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date: 24 September 2017

Discourse in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

Critical discourse analysis continues to remain a valuable method for understanding foreign policy. Situated in the broader interpretive methodological approach to the social sciences, it challenges the ontological and epistemological assumptions of more positivist methodologies by observing that the world is not pregiven, but socially constructed. In essence, we live in an intersubjective world where discourse serves as a powerful tool to set agendas, produce meaning, legitimize interests, and enforce power structures. Scholars devoted to discourse analysis enrich our understanding of foreign policy by highlighting the powerful role that discourse ultimately plays.

One useful way of understanding its value is through representational practices. Relying upon the study of discourse from a wide range of sources (politicians, policymakers, scholars, journalists, and film), this research program emphasizes discursive representations. Far from being neutral representations, the United States constructs a U.S.-centric view of the world based on its own images, identities, and interests, while marginalizing the voices and experiences of others. U.S. foreign policies are described as positive. Those of other countries, particularly U.S. so-called enemies, are negative.

Our knowledge of the world comes from these representational practices, which in turn has serious implications for foreign policy. Ultimately, discursive activities are used not only to frame and define foreign policy initiatives, but also sell such policies to the broader public. U.S. military interventions help illustrate this point. Interventions in Panama and Iraq become “Just Cause” and “Iraqi Freedom,” whereas interventions by, say, Russia are “acts of aggression.” Discourse often develops into binary oppositions that inform policy and create and sustain a dominant world position. Compared to the Global South, the United States is “developed” and “civilized,” while other nations are “underdeveloped” and “uncivilized.”

Discourse analysis is not limited to military intervention. Scholars have applied the approach to a broad array of foreign policy initiatives, ranging from foreign aid and diplomacy to international economics. Nor is the approach limited to the United States; it has evolved into a far-reaching research program that offers insight into the foreign policy of any state.

Discourse analysis stands in stark contrast to the more rationalist approaches, such as neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism. These approaches, related to scientific positivism, emphasize self-interest, rational actors, material factors, objectivity, and causal hypotheses. Academics related to this scholarly community have expressed dissatisfaction with discourse analysis. Most important, critics point out that there is an objective reality, and therefore, research has little relevancy for the real world. But scholars who focus on discourse concede that there is a reality; however, reality has no value until we attach meaning to it. The deadly attacks of September 11, 2001, happened, but they remain neutral until discursive activities (enemy, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and so on) frame them and inform foreign policy. Consequently, such representations have real-world relevancies, justifying war and surveillance, among other courses of action. Critical discourse analysis, as a result, has significant value for understanding foreign policy in the past, present, and future.

Keywords: Foreign policy, discourse, qualitative methods, poststructuralism, positivism


With such an impressive body of research that has developed over the years, the question is, “How does discourse analysis broaden our view of foreign policy?” The research presented here finds that discourse analysis continues to remain a valuable method. Situated in the broader, interpretive methodological approach to the social sciences, it challenges the ontological and epistemological assumptions of more positivist methodologies by observing that the world is not pregiven, but socially constructed.1 In essence, we live in an intersubjective world where discourse serves as a powerful tool to set agendas, produce meaning, legitimize interests, and enforce power structures. Discourse even has the power to open a space for certain courses of actions, while closing it off to others. Scholars devoted to discourse analysis correctly point out that traditional foreign policy theories have long exaggerated material variables and have paid insufficient attention to discourse and linguistic resources, leaving analytical and policy research incomplete. As a result, the research program enriches our understanding of foreign policy by highlighting the powerful role that discourse ultimately plays.

Concepts and Assumptions

Discourse in foreign policy is far from a homogeneous research agenda. Nonetheless, there are a number of common assumptions that scholars share to offer a unique insight into foreign policy analysis. Ontologically, scholars begin from the premise that reality is neither a stable nor a fixed pregiven; rather, it is socially constructed over time. It is a constitutive approach to the world. It does not endeavor to explain events in a causal fashion, but since politics is played out in the socially subjective realm, discursive activities constitute a reality that informs foreign policy initiatives.

