What is an International Incident?

Sherry Holetzky

When a negative event occurs between one country and another, or between citizens of one country and another, it might be described in the media or by some people as an international incident. This is especially true if the state of affairs causes an escalation in disputes or possibly creates a larger conflict from an already tense situation. An international incident can even be responsible for starting a war.

Many consider the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis to be an international incident.
Many consider the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis to be an international incident.

Many times, an international incident is the result of instigation on the part of one government, faction or military organization of a particular country, but it also can be the result of inadvertent missteps or might be caused by ordinary citizens. Most often, however, an international incident occurs when there is no existing greater conflict and is caused by sudden or surprising action, such as terrorism. The Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, in which 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days, is considered by many people to have been an international incident. The way that a country handles a situation when a foreigner has committed a criminal offense also might cause an incident between that country and the person's home country if there is a dispute over things such as the trial or punishment if the person is found guilty.

A government may provoke an international incident to force other countries to act on a specific issue.
A government may provoke an international incident to force other countries to act on a specific issue.

Different nations, the world community as a whole and some international agencies or institutions have different definitions for what constitutes an international incident. Some believe that minor issues that can be effectively handled through diplomacy should be regarded as international incidents, but others believe that it applies only to more serious offenses. Diplomatic efforts might not always work, even in cases that are deemed minor by some people, and the result might be armed conflict. In addition, some nations will see an offense as an act of war rather than simply as an international incident.

The distinction might depend on who committed the offending act, such as when celebrities or individual members of a government overstep their bounds and say things they shouldn’t. In other cases, if members of the military or government do actually speak for a nation, the offense is likely to be taken much more seriously. To avoid these incidents, people who have influence should take care in how they act and speak, especially when visiting another country.

If a representative of one nation offers diplomatic measures without the proper authority, and these measures go directly against the policy of his or her nation, this can lead to problems. These mixed messages can create offense, especially if the other country attempts to redeem the unapproved measures and the request is declined by those who are in authority. This is why there are laws, such as the Logan Act in the United States, that are meant to protect against such things. People who are in positions of power therefore must respect not only foreign governments but also their own to avoid an international incident, or worse.

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Discussion Comments


I feel that media and entertainment- news reports, art, music and films lead to a lot of international incidents.

Borat did not have a very good affect on US relations with Kazakhstan. The Dutch cartoons about Prophet Mohammad became a huge incident between multiple Western and Muslim nations. The show Big Brother in the UK caused an international incident between the UK and India over racism against Indians.

So maybe we should take a look at how media is affecting international relations. Is it doing more harm than good by triggering national sensitivities and escalating tensions that already exist leading to international incidents? I think yes, but I'd like to hear other people's view too.


I completely agree with the article about how careful political and military leaders need to be when there is an incident between two countries. I feel that political leaders can really be the make or break point for disputes. They can literally take the nation to war, or choose the diplomacy route.

I think the public particularly looks to its leadership when there is a crisis or an attack. If the leadership makes the decision to retaliate or to take preventive measures to protect itself, it can convince the public to agree, whether or not that is the right thing to do.

Since they have so much influence on public opinion and the fate of the state, leaders should think twice, even three times before they take action or instigate the other country to attack.


I think that international incidents happen a lot between neighboring countries and especially if there is a history of conflict between them. Greece-Turkey and India-Pakistan rivalry is a good example.

Since these countries have fought wars with one another and still have ongoing geographic disputes, it seems that practically every issue becomes an international incident that can bring these countries to the brink of war. Turkey and Greece are still in rivalry for Cyprus; India and Pakistan for Kashmir.

I remember last year, it had become a huge deal that two celebrities, one from India and one from Pakistan got married. Practically every year, the level of sea water on the Mediterranean will change, emerging a new piece of rock between Greece and Turkey and helicopters will rush over to claim it.

Any small thing can be transformed into an international incident. They have so much history between them, and their grievances have still not been resolved. Until it is resolved and maybe even then, these incidents will be common.

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