by Robert A. Saunders on June 21st, 2016

Note: The blog post originally appeared at E-International Relations on 15 June 2016. The original post can be found at:

While the question may seem strange, even provocative, it is time to start asking Hollywood to think about the prospect of an Iranian-American buddy film. Back in 1988, Arnold Schwarzenegger—the future Govenator of the U.S. state of California—starred with Saturday Night Live veteran Jim Belushi in the crime-thriller Red Heat. IMDB describes the plot as such: ‘A tough Russian policeman is forced to partner up with a cocky Chicago police detective when he is sent to Chicago to apprehend a Georgian drug lord who killed his partner and fled the country’. Certainly the reviews of the film were less than stellar, yet the fact that a major motion picture paired up an agent of the Soviet state with an American cop in an effort to combat a combined threat to both their nations was a major milestone in the evolution of 1980s geopolitical cinema. By linking the interests of the USSR and the USA., Red Heat provided a bold contrast to Rambo III, Little Nikita, The Living Daylights, and other films of second-half of the 1980s, cinematically reflecting the budding international ‘bromance’ between the stridently anti-communist Ronald Reagan and the Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev. In its own rather curious way, Red Heat also represented a prescient harbinger of post-1991 Russophobic Hollywood cinema in that it dealt with the unleashing of the dark underbelly of the Eurasian mafia on the West (a theme that would be repeated ad nauseam through the 1990s and beyond in films as diverse as Little Odessa [1994], Training Day [2001], and The Dark Knight Rises [2012]). In their collaborative efforts to bring to justice a home-grown Soviet threat, Red Heat marked a major turn in pop-culture’s collective assessment of the Soviet Union. Given the tectonic shift in the West’s orientation towards the Islamic Republic, is it not time for a similar treatment from Hollywood vis-à-vis Iran?

Admittedly, there are significant differences in the nature of the U.S.-Iranian relationship when compared to that of the America and the USSR back in the late 1980s. Unlike Reagan and Gorbachev, Barack Obama is not buddying up to either the Supreme Leader of Iran or its president, Hassan Rouhani, nor are there any overtures of this nature emanating from the Sa’adabad Complex. However, Washington and Tehran are  increasingly finding themselves to be (often uncomfortable) bedfellows on the same side of many issues in the so-called ‘Greater Middle East’, from countering the spread of Daesh/ISIL to promoting increased economic ties in the Persian Gulf to stabilizing Afghanistan. With the large and influential Persian community in the United States and a younger generation of pro-American Iranians moving into their late 20s and early 30s, the stage is set for a transformation of the ‘enemy image’ of Iran akin to what occurred with the Soviets at the end of the Cold War—that is if Hollywood gets on board (a pretty big ‘if’). Certainly, a large number of structural hurdles hamper any such trend in this direction, not least of which is Americans’ pervasive distrust of ‘Middle Easterners’ rooted in hoary Orientalist attitudes toward Muslims. Sadly, these prejudices have been on dramatic display in the current election cycle wherein the presumptive Republican Party nominee, Donald Trump, has repeatedly called for a ‘ban’ on Muslim immigrants (a talking point that he has doubled-down on since the tragic mass-shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in mid-June).

Yet, there is a possibility for challenging the West’s dominant IR narrative and reworking U.S.’s geopolitical imaginary of Iran via popular culture, assuming there is will on the part of cultural producers. Following in the footsteps of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, with its well-developed relationship between a U.S. war journalist and her Afghan fixer, it is possible to move to the next stage, i.e., a U.S.-Iranian buddy film set in the Middle East. The possible plotlines are limitless, but I for one can imagine a narrative wherein an erudite, Western-educated, and religiously-observant member of the Revolutionary Guards partners up with a foul-mouthed, atheist FBI agent from Brooklyn to track down a missing shipment of enhanced uranium (thus contextualizing the recent Iranian nuclear deal and the tentative détente between the two countries).