Language is key to how we socially construct the world. But it is not just how we speak. Following predecessors such as Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, and the scholarly partnership of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, academics of discourse analysis draw attention to the unique role that language plays. Since language is political as well as social, discursive structures shape realities by producing and reproducing specific meanings, ideas, and identities that legitimize and delegitimize foreign policy options. These discursive structures facilitate discursive spaces in which we accept certain foreign policy responses and reject others. “In its essence, discourse analysis is an engagement with meaning and the linguistic and communicative processes through which social reality is constructed,” Anna Holzscheiter (2013, p. 3) observes, continuing that “[d]iscourse can therefore be defined as, basically, the space where intersubjective meaning is created, sustained, transformed and, accordingly, becomes constitutive of social reality.” Ultimately, discourse plays a powerful, yet subtle role that is often overlooked in the foreign policy decision-making process. Much of what foreign policy analysts study (e.g., state interests, power, enemies, and world anarchy) are not objective, preexisting facts but instead are constituted within these discursive activities. Therefore, an international “enemy” does not simply exist, but is constructed over time. For instance, a poststructuralist would not ask why the United States invaded Panama, but rather how Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega went from being a strong, anticommunist leader who merited U.S. support to a drug trafficking thug, which led to an invasion (Doty, 1993). The enemy did not merely exist—it was socially constructed through specific discursive activities.2

In more concrete and simple terms, what happened in Rwanda in 1994? Was it genocide or tribal warfare? What happened on September 11, 2001? Was it a terrorist attack, blowback, or even just desserts?3 Is the influx of immigrants into the United States depicted as illegals, undocumented, or refugees? Things happen, but it is not until we attach meaning to them that they become a constitutive reality. We live in a world of competing narratives, and these narratives are much more consequential than we understand. In the case of Rwanda, the simple word genocide connotes a moral obligation that has far-reaching implications for foreign policies across the world. It means the world community must intervene. Tribal warfare, on the other hand, is much different. The moral impetus to intervene is removed. Discourse helps produce and prioritize the course of action states take. For 9/11, the discourse surrounding the events constituted a reality in which retaliation, vengeance, and war were not only allowed to happen, but had to happen. As Ty Solomon (2015) notes, President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” was an emotional narrative that appealed to the U.S. public’s desire and fantasies; it not only dominated competing narratives, but, proving the more efficacious discourse, played a fundamental role in rallying the public for war. 4 For immigration, how we socially construct the debate exerts a titanic impact on how we respond. Refugees and migrant workers will create more sympathy than illegals and, more lamentably, “rapists.”5 As a result, discourse matters.

Identity is a fundamental concept related to discourse. It is embedded in socially constructed realities and tends to create and influence the context in which foreign policy operates. These discursive structures create, build upon, and perpetuate certain identities that provide us with the lens through which we develop and make sense of foreign policy initiatives. In the case of the United States, “American exceptionalism,” “democracy,” and a “freedom-loving people” are three related prominent identities that inform policy. If the United States is exceptional, democratic, and, above all, a lover of freedom, then they fight for the good and liberty of the people of the world. During the Cold War, the United States was the “leader of the free world.” It is within these discursive structures of identity that foreign policy initiatives find their meaning and legitimacy. The discursive activities not only create realities, but also build upon established identities that get reproduced to help societies make sense of their state’s foreign policy.

U.S. military interventions help illustrate this point. U.S. foreign policies are described as positive. Those of other countries, particularly so-called U.S. enemies, are negative. Interventions in Panama (1989) and Iraq (2003), therefore, become known as “Operation Just Cause” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Even if they go awry, they become “mistakes.” Interventions by, say, Russia, with whom Washington has contentious relations, are “acts of aggression.” The United States has a positive essentialization, whereas Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, the “axis of evil,” have negative ones.6

It is imperative to state that identities are not always as salient and readily identifiable as the ones noted here. They are often so obscure that they are neglected by academics and decision-makers alike. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (2008) makes a tremendous contribution to the literature on U.S. foreign policy and Iran by highlighting the value of a U.S. secular identity. This identity, which is dismissed by the materialist methodologies in international relations scholarship, influences U.S.-Iranian relations.7 “A comprehensive understanding of the history of U.S.-Iranian relations requires that we consider not just pregiven geopolitical and material interests,” Hurd (2008, p. 104) concludes, “but the cultural and social habits, and social relations through which these interests take shape and are expressed.” Bringing religiosity, in this case secularism, to the forefront of analysis, Hurd helps us understand that states do not merely have objective interests, but certain identities that are reified throughout history. The secular identity, which has caused conflict in post-Shah U.S.-Iranian relations, is socially constructed and, in Hurd’s words, is “expressed not only through beliefs but through habits of speech and thought, sensibilities, conventional practices, and ways of being in and responding to the world” (Hurd, 2008, p. 149).

