by Robert A. Saunders on April 11th, 2017

With the summer fleeting all too fast, I found myself spending a surprisingly warm day touring the tap houses of Nørrebro, a neighborhood that can best be described as the Brooklyn of greater Copenhagen, Denmark. My adventure began as I stepped off the S-train at the Nørreport station in the heart of the city. Coming up the stairs I turned right onto Fredericksborggade heading across the Dronning Louises Bro, a scenic bridge that separates the Peblinge Sø from its northern sister, the Sortedams Sø. Together with the Sankt Jørgens, these manmade lakes form the one of the most distinctive elements of Copenhagen’s topography, providing enticing promenades for pedestrians as well as an easily navigable cycling route for those on two wheels.

Crossing into Nørrebro, one notices a palpable change in atmosphere, if not necessarily architecture. One of ten official districts of Copenhagen, the borough is known for its bohemian ethos, ethnic diversity, and periodic bouts of social unrest, including a number of violent riots in recent decades. However, on this particularly pleasant Saturday afternoon, such worries were far from mind as I strolled along Nørrebrogade spying the kebab houses, electronic shops, and Islamic garment boutiques. Distracted by the bright colors and weekend conviviality, I soon came to my senses as I approached the high walls of Assistens Cemetery, the final resting place of such luminaries as the writer Hans Christian Andersen and the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. After reviewing the wares of the locals who gather along the promenade to sell family heirlooms and various baubles, I ducked into the cemetery, which seemed a world away from the teeming streets of Nørrebro. Traversing this quiet green space punctuated by the gravestones of Denmark’s most famous souls (one of which even sported Norse runes), I took a moment to gather my thoughts before pushing on to my first stop, Mikkeler and Friends (Stefansgade 35).

Situated on a corner abutting a park where neighborhood kids were playing soccer, this modest outpost of the growing empire of Mikkel Borg-Bjergsø did not disappoint. Having been to two of his other pubs, one in central Copenhagen and the other in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, I immediately felt at home (perhaps a bit too much so with the flat echoes of American accents all around).  I wasn’t surprised to see so many American beer-hounds here given that Mikkel is one half of the great Danish beer twins, the other being Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø whose Brooklyn watering hole Tørst serves as the NYC metro area’s most important beer mecca. I bellied up the bar and ordered one Mikkeler’s guest beers, the Twisted Verbena, a Berliner Weiss accented with that supernatural herb that purportedly wards off evil. A collaboration between Barcelona-based Edge Brewing and the British brewery Magic Rock, this otherworldly beer proved to be just the right way to start my hop-centric journey, particularly when offset by a slab of Danish hard cheese and some smoked pistachios. Having just flown in from Newcastle, Northumberland, a city famous for its chocolatey ales, I chose to follow the verbena beer with one of Mikkeler’s own, the Nørrebro Brown. As I downed this sweet and simple brew, I felt as if I was literally drinking in the environs. Rather than visiting Koelschip, Mikkeler’s Belgian-style adjunct next door, I decided to push on to new pastures.

After a fairly short walk through an area that was clearly undergoing a robust wave of gentrification, I found myself at just-opened Tapperiet Brus (Guldbergsgade 29F), a well-appointed brewery with extensive outdoor seating just opposite an organic pizzeria and a bustling bakery. While I considered ordering the Brettexit, a wild ale made with “non-European” hops, I instead settled on a curious hybrid entitled My Sour Pils from To Øl. Positioned in the sun on a park bench where I could watch the many passersby, I was able to properly appreciate the wonderful venue. Located in an old iron foundry and locomotive factory, Brus is a partnership with To Øl Brewing and the tony Copenhagen cocktail bar Mikropolis. Brus takes its name for the Danish word for the sparkling appearance of bubbling beverages, and with a baker’s dozen of fermentation tanks and 70-odd oak barrels, you know you are in the heart of a burgeoning brewing culture. Interestingly, the Danes are the only nation Scandinavian nation that prefers ales to aquavit, shifting from a spirits-based to a beer culture only in the last century.