Originally intended for delivery to the Russian Federation but diverted by a corrupt FSB agent to a wild-eyed ISIL terrorist in southern Lebanon, the missing uranium is the conceit that brings together these two ‘buddies’ so they can save Tel Aviv from a drone-delivered ‘dirty bomb’ attack. Of course, our heroes spend half the film arguing about the superiority of their respective systems, stereotyping of each other’s cultures, and debating about Israel. However, they do bond over food, seeking out the best falafel cafés on their trek from Muscat to Jeddah to Damascus, thus adding a bit of mirth to the otherwise serious subject matter. Sprinkle in a bit star power (I’m thinking a tanned and bearded Eric Bana against a clean-shaven Christian Bale reprising his American Hustle accent), work in some sweeping shots of Dubai, Mecca, and Jerusalem, and make a couple of hackneyed references to Moscow’s complicity in ‘weaponizing’ the migrant crisis in Europe and you’ve got yourself a summer 2017 blockbuster. Stranger things have happened.

by Robert A. Saunders on May 1st, 2016

Note: The blog post originally appeared at E-International Relations on 20 April 2016. The original post can be found at:

The past two weeks saw the ZDF satirist Jan Böhmermann become the latest victim in Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s transnational campaign to silence any voices he dislikes, particularly when those voices come from those who do not like him. Sadly, we have all become familiar, even blasé about Ankara’s readiness to curtail free speech and imprison journalists, academics, and comedians alike. Now it seems that Berlin is providing an unwelcome fillip to this behaviour. Following Böhmermann’s reading of an obscene poem targeted at Erdogan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel waded into the fray condemning the German comedian’s actions as indefensible, thus passively suggesting that he may face prosecution. It is illegal under German law to insult foreign leaders. Yes, you read that correctly: Germany has a law that prohibits its citizens from impugning Vladimir Putin and, until about eight years ago, one George W. Bush. On April 15, a German judge cleared the way for Böhmermann to be charged with violation of Paragraph 103 which carries up to a three-year jail sentence (incidentally, the German government plans to repeal the now-controversial law in 2018).

While I agree that the poem – which includes sophomoric attacks on the smell of Erdogan’s faeces, his love of bestiality, and his small penis size – lacks any redeeming genuine political or even humorous value, it remains satire given how and where it was delivered, that is on Böhmermann’s television program Neo Magazin Royale, which any viewer would recognise as modelled on the classic structure with an introduction with a bit of stand-up comedy, a few songs, and silly bits or skits, sometimes followed by an interview with a live guest (Note: Böhmermann and his staff have gone on hiatus until at least May 2016). The venue, while not the only consideration, demands we recognise Böhmermann’s tasteless attack on Erdogan as a form of free speech, something that Merkel supposedly is ready to defend to the nth degree. Yet, as many analysts have pointed out, Berlin needs its increasingly paranoid and authoritarian Turkish partners to ensure that the current deal to stanch the flow of refugees and economic immigrants from continuing to flow into the Balkans and from there to Germany and other points in Northern Europe.

In such a highly charged political environment, we are seeing that European values associated with free speech might just be more malleable than once thought. At the turn of the millennium, Kazakhstan’s diplomatic corps in London asked Tony Blair’s government to ‘ban’ Borat (i.e., Sacha Baron Cohen) for his unflattering portrayal of the Central Asian republic. The British response was (thankfully) predictable: a polite speech about the entrenched nature of political humour as a natural right in liberal democracies. However as we have seen from the reaction to Charlie Hebdo’s purposefully inciting form of satire, many in Europe are increasingly wary of ‘offending’ sensitive readers outside the confines of the European Union. Perhaps this is understandable given that many of the French magazine’s barbs have been directed at religious groups, i.e. collections of private individuals, while attacks on public figures like the Pope have been accepted as part and parcel of the French tradition of social critique.

The Böhmermann case, if in fact charges are brought, represents something altogether different, given that heads of state, particularly imbecilic or nasty ones, should be fair game for comedy. What use is satire if you cannot go after the ones at the top of the political pyramid? Even in the Middle Ages, Europe made room for lampooning the liege, whether through the court jester or the charivari inversions of the carnival. We must thank Erdogan for bringing to light this ridiculous German law which represents a dangerous example of political correctness in its worst form. As one commentator noted, ‘This is not Watergate, but it has probably a lot more impact on real politics than the average journalist makes in his lifetime.’

Though not necessarily intended to draw out the importance of the popular culture-world politics continuum, the emerging Berlin-Ankara axis of enforced ‘taste’ in satire shows just how important cultural producers are becoming in bringing important issues to light in a world where print is dead, news is entertainment, and Facebook is the primary vehicle for learning about what country blew up today. Having just returned from a European International Studies Association workshop on the relationship between popular culture and world politics in Tubingen, Germany and passing through the Frankfurt train station where there was large sign in Arabic and English directing refugees to information centres, these issues are certainly on my mind. While I tend to eschew activism in my own writing, I cannot help but use this platform to issue a call for those of us working the field of education and policy to demand from our leaders – all of them – that we should be able to make fun of them. Letting the Erdogans of the world gain sway over the Merkels will make for a very unfunny place.

