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.


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: http://www.e-ir.info/2016/04/20/a-berlin-ankara-axis-against-satire/.

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: http://www.e-ir.info/2016/03/07/fantasies-of-occupation-occupation-and-the-man-in-the-high-castle/.

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: http://www.e-ir.info/2015/11/24/homelands-popular-geopolitics-gets-punked/.

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.



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