a deadly cycle for many communities. At a 2.5 C degree increase in warming, India would face 4.93 percent in damages of GDP and Africa would face 3.91 percent compared to the U.S. at .45 percent and China at .22 percent (Nordhaus and Boyer, 2000:91). In an article on the issues o justice in the climate debate, Eric Posner and Cass Sunstein explain the comparative disadvantage to Africa and India, and the potential health hazards to the two countries,

“India and Africa are anticipated to be massive loseWeight Exercisers…. For Africa, the major problem involves health, with a massive anticipated increase in climate-related diseases.70 Sub-Saharan Africa has been projected to loseWeight Exercise 26,677,000 years of life because of climate-related diseases, with 24,385,000 coming from malaria,” (Posner and Sunstein, 2007: 13).

The authors also indicate that the on-going, long-term humanitarian efforts that will be needed to ameliorate the suffering caused by climate change will take unpredictably large aid programs to provide medical, agricultural and infrastructural support. With nearly unanimous agreement that the prospect of global warming could be a devastating threat to Africa, Posner and Sunstein question why so much of the debate has focused on economics and not on the human elements resulting from climate change.

In their article, Posner and Sunstein also translate the environmental, economic and social impacts of climate change in Africa to the deliberative challenges they face. The primary problem that the authors address is that while African nations will be among the largest sufferers from climate change, they have the least amount of influence over the outcomes in the international negotiations and therefore lack control over their own destinies (to an extent). Thus far, the US and China, who contribute to nearly 40 percent of the world’s emissions (Posner and Sunstein, 2007:1) the issue have made a cost-benefit analysis their primary concern for the debate. This is essentially why the Kyoto Protocol was unsuccessful- the cost of compliance to US and Chinese citizens was great, while the benefits would be nearly unnoticeable. For these countries, the domestic costs of action simply far outweigh the benefits of action. Comparatively, the Montreal Protocol had much more tangible and economic benefits, which is why the Reagan administration was so inclined to aggressively back the measure. Figures 1 & 2 below highlight the change in cost-benefit analysis from Montreal to Kyoto, the cornerstone negotiations in global governance and environmentalism.

Figure 1


Figure 2

(Source: Posner and Sunstein, 2007: 13).

The macro-economic figures presented by Posner and Sunstein demonstrate the fiscal benefits that resulted from the adoption of environmental provisions in previous landmark agreements on sustainability. These numbers illustrate the financial logic that attests to such legislation’s economic benefits.

This change in domestic cost-benefit analysis is what derailed talks in Kyoto in 1997. It became apparent that unlike the Montreal Protocol, the US would have to take a significant financial hit to sign the treaty. Additionally, China felt that it should not have to comply with strict limits on emissions that would inhibit their growth at home. From there, the US decided that if China was not on-board with the treaty then their compliance would be worthless. Of course, China and many others argued that the US’s GDP far exceeds that of any other individual nation at the expense of their emissions, and therefore, they have an obligation to contribute more to the solution (Sunstein, 2007).

It is important to note that while the exact estimates put forth on this issue are very controversial, they are meant to show a comparative cost analysis between Africa and the rest of the world, a disparity that has nearly unanimous consensus. For these purposes, they are perfectly relevant and illustrate comparative emissions by nation, rates of growth and potential costs if climate change proceeds uninhibited at its current rate.

A reflexive discourse perspective provides insight into how statements made by African nations during the deliberations in Copenhagen allowed them to reframe the debate from one of purely cost-benefit to a human rights issue. In a New York Times article, James Kanter describes the imbalance of power at the conference between the wealthy and poorer countries. He writes,

“The stuffy and overcrowded office of Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, a Sudanese diplomat who speaks on behalf of the Group of 77 developing countries, is dwarfed by the airy E.U. cafe, with its huge television screen, and the U.S. center, featuring loud and colorful multimedia presentations about the claimed achievements of Americans in lowering carbon emissions,” (Kanter, 2009:1)

The disparity of the wealth in the world is visible in every way at the conference- the image of Western technology “dwarfing” the sub-standard office conditions of their diplomatic neighbors. For days, Di-Aping has been fighting an up-hill battle for poorer nations to receive aid from the U.S. and others to fund green infrastructure development in their home countries. A subsequent plan contrived by the US, E.U. and backed by the U.N. offered $10 billion annually between 2010 and 2012 to poorer nations to aid the infrastructural transition. Di-Aping’s response was the tipping point. “Ten billion dollars will not buy developing countries’ citizens enough coffins,” (Kanter, 2009: 1).