Although I could have spent the rest of the day at Brus sunning myself and drinking tart pils, I pushed on to one of my favorite haunts in the Danish capital, Nørrebro Bryghus (Ryesgade 3). Heading down Guldbergsgade, I happened upon another, smaller cemetery cordoned off by those now-familiar walls. After stopping to purchase a few old maps of Scandinavia (including one sketched before World War I), I happened to overhear a local guide tell his charges to hop up on the bike racks and peer over the wall. I waited until they departed and discretely followed his advice to discover the (closed) Jewish Northern Cemetery. Seeing the overgrown headstones inscribed in Hebrew, my thoughts turned to the privations of the last war and how they afflicted this northern corner of Europe. However I shortly was drawn back to the here-and-now watching local youths in a skate park. One turn later and I was at the only brew house bold enough to take its name from the neighborhood.

Commanding a prime piece of real estate in a friendly corner of the borough, Nørrebro Brewery is a destination for any visiting beer-lover. With the good weather, I was lucky to score a seat at one of the few park benches outside (sunny days drawn Danes out into open air regardless of the temperature).  Departing from form, I ordered a bottled beer known as “The Good.” This refreshing Danish take on an American pale ale is in a new series from Nørrebro Brewing known as The Good Bad Evil. Its darker peers are a Belgian quadruple (the “Bad”) and a black imperial porter (the “Evil”). With the sky now totally blue, Nørrebro was teeming with Danes and international visitors alike seeking to drink in the waning days of summer, so I gave up my seat and headed south perusing a pop-up market on the wonderfully eclectic pedestrian lane known as Blågårdsgade, before turning right onto Rantzausgade towards my next destination, Kølsters Tolv Haner at No. 56.

As I approached this organic beer mecca, I noticed a heavy police presence on the streets despite the seemingly halcyon atmosphere of this brilliant Saturday. The experience immediately memories of watching the Danish-Swedish TV series Bron//Broen (known in the U.S. as “The Bridge”) and its foreboding depiction of the Nørrebro district in the episode on the “failure” of integration. But when I ordered a small glass of golden Højsommer, all thoughts of the oppressive grayness of The Bridge evaporated. Appropriately, I drank down that honey-flavored beer that smacked of the midsummer days after which it was named in the front garden (the back was only for residents of the surrounding apartment complex) staring at a Brorsons Church as the sun dipped reverently behind its red brick. While the setting was perfect, the beer—which is brewed by the owners’ father—proved to be the one disappointment of the day, lacking the effervescence (or “brus”) that had otherwise characterized the afternoon’s menu (perhaps knowing that organic beers are less bubbly, the pub only serves its libations in “half” portions, or 20cl).

Running short on time, I dashed back towards inner city intent on finding the newly-opened pub that had come highly recommended by a publican across the Baltic Sea in Malmö, Sweden. After one wrong turn, I located Himmeriget (Åboulevard 27), co-owned by Mikkel’s “evil twin” Jeppe. Small and serious, this little spot offered up ten craft drafts, of which almost half were American in origin, including one from my own hometown of Dunedin, Florida. Recognizing the value of this well-curated list, I settled on 25ml of a low-alcohol, cherry-laced sour from the California-based Lost Abbey brewery and purchased a “to-go” can of Evil Twin Mission Gose, an ale brewed with salt and coriander with a bit of eucalyptus thrown in for good measure.

With my memorable jaunt winding down, I meandered back across Queen Louise’s Bridge, smiling at the growing crowds of 20-somethings who were congregating on the span’s northern edge, filling the benches to catch the late-afternoon rays of a setting sun. There were more than a dozen little parties forming, each working up a good amount of hygge (that untranslatable Danish word for ‘making a cozy space’) with their six-packs of canned Tuborg, one of Denmark’s two mega brewers. While I was tempted to linger and let the Indian summer vibe overtake me, I decided to hurry back to my hosts in northern Copenhagen, knowing full well that a home-cooked meal awaited me, with plenty of hygge on offer.


by Robert A. Saunders on November 24th, 2016

Note: The blog post originally appeared at E-International Relations on 30 October 2016. The original post can be found at: http://www.e-ir.info/2016/10/30/amazon-american-or-israeli-the-pitfalls-of-un-iversalising-wonder-woman/.