by Robert A. Saunders on March 7th, 2016

Note: The blog post originally appeared at E-International Relations on 7 March 2016. The original post can be found at:

Last year saw the premiere of two television series about the politics of occupation. A Norwegian production Okkupert (‘Occupied’), which premiered on TV 2 in Norway and is currently available on the Netflix platform, and The Man in the High Castle, Amazon’s first foray into television programming. The first, based on an original idea by internationally renowned detective writer Jo Nesbø, is set in the near future. The United States, having attained energy independence and learned the lessons of failed interventionism in the war-torn Middle East, has unilaterally withdrawn from NATO just as a newly elected Green Party government in Norway decides to abandon all oil and natural gas extraction in favour of an untested renewable energy project based on thorium. The result: a European Union-sanctioned Russian ‘velvet glove’ invasion of the Scandinavian country to restart petroleum production. The second is set in 1963, and is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternative history (published the same year) wherein Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan divide up a defeated America, leaving only a narrow neutral zone in the Rockies. Both series have received critical acclaim while also generating controversy. The latter’s visually evocative advertising campaign on New York City subway cars resulted in a quick denunciation by the Anti-Defamation League who found the ads offensive, while Vyacheslav Pavlovsky, the Russian ambassador in Norway, condemned Occupied as an example of the “worst traditions of the Cold War”, aimed at frightening “Norwegian viewers with a non-existent threat from the east”.

To those of us who spend our days (and nights) plumbing the depths of the popular culture-world politics continuum, it comes as no surprise that Occupied appeared when it did. Clearly Nesbø’s ‘original idea’ was a response to Russia’s similar (real-world) operation in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and is somewhat plausible given that Norway provides more than 10% of the EU’s oil and a third of its natural gas (more than Russia). The parallels between Norway and Ukraine are numerous: both countries are non-EU members that possess a border with Russia, as well as share(d) governance over a piece of territory, namely Svalbard and Sevastopol, and both countries’ national identities are rather fragile and new entities (Ukraine is obsessed with differentiating itself from Russia, Norway from Sweden). Remove NATO from Norway or add it to Ukraine and the parallels deepen further. Moving beyond the explicit dynamics of the plot, there is a deeper fear addressed in the series, that of immigration abetted by EU policies (or lack thereof). While the Africans and Muslims portrayed in the series are marked as integrated and loyal citizens, there is a rabid anti-immigration theme that presents in Occupied with the Russians who have ‘snuck’ across the border becoming the object of vicious hatred.

Having just returned from Oslo, I can state that the question of immigrants and ‘national values’ were swirling all around me wherever I was in the city, despite a seemingly successful policy of integration when compared to that of UK, France, Germany, or many other European countries. In defence of the show’s producers, Occupied is really about the pressures placed on a society in an untenable situation, and that is where the series succeeds where many other geopolitical dramas have fallen short of the mark. Still, in these situations, we are able to tease out palpable fears a given society has about themselves and their place in the world. Thus, Occupied represents a raw and honest vision of the here and now for a Norway that is outside the EU, but ultimately governed by its actions and inaction.

Popular culture as a mechanism for representing contemporary realities is, unfortunately, totally absent in The Man in High Castle. In addition to being bogged down by a distended and uninteresting ‘love story’, the series continues to beat the dead horse of anti-Nazism that has so well-served cinema (and its televisual complement) for nearly seven decades, spanning The Great Dictator (1940) to the recent Oscar-winner Son of Saul (2015). As a dedicated fan of Dick’s oeuvre and The Man in the High Castle in particular (which I read at the age 18), I have long anticipated the adaptation of this important work. Yet, when it arrived, that enthusiasm turned to ashes in my mouth, given its appearance in a year when a leading Republican candidate for the U.S. Presidential nomination, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, stated that the U.S. is living in 'a Gestapo age' and that the country today is 'very much like Nazi Germany'. These preposterous claims followed a venomous debate over healthcare reform with Obamacare being regularly labelled by the far right as a latter-day Aktion T4 program for America’s old and sick. Extending the Nazi analogies, many on the American left increasingly see the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump, as a Hitler-in-waiting for the country (or at least the harbinger of American authoritarianism), particularly given his plans to ban Muslim immigration, advocating of killing terrorists’ families, xenophobic attacks on major trading partners, and a (temporary) failure to reject the endorsement of former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke. Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that Amazon green-lighted the project to tap into the simmering angst and anti-government sentiment that pervades Obama’s America on both sides of the political divide.

The Man in the High Castle is the perfect ‘distraction’ for a country riven by increasingly bitter culture wars, a debilitating struggle between neo- and post-racism, and a complete breakdown in civil discourse. Viewers can sit back in the comfort of their living rooms and wish for a ‘better time’ when a genocidal external enemy brought the country together, rather than dealing with the very real divisions that exist today in dealing with immigration, reproductive rights, healthcare, and foreign policy.

by Robert A. Saunders on November 27th, 2015

Note: The blog post originally appeared at E-International Relations on 24 November 2015. The original post can be found at:

October represented another high point in the popular culture-world politics continuum spectrum. Following the airing of a recent episode of the Emmy award-winning Showtime series Homeland (2011- ), based on a Israeli thriller called Hatufim (‘Prisoners of War’), the producers admitted that the ‘Arab graffiti artists’ it had employed to lend ‘authenticity’ to a Beirut cityscape (filmed in Germany) shaped by the presence of Syrian refugees had used the opportunity to tune up Homeland as a racist and xenophobic blight on the West’s geographical imagination of the Islamo-Arab world. Tasked with marking up the walls of a set in a Berlin exurb with Arabic-language graffiti, artists Heba Amin, Caram Kapp, and ‘Stone’—who ended up being committed activists—used their access to a global media product to highlight the show’s depiction of Arabs as surreptitious and incorrigible terrorists, transgressively performing a sort of contratextual reading of the series through interstitial text and marginalia that would have made Edward Said proud. The hand-writing was literally on the wall in this case: ‘Homeland is racist‘, ‘Homeland is a joke, and didn’t make us laugh’, and most perplexing to a culturally-tone deaf audience, ‘Homeland is a watermelon’ (sadly, this rather easy to tease out metaphor – assuming one does not have even basic intercultural competence – seems to have become a reason to demean its creators).

While right-wing pundits gleeful glommed onto the story in a guilt-free and unreflective bemoaning of the evils of political correctness (lounging in the umbra of Donald Trump’s ceaseless diatribes against any systemic form of respect for our fellow human beings, particularly those who are not white, male, and filthy rich), the main stream media has instead decided to chastise the structural weaknesses of contemporary Anglophone televisual production. Shows like Homeland seek to replicate or even exceed the gravitas of filmic production, yet they are driven by the predictable and prosaic cost restrictions associated with any TV series. For most journalists, this was just an example of not paying attention. Let’s have a laugh at Homeland for its failure in oversight and move on. Both of these camps are missing the bigger picture.

Activists who are living with the deleterious outcomes of the prejudices they feel come (at least partly) from globalized mediated representation that emanates from a recondite marriage between the Pentagon and Hollywood found their voice and delivered some much needed payback. Combining new and old media, popular geopolitical TV got punked by popular geopolitical pop-art with a pedigree that predates pixels by at least 2,000 years (we know the Romans were doing it in Caesar’s day). What does it all mean? This is the consummate question that we ask ourselves when we, as IR specialists, delve into the PWPC continuum. Frankly, I’m not comfortable providing an answer at this junction and that is why I was compelled to write this particular blog post. I know that this is a transformative as well as subversive act, one which represents nothing more or less than the beginning of a swelling tidal wave that will transform the popular discourses of power and privilege in the decades that will come.

This act is a physical realization that the pop-culture canvas is not just palimpsest to be altered after the artist finishes the painting, it can be subverted even in the process. Evidently, the ‘Europeanized’ Arabs employed by Homeland to inject a bit of the ‘real’ into the fake of their geopolitical imaginary backfired, or did it? Homeland, like its Israeli predecessor, has always been about asking and answering disturbing questions associated with identity, otherness, and securitization in times of terror. Call me a conspiracy theorist but the ‘revelation’ that a handful of ideologically driven Muslims has interrupted the geopolitical messaging of a reliably statist treatment of the unending ‘War on Terror’ seems a bit too convenient for me.

