When I give a presentation about diplomacy and foreign policy techniques it never fails to amaze or startle British audiences when I include something about Inat.
Inat is a Balkan word with Turkish/Arabic roots. It has no one English equivalent. Maybe the American word ‘ornery’ gets closest: it conveys (depending on the context) cantankerous obstinacy or mischievous prankishness for its own sake.
One phenomenon in British culture demonstrating a sort of inat is a crowd of noisily chanting drunk English football hooligans overseas, who deliberately provoke the local police knowing that they will get a thrashing. Cynics might argue that Brexit is the British people exhibiting their own peculiar inat on a truly awesome scale.
Nonetheless, we Brits tend not to behave in an inat way. We don’t even have a word or expression for doing so. Brits instead instinctively prefer to avoid making a difficult situation worse. We like to think that we coolly weigh up pros and cons before we decide the best way forward, drawing on ‘common sense’ and pragmatic if not subtle understatement.
The core idea of inat is nothing like this. It’s an attitude of stubborn defiance that’s almost reckless as to consequences. It may be heroic or self-destructive or (in a bewildering unpredictable crazy way) both at the same time.
This defiance can be combined with vainglorious showmanship to make the effect all the more dramatic. The poor man who can scarcely feed his family buys a large second-hand Cadillac with his remaining money. He drives ostentatiously around town to show the world that he is not weighed down by his problems and can do what the heck he likes.
A Croatian lady once gave me her examples of inat. Her neighbour complains to the police that her grass-cuttings have gone into his garden:
Now to pay him back I’ll make sure this happens every time!
She described what happens when your neighbour knocks on your door late on a Sunday evening and asks you to turn down the music as her baby can’t sleep:
You apologise profusely, shut the door, and turn up the music!
But … surely it’s different if she asks really politely?
Yes! Then you make the music even louder!
My own best inat experience came in late 1996 when I was UK Ambassador in Sarajevo. I was trying to persuade a top Republika Srpska official that the Bosnian Serb leaders should go to the London Conference to help take forward the Dayton Peace Process. They were refusing to go as part of a single Bosnian national delegation. It was quite impossible that they accept sitting at the conference table behind nameplates saying Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After some three hours of ridiculous arguing it came down to this exchange:
Look. You agree that the Bosnian Serbs are not liked by most of the international community. In London, you’ll meet some 60 Foreign Ministers and have a great chance to make your case. So is it in your interests to go?
So are you going to go?
In that case your position is simply stupid.
Serbs are stupid!
They eventually went to London. But it was weary work battling against this inat position that identified the smart thing to do and promptly rejected it.
The wider point?
Much of diplomacy is based upon certain typically unarticulated assumptions about ‘rational actors’. The leaders of states and even the states themselves at a higher level of abstraction are assumed, at least in Western capitals, to be more than capable of identifying their own ‘national interests’ and pursuing them determinedly.
This in turn leads to familiar Carrot and Stick policies: rewards for helpful behaviour, sanctions or other bad consequences for unhelpful or destructive behaviour.
The problems come when a nation’s leaders operate in an inat culture and so almost relish being beaten by international/Western Sticks as a chance to show their people and the wider world just how defiant and heroic they are: the worse, the better!
It’s easy to see from the disaster that befell the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s how such cultural misapprehensions can create a vicious circle of bad decisions on all sides leading to utter ruin.
Worse, inat can create a sense of collective fatalistic pessimism. Things are never going to improve because, well, they can’t.
And they don’t.
* * * * *
Charles Crawford won Cicero Awards for speechwriting in 2016 and 2017. He writes at www.charlescrawford.biz
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.