Back in 2009, Barack Obama’s smiling visage graced the cover of The Amazing Spider-Man #583 just a week before his presidential inauguration, while this year Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared on a variant cover of Civil War II: Choosing Sides #5, sporting boxing gloves and ready to take on his (political) foes. While comic book junkies like me recognised these events as major milestones on the road to mainstream recognition of the link between popular culture and world politics, they pale in comparison to what happened earlier this week. Wonder Woman, a fictional character that dates back to the early 1940s, has prompted an international backlash at the United Nations. The controversy stems from a 21 October 2016 ceremony in which the superhero was named a UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. As the UN web page on the project notes:

The Wonder Woman campaign will highlight what we can collectively achieve if women and girls are empowered – along with examples of women and girls who have made and are making a difference every day by overcoming barriers and beating the odds to reach their goals.

Accordingly, the campaign encourages people to speak out against discrimination, work against gender-based violence, support leadership opportunities for women and girls, promote access to quality education, and to generally celebrate ‘real life’ wonder women everywhere.

In the wake of the honour, more than 600 UN staff signed a petition criticising the choice due to concerns associated with her appearance (namely that she is a ‘large breasted, white woman of impossible proportions’) and that she sports a U.S. flag-themed costume. In excess of 10,000 other people have joined the UN staff in criticising the decision.  As the petition rightly points out, the choice of ‘an overtly sexualised image’ is a curious one if the goal is to promote empowerment of women and girls on the global stage. The petitioners go on to argue that an ‘animated character surely cannot be charged with what is a very important role’ (though as they point out, it is not unprecedented given that Tinkerbell and Winnie the Pooh were previously tapped for such outreach). Lending support to the concerns of the anti-Wonder Woman campaigners, a recent New York Times article cited a number of high profile women in global governance who have come out against the decision to grant this role to Wonder Woman, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the appointment of (another) man to lead the organisation at a juncture where many UN-watchers had predicted the ascent of the first female secretary general. Most dramatically, the ceremony resulted in an exceeding rare protest within the UN chambers and severe criticism of Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Cristina Gallach, the highest UN official to attend (Ban Ki-moon had been set to speak at the event but was a no-show).

These well-argued and undeniable criticisms of the choice of Wonder Woman, however, only scratch the surface of the potential pitfalls of the selection of Princess Diana of Themyscira as the new face of women’s empowerment. Created by American psychologist William Moulton Marston and his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Wonder Woman (inspired by the birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and whose voluptuous figure was purportedly based on that of their ‘cohabitant’ Olive Byrne), is a decidedly complex character if one considers the full arc of her narrative. A demigoddess fashioned out of clay, Diana once ruled an island of Amazons, who were supposedly created to protect a ‘man’s world’, but later abandoned the mission to establish their own distaff society. However, in the context of World War II, Diana chose return to this original calling (in the forthcoming Wonder Woman film [2017], the Great War becomes the catalyst for this origin story as Diana takes on the ‘Hun’ in defence of American democracy). As historians of the comic book industry have pointed out, the original Wonder Woman was quite the feminist, often binding her (male) victims in what many have labelled as a soft rendering of sadomasochistic fantasies.

However, in the über-conservative 1950s, Wonder Woman, like other comic book heroines, was ‘domesticated’ and, owing to the puritanical Comics Code Authority (1954), fleeced of her fetish for bondage. While always (and somewhat inexplicably) an American patriot, her advocacy of the ‘American way’ mirrored that of other alien or immigrant superheroes of the day (most notably Superman and Aquaman). During the second half of 1970s, Wonder Woman burst onto the small screen in her own television series starring Lynda Carter (who appeared at the UN appointment ceremony). Reflecting changing gender dynamics, the maturation of the U.S. sexual revolution, and the country’s bicentennial Kulturkampf, the show revelled in schmaltzy patriotism and (the promise of) sex. In the 1990s, Wonder Woman discarded her star-and-stripes costume for a straps-and-black leather version, harking back to her S&M roots and prompting a firestorm of criticism from the American right. As part of DC Comics growing film franchise, Wonder Woman is now appearing on the big screen and being played by the Israeli model and actor Gal Gadot. With a well-received cameo in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and her own feature film on the way, the most recent iteration of the first female superhero is alive and well.

As the emissary of man-free society, a feminist-inspired dominatrix, an American jingoist of the first order, a paragon of U.S. interventionism, and a star vehicle for one of Israel’s top models, there is no shortage of reasons why the choice of Wonder Woman is a dangerous one for the UN. While the organisation is no doubt dedicated to universalising positive attitudes to the empowerment of women and girls, it will be nearly impossible to avoid sustained criticism of the ‘mascot’ for the current campaign. Given the retrograde attitudes towards the promotion women’s rights in many member states in the Islamic world, anti-American sentiment among major world powers like China and Russia, the sexism accompanying the rising tide of nationalist-conservative sentiment in developed countries, and feminist concerns about overtly sexualised representations of women in comic books, Wonder Woman seems doomed.

However, as anyone who reads comic knows, you can’t keep a superhero down for long.
Echoing the spirit behind the UN’s decision to promote Wonder Woman to the level of ambassador, Carolyn Cocca, author of Superwomen: Gender, Power, Representation (Bloomsbury, 2016) argues in her blog Talking Comic Books: ‘Not only do we still need Wonder Woman, but we also need many more wonder women’. Not because we need to see more buxom, lasso-wielding goddesses taking on super-powered villains, but because we need to see more women – of colour, of differing abilities and body types, and of all sexual orientations – taking positions of power. Given that DC Entertainment now has a female president, Diane Nelson (who was on hand at the UN ceremony), perhaps things are moving in the right direction.


 

by Robert A. Saunders on November 24th, 2016

Note: The blog post originally appeared at E-International Relations on 23 August 2016. The original post can be found at: http://www.e-ir.info/2016/08/23/commercialized-nationalism-on-display-at-the-olympics/.

With the closing of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, it is both timely and pertinent to reflect on the power of national image through the medium of sport. Every four years, the Olympics provides the most visible stage for the televisual performance of national identity, while at the same time, creating conditions for the throaty expression of nationalism back at home. While no war will be ended at the games, nor will any treaty be signed, the chance for countries to go head-to-head on a (purportedly) level playing field is a unique experience, comparable only to the World Cup. At the games, dedicated men and women compete for the glory of their homeland, typically clothed in the colours of their nation, while their countrymen cheer them on often waving flags as ‘proof’ of their loyalty. In this highly choreographed and purposefully affective environment, nationalism is the coin of the realm.

With nearly 11,000 athletes representing more than 200 countries and watched by billions around the world, this spectacle is the most effectively mediated form of international relations possible, putting to shame the United Nations General Assembly or any ‘real world’ geopolitical event. Certainly scholars have long recognized the Olympics qua an international competition as an important adjunct to IR and geopolitics; however, in this post I want to focus on another aspect of the games: TV commercials. Two advertisements in particular caught my eye this year, each showcasing American nationalism against the backdrop of the Olympic Games, which, incidentally, saw Team U.S.A. take home more medals than in any time since the Soviet-bloc boycotted games in 1984. Adding to the euphoria was the realization that the U.S. became first national team to crack the 1,000-medal mark in the history of the modern games, more than doubling the count of its nearest competitor (in all fairness, the U.S. was helped to win their 121 medals by the absence of a sizeable portion of the Russian team, banned from competition as punishment for state-sanctioned doping during the winter games held in Sochi, Russia, two years prior).

The first of these advertisements was for the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. Billed as the ‘sexiest large-screen phone ever’, this stylus-enabled device sells for upwards of $1,000 USD. In the commercial, Austrian actor Christoph Waltz assumes a variety of personae, beginning with that of an effete European gentleman sitting in a well-appointed study overlooking the Alps where he is taking high tea. ‘Americans’, he sniffs, ‘I don’t understand you. Always working all the time: busy, busy, busy’. He then dismissively draws the viewers’ attention to the mobile phone is his hand, lamenting that now ‘we’ can do ‘even more’ (work, that is). The visual narrative then shifts, with Waltz in ethnic drag (and, in one case, actually drag as well) portraying a variety of ‘stereotypical’ upwardly-mobile Americans: a new mum on a stationary bike with her infant strapped to her chest in a BabyBjörn so she can update her Facebook profile photo; a dreadlocked vacationer in a tropical waterfall using the phone to stay in touch with the office; a plaid-clad everyman using the handset’s Bluetooth to buy a giant fountain at a Home Depot stand-in; and a high schooler winning the robotics challenge due to the ‘extra curriculum’ supposedly abetted by the device.