While I do not doubt that the young artists who used their one-time enviable position as ‘Arabs in Germany’ to make a difference, it is also plausible that producers were completely aware of the geopolitical prank and sweatily anticipating being ‘embarrassed’ by their own ‘oversight’. If one looks back at the big budget Hollywood films that have ‘offended’ folks overseas (The Interview, Borat, 300, Hostel, etc.), there is always a silver lining (or to update the metaphor, I should say a ‘green’ one, i.e. higher revenues). Cultural producers in the West are increasingly courting controversy as they engage political subjects associated with international affairs as there is little downside (excepting the pro-North Korean hack of Sony, of course). Many see this phenomenon as a new form of propaganda, but that is a bit facile. In the past, no propagandist ever worried about profits other than those of an ideological nature. In the contemporary neoliberal milieu, return on investment matters. Consequently, a show like Homeland might just be showing us the bleeding edge of what is in store for us as we embark on our collective popular-geopolitical future.

by Robert A. Saunders on September 24th, 2015

Note: The blog post originally appeared at E-International Relations on 22 September 2015. The original post can be found at:

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin makes Dr. Evil look like Charlie Brown. Naive, parochial, and satisfied by small victories (which always lay beyond his grasp). Putin, or at least the man who returned to the presidency of the Russian Federation in 2012, is a proper super-villain, more reminiscent of a Lex Luthor, Dr. Doom, or Sauron (obviously, not a Darth Vader as that role was long-ago assumed by former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney).

Like all great villains who are governed by the immutable laws of the comic book narrative, Putin attempts to change rather than maintain the status quo. It is up to the ‘heroes’ (some more ‘super’ than others) of the West to maintain the way things are, be they the fair-and-balanced Wonder Woman (Angela Merkel), the nerdy-yet-resilient Spider-Man (Barack Obama), or the aloof-and-frequently-absent off-shore balancer Gandalf (David Cameron). Yet even in concert, this league of extraordinary gentlepersons cannot seem to counter the nefarious designs of VVP. He shoots whales with crossbows, dives the Black Sea in submersibles, molests children in broad daylight, rides ponies over mountains in a state of amazing shirtlessness, and conquers those who challenge him in the Soviet martial art of sambo, all while starting a Ukrainian civil war in his spare time. He is the enemy we in the West secretly wish for. Keep your Kim Jong-ils, your Idi Amins, your Saddam Husseins, even your Slobodan Miloševićs. They’ve got nothing on VVP (I will avoid a reference to Adolf Hitler here as this is just unfair given the reservoir of pop-cultural resonance produced by Hollywood over the past seven decades). Putin is, according to one very wry mash-up video, the ‘most interesting man in the world’.

I recently presented a paper on this topic at a conference on ‘Russian Culture in the Era of Globalisation’ (University of Leeds). While this post does not exactly replicate the content of this essay, it does reprise its themes, those being that popular culture does not only matter in contemporary IR, it is frighteningly important in determining the predisposition of various publics towards foreign policy messaging. However, this is old pat. While those scholars who command the upper echelons of IR scholarship continue to labour under the myth that popular culture is both impervious to measurement and ultimately irrelevant, those of us who ‘beaver away’ like Solzhenitsyn in exile in the magical-realistic realm that is popular culture-world politics continuum demand more of our work. We expect our scholarship to explain things of which we are only marginally aware.

In the case of Putin-mania in the West (a very different animal than what exists in Russia proper), the super-villain frame is a self-sustaining and organic phenomenon that produces a powerful feedback loop that should be observed with an unflinching gaze. The more we in the West aggrandize Putin’s (super)villainy-cum-political mastery, either through effigies on House of Cards, Internet memes, or YouTube videos, the stronger VVP becomes in his relationship to our ‘heroes’. Nina Khrushcheva, the scion of a bête noir of the West in his own right, has actually made the bold claim that VVP is feeding off the West’s representation of him qua a super-villain, thus giving us more of what we demand as a viewing audience and concomitantly adding to his own puissance in global affairs. Thus, like a Baudrillardian dreaming of a Qaeda-style attack prior to 9/11, we are the authors of our own geopolitical narrative, no matter how nightmarish it becomes.

Does this then take away the agency of Vladimir Putin? Yes and no. Putin understands us and we understand Putin. Like a James Bond villain seeking world domination—or at a minimum the manipulation of some geopolitical lever that will bring unfair dividends back to the man or woman who pulls it—Putin sees in the world system as a grand game to be played. He is the ultimate game theory IR practitioner, and we in the West slavishly adhere to our own rose-coloured Weltanschauungs despite their ineffectiveness in countering our ‘foe’. Putin, who took his time in the wilderness (placing his shill Dmitry Medvedev in his stead) with aplomb, akin to the Joker languishing in Arkham Asylum or Magneto’s retreat to Genosha, has returned to his role as ‘geopolitical enemy number one’, as he was incautiously and presciently labelled by Mitt Romney in 2012. Putin—and no other—sits happily upon this throne, and we thank him for it. Like Osama bin Laden circa 2000, VVP, while real enough, is more a figment of our popular-geopolitical imagination, and one which we cannot live without.


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