As I’ve mentioned before, I currently edit an academic international-relations journal, International Studies Quarterly. Its contents are intended for a specialized, scholarly audience, but some of what we publish is likely to be of interest to the more general LGM readership. I previously blogged about Noelle K. Brigden’s ethnographic study of Central American migrants to the United States, which is also the subject of one of ISQ‘s online symposia.
A more recent piece, which has gotten a fair amount of attention recently, concerns how fiction influences foreign policy. In “Synthetic Experiences: How Popular Culture Matters for Images of International Relations,” J Furman Daniel, III and Paul Musgrave look at the more general psychological processes through which fictional narratives mix with, and crowd out, factual knowledge.
Instead of a model in which audiences discard fiction and retain facts, we propose that when audiences encounter texts and audiovisual narratives, they produce “synthetic experiences” by creating a comprehensible mental construction based on fictional inputs. Such synthetic experiences affect how readers understand the world and, therefore, their behavior in political environments. We employ the term “synthetic experiences” similar to how Perla and McGrady (2011) used it in a more limited context: to describe the mental constructs audiences produce to make sense of immersive sources (movies, games, novels, television shows, simulations, etc.). We use the term more broadly to summarize recurring findings in other disciplines about how fictional inputs affect real-world behavior, to simplify diverse cognitive mechanisms that produce those phenomena (for technical details, see Mar 2011), and, most important, to describe a theoretical mechanism through which researchers can conceptualize the transmission belt through which data, images, and correspondences contained in fiction can affect action in the “real world.”
Synthetic experiences—which can be produced by narratives, fragments of a story, descriptions of a place, impressions of a culture, dramatized portrayals about “real” processes, or illustrations of a strategy’s consequences—affect how people interact with the real world through pathways similar to memories and knowledge derived from textbooks or data analyses. They encode information in ways that affect judgment and can even displace factual information through other sources because narratives allow for the portrayal of unrealistic or unprecedented events as being naturalized. They thereby enable fictional sources to influence world politics not because the fictions serve as a delivery mechanism for factual content but because they prompt the inward experience of a fictional reality.
To illustrate their argument, Furman Daniel and Musgrave look at the strange case of Tom Clancy. An excerpt:
In the late 1980s and afterward, Clancy and his fictions were cited on the floor of Congress. Legislators not only invoked Clancy as a shorthand for “military technology” or “power politics”10 (as one might use “Stephen King” as metonymy for “horror story”)—they cited details from the books as evidence of the real-world necessity for specific policy changes. For instance, Senator Dan Quayle quoted Red Storm Rising as proving the utility of anti-satellite weaponry (Osterlund and Rheem 1988). Arguing for a bill to support the US shipping industry, one congressman cited “a current best-selling novel, Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy, [which] makes the argument for a strong merchant marine…that probably has more impact than all the charts and graphs we could pull together.”
Perhaps such invocations only served as means for politicians to connect with voters, but policymakers also read and quoted the books when mass audiences were absent. Reagan read Red Storm Rising, Clancy’s novel of a US-Soviet conventional war in Europe, to prepare for the Reykjavik summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (Cannon 2008, 252). Griffin (2017) attributes part of Reagan’s confidence in proposing a nuclear-zero arrangement at Reykjavik to Reagan’s having read Red Storm Rising. The book’s portrayal of a Third World War helped persuade Reagan that US conventional superiority rendered nuclear weapons not merely superfluous but dangerous and destabilizing. During a conversation with UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in which Reagan deprecated the importance of nuclear deterrence in Europe, Reagan also recommended that Mrs. Thatcher read Red Storm Rising in preparation for an upcoming UK-Soviet summit because it provided “an excellent picture of the Soviet Union’s intentions and strategy” (Mohdin 2015).
The cool thing is that, because the article went “semi-viral,” the press agreed to ungate it. So you can actually read it without a university affiliation or an International Studies Association membership. Check it out.