Making a direct reference to supposedly ‘lazy’ Europeans, he states, ‘You get more done before 8:00AM than the rest of the world and we are hours ahead of you’, before going on to tell ‘us/U.S.’ that ‘You’re never happy just winning something…you’re only happy winning everything’. In the third act of the commercial, which showcases the ‘greatest most influential nation’ in the world’s ‘tireless ambition’, Waltz assumes the visages of iconic American patriots, from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to astronaut James B. Irwin, before realizing that his (materialistic) dreams can also come true. All he needs is to become a hard-working American (visually realized with the closing shot of his blond, preppy family in front of a McMansion draped in the stars-and-stripes). And how does he do this? Of course, with his hard-working mobile phone. In his meticulous, urbane, and seemingly care-free existence, Waltz presents an American-viewing audience with the epitome of continental Europeanness. But the lesson learned here is that despite our transatlantic neighbours’ seeming happiness achieved through an appropriate work-life balance, they all just want to become Americans at the end of the day.

The advertisement is curious on multiple levels. First, is the casting of Waltz, who is most-known for playing savagely racist characters like SS-Standartenführer Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds (2009) and the real-life Belgian colonist, who served as inspiration for ‘Kurtz’ in Heart of Darkness, Léon Rom in The Legend of Tarzan (2016). Beyond Waltz’s filmic associations with the darkest manifestations of Social Darwinism, the politics of race are (inadvertently) on display throughout the commercial, whether via Waltz’s ‘white Rasta’ pantomime or the Aryanesque patriarchal domesticity of the achieved ‘American dream’ (white plantation-style home, blonde wife, blond kids, yellow Labrador Retriever). Second, the notion that South Korea’s largest chaebol is the driving force behind American ‘success’ fails to pass the red-face test when placed in context. Although Samsung, with its over-the-top (American) nationalist chest-thumping, has actually outdone Cadillac, which in its commercial for the 2014 ELR Coupe, struck a similar chord. The latter ad, widely-condemned for both its jingoism and elitism, denounced ‘other countries’ (specifically France, as evidenced by a sly ‘n’est-ce pas’ at the end of the ad) for ‘taking the whole month of August off’ (and which made a similar reference to the lunar roving vehicle as interplanetary evidence of American ‘success’).

The other commercial that underscored the Olympian extravaganza as the optimal zone for engaging in national-identity building was an extended version of Budweiser’s rebranding campaign. In the summer of 2016, the fourth-most popular beer in the country officially changed its name to ‘America’. Given that this temporary departure in nomenclature explicitly occurred as part of the 2016 presidential campaign, the framing of the name-change through the summertime medium of the Olympics should be of no surprise. Importantly, Budweiser has stated it will revert to original product name after the November election and that the redesign, which includes the national motto E pluribus unum, is meant to ‘inspire drinkers to celebrate America and Budweiser’s shared values of freedom and authenticity’. Coming from Budweiser, a company that began by pilfering its name and style from the Bohemian brewery Budvar, and is now owned by the Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev, the notions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘Americanness’ are equally suspect. However, unlike the almost unbearable whiteness of the Samsung commercial, the Budweiser TV spot is at pains to sculpt a multiracial America, where block-parties and low-income jobs contrast sharply with the Waltzian U.S.A. of über-pampered and propertied elites (also of note, the Bud ad also includes footage of athletes, thus linking the medium to the message).

In these duelling depictions of the American dream, we are witness to two very different versions of America, which strangely parallel the narratives of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The Samsung commercial portrays an America of intellectual labour, white privilege, and vertiginous wealth, ‘made great’ by behaviours and habits that reflect Trump’s now infamous conflation of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘success’. Whereas, the Budweiser-imagined realm presents an America defined by faces of many colours, a people bound together by manual labour, hard knocks, and not-to-be-taken-for-granted moments of camaraderie. The Samsung ad begins by looking at America as a ‘negative’, but in the end resolves that with the ‘right’ attitude (complemented by accumulation, wealth, and whiteness), it can be the best in the world; in other words, a highly contingent form of patriotism. Alternatively, the Bud commercial revels in an everyday America, a nation that already is great and not something that needs to be changed. Herein we see an organic and unequivocal patriotism, much like the one that was (somewhat surprisingly) on display at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Olympics are over, but the U.S. is just beginning to wrangle over which form of banal nationalism it prefers: the (un)American dream of Christoph Waltz as an immigrant Trump wanna-be, or the workaday reality of a patchwork nation downing cans of ‘America’. Whichever direction the country decides to go, it should not be overlooked that giant overseas corporations (dutifully supported by local advertising agencies) are taking an increasingly important role in telling Americans exactly who they are.


by Robert A. Saunders on September 16th, 2016

Note: The blog post originally appeared at E-International Relations on 15 June 2016. The original post can be found at: http://www.e-ir.info/2016/07/02/a-renewed-anglo-american-alliance-putins-potential-bregret/.

