Perception and Image Theory of International Relations

In order to examine the origins and consequences of the images that nation-states hold of each other, Theory of International Images emerged. Shortly, Image Theory is a theory of strategic decision making that identifies the primary judgments guiding international images, or stereotypes, and the selection of international policies. Image theorists suggest that ideas about other actors in world affairs are organized into group schemas, or images, with well-defined cognitive elements. These images are organized in a systematic way, comprised of cognitions and beliefs regarding the target nation’s motives, leadership, and primary characteristics.[i] Images, perceptions or stereotypes are significant in international relations as they “serve to justify a nation’s desired reaction or treatment toward another nation.”[ii]

It is useful to note here that the terms image and perception can be used interchangeably as I have been doing in my writings. But to be concrete, perception is wider than image. Image can be defined as the product of perception. In this sense, while concept of perception covers both the perceiving process and its result, image solely means the outcome of this process. Therefore, Image Theory is focused on outcome of perception. Fisher underlines the importance of images in the following way:

It is fundamental that people, including those on one’s own side of an issue, do not ordinarily react to an event or issue on the basis of the facts as might be empirically determined but on the basis of their images of the fact, on what they think or believe to have happened or to have been at stake. Thus, international relations evolve around interplay of images.[iii]

This ‘interplay of images’ can explain relations among states. As Boulding put it in similar way, “It is always the image, not the truth that immediately determines behavior. We act according to the way the world appears to us, not necessarily according to the way it ‘is’.”[iv] Robert Jervis argues that the image of a state can be a major factor in determining whether and how easily the state can reach its goal. He argues that a desired image can often be of greater use than a significant increment of military and economic power.[v] In this sense, the purpose of diplomacy of any state is to construct desired image. And public diplomacy is image making within the target community.

By analyzing the image of state A in state B, it is possible to predict the behavior of state B towards state A. The main proposition of the Image theory is that “behavior depends on the image.”[vi] According to Image theory images can be enemy image, ally image, dependent image, imperialist image, barbarian image and so on, and responds can be accordingly. For example, if a conquering state succeeds to change its ‘imperialist image’ in the conquered realm to ‘spreader of civilization image’, then it does not need military force to exploit the colony any more. It means that conquering minds and hearts is more profitable than conquering lands and people. That is why every nation who is aspired to have respectable place in the world works for their image in foreign countries. In words of Jervis, the image of a state is a major factor in determining other state’s policies toward it and states therefore have good reason to try to project desired images.[vii] British Council, Goethe Institute, Confucius Institute, Yunus Emre Enstitüsü, CNN, BBC, student exchange programs, scholarships serve to improve the images of the respective countries.

During the Cold War the work of these kinds of institutions were called propaganda or psychological warfare. Today their works are called as image making or perception management. With the development of technologies, Internet and Social Media, nations who control these means are more successful in creation of their positive images than those who are not able to develop their own technologies.

The central question of Image Theory is ‘what determines the image?’ Boulding argues that there is message and image. When message hits the image, it can remain unaffected, it can change in some regular and well-defined way that might be described as simple addition, or it can change revolutionarily.[viii] Message first of all means statements of decision makers, relations between leaders and elites of two countries, people to people relations. In some cases, a state’s relations with the third part can give different messages to perceiving part. In sum, message covers all activities of a state which can affect its image in perceiving country. Diplomacy, public diplomacy, people to people relations are important tools in making positive and desired image. Especially with the development of Internet networks, which can by-pass official sources of information, people to people relations gain greater importance. While until recently the stands of decision makers were important, now in the age of globalization the opinions of masses are becoming more and more important. Robert Jervis count decision-makers, bureaucracy, domestic politics, and international environment as levels of analysis of perception.[ix]


[i] Michele G. Alexander, Shana Levin, P. J. Henry, ‘Image Theory, Social Identity, and Social Dominance: Structural Characteristics and Individual Motives Underlying International Images’, Political Psychology, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Feb., 2005), p. 22.

[ii] Ibid., p. 25.

[iii] Glen Fisher, Mindsets: The Role of Culture and Perception in International Relations, Second Edition, Intercultural Press, USA, 1997, p. 4.

[iv] K. E. Boulding, ‘National Images and International Systems’, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Jun., 1959), p. 120.

[v] Robert Jervis, The Logic of Images in International Relations, Princeton University Press, USA, 1970, p. 6.

[vi] Kenneth E. Boulding, The Image: The Knowledge in Life and Society, Ann Arbor Paperbacks The University of Michigan Press, USA, 1969, p. 6.

[vii] Robert Jervis, The Logic of Images in International Relations, Princeton University Press, USA, 1970, p. 8.

[viii] Kenneth E. Boulding, The Image: The Knowledge in Life and Society, Ann Arbor Paperbacks The University of Michigan Press, USA, 1969, p. 10.

[ix] Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1976, p.13.