Like Steele’s case study where the term “stingy” challenged the US’s reputation as a generous nation, Di-Aping’s imagery-rich rebuke of “American generosity” challenges this aspect of American identity in the same way. Shortly after the comment was released, the sentiments went viral in the European and American mass media outlets, changing a debate that was largely about the US, China and American budgetary implications at home into an emotionally-charged issue of humanitarian justice between the haves and have-nots. Of course, the context of this accusation comes at a time when the U.S. and European governments have spent nearly a trillion dollars on easing the plight of Wall Street stock brokers and hedge fund managers, which stirred a world-wide sentiment of class warfare. Di-Aping fueled this sentiment further by adding that the $10 billion a year offer was a flat-out “bribe…. Less important than the financial crisis,” (Kanter, 2009: 1).

National Public Radio (NPR), which covered the deliberative sea change more thoroughly in a segment of All Things Considered, discussed the implications of climate change on Africa’s future with human rights champion and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and quoted Di-Aping’s framing of the debate through reflexive discourse,

“There is an ever-widening gap between developed countries and developing countries, because developed countries have accepted that condemning Africa, condemning the small island states, condemning developing countries to destruction and massive suffering is something acceptable to them… The world needs a few hundred billion dollars. He can enable that to happen the way he did in the financial crisis. We know what he did for Wall Street. He can also do that for the children of the world,” (NPR, 2009)

The significance of this quote is twofold. First, this reflexive discourse directly challenges the US’s reputation as leader of human rights (one that is already vulnerable due to policies of the previous administration). Di-Aping directly accuses “developed countries” of “condemning Africa… small island states” and deeming the suffering of the poor as “acceptable.” These statements shame the U.S. and generate ontological insecurity by putting their identity on the line.

Secondly, this rhetoric challenges the U.S.’s reputation for moral justice. The insinuation here is that the U.S. would rather line the pockets of wealthy Wall Street executives than abate a humanitarian disaster in Africa. It also puts into question President Obama as a symbol of change and effective democracy, a developing part of the nation’s biographical narrative whose historical footprint has yet to be determined. Since Di-Aping’s flood of criticism began to gain media traction, African leaders have rallied and united under this new context: the wealthy continuing to impose their will on the poor and denying them the opportunity to advert a catastrophic threat to their countries. Again, this language balances coercion and consensus without directly threatening or accepting the policies of the other side. It is also important to acknowledge that while some may argue that these comments are not directly accusing the US by name, it can be argued that the comments are a reaction to a proposal largely concocted by the US and their close allies. Furthermore, to whom exactly these comments are directed is not as relevant as it was in Steele’s case where the U.N official was trying to get the US specifically to increase their contribution to the relief fund.

The recontextualization of this debate happened largely in the mass media. Since the comments, major news sources such as The New York Times, NPR, Politico6, PBS7 and the BBC8 have been releasing headlines like “Developing countries and aid agencies have derided the latest pledges by richer states to tackle global warming,” (BBC, 2009) and “It is one of the grim paradoxes of climate change that nations on the front line of global warming are among those with the least political clout at the United Nations conference that opened this week in Copenhagen,” (Kanter, 2009). Running up to the deliberations, most of the daily media coverage on the conference was centered on three major issues: U.S.-China relations (especially since President Obama had recently met with Asian leaders just weeks prior to the conference); the European block’s plans for emission reductions and how the economic recession will effect leaders’ ability to commit to costly reductions programs such as cap and trade legislation. Since Di-Aping’s statements, these major news outlets have shifted their focus from the policy and economic issues of the debate the emotional, to the emotional human rights issue of the threat to Africa. In his case study, Steele cites the Bush administration’s media blitz to undermine U.N. undersecretary Egeland’s reflexive discourse, but he does not give an in-depth account for the media’s role in the containment or dissemination of reflexive discourse. This timely and significant topical change in media coverage suggest that Di-Aping’s use of reflexive discourse assisted in this recontextualization of the environmental issue as a human right issue.