It seems that all the Western foreign policy elites seem to be in intellectual lockstep when it comes to the ‘common sense’ aphorism that Brexit is an early Christmas present for Russian president Vladimir Putin. The French geopolitician Dominique Moïsi, speaking in an NPR roundtable about the West’s purported decline following Brexit, even went as far as to state that the two forces of jihadism and Putinism were handed a great victory on the 23rd of June when Great Britain held its now infamous referendum to decide whether the country should #Leave or #Remain in the European Union. I for one would seek to challenge the conventional wisdom that the UK’s exit from the EU will necessarily be a boon to a ‘revanchist Russia’ (as Moïsi puts it). While the real-world supervillain VVP may certainly be emboldened by the turmoil that Britain’s departure has triggered, he may come to suffer from the world’s most acute case of ‘Bregret’ in the coming decade as the UK’s departure from the Union brings it closer to the U.S.

While many citizens and even certain media elites on both sides of the Atlantic conflate and confuse NATO and the EU, the two entities are very different things. Moreover, it is often forgotten that the Anglo-American alliance precedes and supersedes both these post-Cold War institutions. In fact, the geopolitical foundation upon which the so-called ‘special relationship’ is built ranks as perhaps the most enduring international partnership of all time. Following the fratricidal War of 1812, Washington and London entered into an alliance of convenience cemented by the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S.’s first attempt at international policing (and one which, at least initially, was only viable with the support of the British Navy and was originally suggested by British Foreign Minister George Canning). Since then, the U.S. and the UK have stood shoulder-to-shoulder on nearly every major geopolitical issue (with NATO serving as the most far-ranging evidence of the trust and loyalty that connects the U.S. and the UK). For some 200 years, two world wars, and a global geopolitical conflict the likes of which history has never witnessed (i.e. the Cold War), Britain and America have been allied so closely that barely an inch of daylight passed through (let’s try to forget the Falkland Islands War, shall we?).

Freed of its membership in the political superstructure of the European Union, but still the leading military European power within NATO (with the fifth-largest armed forces in the world), Great Britain will be positioned to operate independently of the will of Paris, Berlin, and Rome vis-à-vis the Russian Federation. Economically and cultural isolated from the Continent in the wake of Brexit, it is highly probably that the UK will seek (and find) succour across the North Atlantic, whether the White House is occupied by a hawkish Hillary or Brexit-thumping Trump. If the (self-serving) Russophile Marine Le Pen moves into the Élysée Palace at some point in the future, or if the indefatigable Angela Merkel backtracks on her new-found anti-Putinism or is replaced by a more pliant Chancellor, a post-Brexit 10 Downing Street will be free to act independently of its (former) European partners and will be more likely to consult closely if not exclusively with Washington. Given such a scenario, the UK will not need to be a ‘poodle’ to make its presence felt and its participation valued in the overlapping and often contradictory schema that is the United States’ foreign policy network of networks. Instead, England (however ‘little’ may it become) will be able to rightly (re)assume the role of the off-shore balancing ‘bulldog’, ready to bark and bite (particularly at the Eurasia ‘bear’).

As Britannia moves away from Europe (in spirit if not body), it will only become more ensconced in its Anglophone cocoon of geopolitical partners, epitomised by the ‘secretive, global surveillance’ agreement known as the Five Eyes, which links the UK to the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Should relations with France and other ‘transit’ countries for migrants from the Middle East and North Africa deteriorate in what portends to be a slow and messy UK-EU divorce, we are likely to see Britain turn ever more critical of its erstwhile European partners, and this will like translate into a bolder posture against Putin (assuming he sticks around for a few more terms). While Barack Obama may have warned Britain about sending it to the ‘back of the queue’ on trade deals (a hollow threat from a lame-duck president who might just have been bluffing), the UK—in an act that otherwise smacks of incredible short-sightedness—may have just put itself head-and-shoulders above all other U.S. allies with its decision to quit the grand European project. And if so, Putin’s wide smile may just start to fade.



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: http://www.e-ir.info/2016/06/15/is-it-time-for-an-iranian-american-buddy-film/.

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.



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