Foreign policy as culturally embedded discourse

In this short blog post I attempt to sketch out what I mean by the term ‘foreign policy as culturally embedded discourse‘, as well as what this conceptualisation might mean for the study of International Relations. Unfortunately, discourse and culture are two of the most complicated words in the social sciences and, perhaps, the English language. Moreover, the nature of ‘embeddedness’ requires careful unpacking.

–       Discourses form when and where meaning is produced in a relatively systematic way. This may be, and often is, linguistic. But can, and usually does, include other things: images, buildings, body language, films, music, video games, books etc. Through dominant discourses ideas are shared, such that they might become an intersubjective background (perhaps tacit) knowledge upon which other decisions are made and actions take place, including the formulation of foreign policy. Foreign policy discourse, specifically, is the way in which the world is actively mapped out – spatialised – such that friends and enemies, safety and danger, risk and opportunity are given geographic address.

–       Foreign policy culture is that shared but contested collection of ideas, assumptions and norms which undergird foreign policy discourse. Consider, for example, widely held British beliefs in being an ‘island nation’, or heroic victor of World War Two, or fallen imperial power. These are distinct, for example, from US perceptions of American exceptionalism and defender of freedom.

–       The relationship between foreign policy discourse and foreign policy culture is messy and fluid. However, heuristically, we might conceptualise this intricate and interwoven relationship as consisting of two principal directional flows: one ‘upward’ and one ‘downward’. The upward flow is a story, first, of human agency: the intelligent and instrumental construction of discourse by people (whether elected, elites, or members of the public). Strategic actors actively (re-)articulate foreign policy discourse by tapping into the archive of (a state’s) foreign policy culture. Think, for example, of British anti-immigration narratives, drawing on culturally longstanding fears of invasion of an island nation. Second, the upward flow is a story of structure. Political actors are conditioned by the culture in which they live and broader cultural patterns manifest through and in spite of them. They cannot construct any discourse; rather, culture shapes, constrains and encourages particular foreign policy discourses (regardless of the efforts of an individual). The downward flow recognises that foreign policy discourse co-constitutes foreign policy culture. Cultural change, whilst difficult and usually slow, is certainly possible.


In recent years, three areas of research into the relationship between foreign policy discourse and foreign policy culture have been particularly interesting:

–       First, in democracies at least, resonance is vital to the prosecution of foreign policy. It is usually not enough to articulate a particular foreign policy discourse; rather, it is necessary to have that discourse accepted by a population. Political leaders sell foreign policy discourse in a number of ways. Consider, for example, President George W. Bush’s greater proclivity to joke about the deaths of terrorist suspects in some states than others, as he displayed sensitivity to the foreign policy culture of his specific audience. Alternatively, think about Prime Minister Tony Blair’s emphasis on the rational logic of a British War on Terror, as he sought to win over Middle England with appeals to (revered, good old) common sense.

–       Second, alongside selling foreign policy discourse, political leaders also attempt to silence potential opponents and achieve discursive dominance. This coercive enterprise is an effort to remove the discursive materials that would be required for a socially sustainable alternative to be crafted. Often, and at its most effective, this will see invocations of the national identity, such that foreign policy becomes something the state is rather than merely something the state does. To argue against perceived Britishness or Americanness is far harder than, for example, opposing a bombing campaign. Through such rhetorical tactics potential opponents can be acquiesced. This process can be thought of as a (Gramscian) ‘war of position’.

–       Third, in this quest for both resonance and dominance, political leaders seek the affective investment of audiences in their foreign policy discourse. Affect is that bodily and biocultural response to the world, before your brain has consciously wrestled with and processed the information. Think of jumping at a loud bang or recoiling your hand from a hot stove. These affective responses are usually considered to be and often named as feelings and emotions. The task of a political leader is to affectively invest an audience in foreign policy discourse. This took place, for example, following 9/11, which was affectively experienced as shocking and foreign, before leaders explained to Americans the reasons for those feelings and helped to name emotional responses. In this instance, official foreign policy discourse was so effective and affectively investing its audience, simply saying ‘9/11’ rekindled visceral memories and feelings from the day and shut down the possibility of reflection or debate. The political potency and affective investment of Americans within post 9/11 foreign policy discourse is effectively (and humorously) critiqued in this clip from Family Guy.


In recent years, a growing critical body of literature within IR has taken seriously sites of meaning production such as this.  And that is an eminently good thing. I write this article having been out for dinner with two friends. The topic of conversation was dominated by television, rather than politics, despite the latest round of bombing in Iraq. One friend was mocked for having devoted so much of his life to watching seven seasons of The Shield! The list of recommendations that followed was extensive. Have you seen The Wire, Sopranos, West Wing, Veep, The Thick of It, Breaking Bad, Entourage, Boardwalk Empire, Orange is the New Black, Game of Thrones, Dexter, True Detective, BoJack Horseman, House of Cards?  What followed was a detailed and interrelated critique of each show, with a ranking of what to watch next. Other than a ‘reading list’ of television shows, two things became clear from the discussion. First, we live in a golden age of television. And, second, the amount of time that average citizens devote to popular culture continues to vastly outstrip that spent engaging with the arguments of political leaders. If we accept that foreign policy can usefully be conceptualised as culturally embedded discourse, we must take increasingly seriously the study of popular culture which shapes and sustains it.



Below I list some recent, relevant publications, all of which are available here :


Journal Articles:



Dr Jack Holland is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Subject Leader for Politics.