Steele’s case study is very similar to “Case 1: Policy Change” in Ronald Krebs and Patrick Jackson’s table of opposition response and the outcomes of rhetorical contestation (Krebs & Jackson, 2007:43). Conversely, the case of Copenhagen follows “Case 4: Framing Context.” In this context, “two parties disagree about the very terms of the debate as well as the policies that follow, and their rhetorical efforts consequently focus on advancing their preferred issue frame in the hope that their political opponents will accept it (along with the concomitant implications),” (Krebs and Jackson, 2007:44). As Krebs & Jackson’s analysis explains, this approach focuses on one actor trying to enroll the other in their contextualization of the debate. While Steele’s case study looks at the use of reflexive discourse to cause a change in policy, this paper shows how reflexive discourse is being used to enroll an actor in a different frame, in this instance, contextualizing the environmental issue as a human rights issue at the Copenhagen Conference.


In the days following Di-Aping’s comments, united African leaders have continued to threaten to walk-out of the meetings collectively, which would undoubtedly compromise the conference. This has also garnered significant press as it further indicates the urgency of the African position. Still, it is uncertain whether or not Di-Aping’s comments will generate the momentum needed to achieve significant environmental policy, or whether or not his use of reflexive discourse has empowered African nations in these deliberations. However, from the rhetoric, reactionary change in media coverage and subsequent unification of African leaders, we can assert that this use of reflexive discourse has reframed the debate. This points to a critical characteristic of reflexive discourse as a potential vehicle for unifying different interest groups under a singular context. Should international talks again leave environmentalists without a substantial victory, this reframing of the issue in the context of Steele’s work has created a new central theme for environmental advocates like Sunstein and equatorial countries at risk to unite under.

While this paper builds largely on Steele’s work there are a few areas that need to be addressed further in his analysis. First, Giddens says shame destabilizes trust, but trust is necessary, to an extent as a condition in productive global governance. If there is no trust between nations, then nations will be reluctant to take progressive action (Giddens, 1991:66). Conversely, shame can, in a way, keep states in check, create predictability and therefore generate more trust. I believe a more thorough account of the relationship between trust and shame needs to be made in respect to reflexive discourse because there is little discussion on how broader relationships are affected if shamming becomes more prevalent. This could have unforeseen consequences that should be documented. Second, as Steele admits, “if one does not accept that states are driven by identity needs, then skepticism about the viability of “reflexive discourse” will surely follow… I cannot counter such reasonable criticism in this article…” (Steele, 2007: 903). I find this foundational assumption to be potentially problematic, as it would be difficult to prove empirically. As a solution, I would offer that a comprehensive analysis of anthropomorphic language in IR theory to evaluate the effectiveness of such metaphors and to compare this analogy to others that have become staples of IR scholarship. 9 Third, there also seems to be several possibilities for researching how reflexive discourse is translated through the mass media as it has impacted the frame of the deliberations in Copenhagen. Lastly, the discussion presented by Giddens, Steele and Mitzen in references to Freud opens up a large field of potential research on the state as an organic or almost human actor with personality fluctuations and needs. How do state actors exhibit specific human psychological conditions (i.e. social anxiety disorder)? Do states develop such conditions, can they be treated and how do such conditions affect policy decisions? More research on reflexive discourse from a psychological perspective would add an interesting dimension to the field.





1Nordhaus, pp. 69-82 describes the comparative costs and effects of climate change between the U.S. and Africa.

2Anthony Giddens outlines his theory of ontological security in “Modernity and Self-Identity.”

3Steele frequently references Anthony Giddens’ theories on similarities between individual and state identity.

4On page 351 Mitzen raises these questions, citing the definition of a “state” as problematic, but continues to use the term without providing a firm definition or context for its use.

5To explain this, Steele notes that one feels this when guilty of a crime, that a law has been broken, rather than an ideological boundary or code of identity. (Steele, 200: 527).

6Lerer, Lisa and Roug, Louise. “Critics Start Fast in Copenhagen.” Politico. December 8, 2009. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1209/30322_Page4.html

7 PBS. “Climate Change Agreement Stifled as Leaders Disagree.” December 14, 2009. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/environment/july-dec09/copenhagen_12-14.html

8 BBC. “EU climate cash pledge ‘not enough’ say small nations.” December 11, 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8408821.stm

9 Mitzen addresses some specifically on page 352 of her piece “Ontological Security in World Politics” as mentioned earlier in this essay, however, even she suggests that a more developed argument.


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