Another central theme is power. Unlike research agendas that stress material power, this approach highlights the magnitude of discourse. Mainstream international relations (IR) theories such as neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism define power in conventional terms. While focusing on the state as the main unit of analysis, power is measured primarily as military strength and industrial development.8 However, as Edward Said (2003, pp. 331–332) reminds us, “Since the struggle for control over territory is part of that history, so too is the struggle over historical and social meaning.” From this perspective, power is a productive enterprise.9 In Foucauldian terms, scholars devoted to discourse analysis stress “the productive aspect of power” (according to Rabinow, 1984, p. 60). Power, then, centers not on physical coercion, but rather the ability to define the situation through discursive activities, which ultimately are linked to powerful interests. In this view, power is even tightly associated with knowledge itself. About a decade before the events of 9/11, Der Derian (1992, p. 92) recognized that terrorism has its own “terrorist discourse.” Conflict has always existed. But, as Der Derian (1992) discovered, who is labeled a terrorist and who a freedom fighter is a power in itself. Discourse structures differentiate between the two, legitimizing selected groups while delegitimizing others. This is of great importance for discourse analysis since through this juxtaposition of entities, one group is privileged and prioritized over the other (Derrida, 1997; Campbell, 1998).

Policy options are then formed within these discursive structures. During the 1980s, for example, President Ronald Reagan, a former actor, mastered the use of discourse to create meaning, justify initiatives, and sell his policies. Nicaragua is a case in point. The contras, a questionable guerrilla group found to have sold drugs and committed acts of terror, became “freedom fighters,” with the “moral equal of our Founding Fathers” (Boyd, 1985, 1) battling against “a Marxist totalitarian regime in Nicaragua” (Reagan, 1990, p. 79). The president even went as far as to label Nicaragua as part of “a confederation of terrorist states,” along with Cuba, Libya, Iran, and North Korea (Reagan, 1988, p. 897). Drawing upon U.S. Cold War identity and the fear of terrorism, Reagan’s discourse was quite powerful, legitimizing support for the contras while delegitimizing the government in Managua.10

If reality is socially constructed, who plays the biggest role? The elite is in a privileged position to define foreign policy ideas and set agendas. The elite is never a homogenous group. For the purpose here, elite is used to describe people who are able to create and legitimize the dominant discourse. Policymakers from hegemonic states like the United States are often the relied-upon source. They are in the best position to, in the words of famed critical scholar Robert W. Cox (1996, p. 245), ensure that a “leading nation’s conception of the world becomes universalized.” The elite, following this premise, would be those who decide what form of violence is legitimate and what is not—who is the freedom fighter and who is the terrorist. Scholars sift through thousands of archival and secondary sources to search for how influential decision-makers make sense of the world. In her groundbreaking article “Foreign Policy as a Social Construction,” Roxanne Doty (1993) relies heavily on the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) documents to find how policymakers socially constructed the Philippines and Hukbalahap Rebellion in the 1950s; the discursive activities provided the constitutive context for U.S. intervention. Hansen (2006) goes beyond conventional references to draw upon a large mixture of sources to apply discourse analysis to Western foreign policy toward the Bosnian War (1992–1995). In addition to policymakers, she finds that journalists, academics, United Nations workers, and think tanks such as the Carnegie Commission all play historic and current roles in socially constructing the “Balkan Other,” a constitutive identity that determined how Western governments addressed the crisis. Through these and other sources, researchers have found that the Balkans are depicted “as backward foreign barbaric, uncivilized, fundamentally different” (Campbell, 1998, p. 90).

Scholars dedicated to a neo-Marxist approach, on the other hand, highlight the pervasive role of the business class. Take one of the biggest U.S. foreign policy initiatives toward Latin America: Plan Colombia. U.S. corporations helped set the agenda and sell the policy within the realm of securitization. