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 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.
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.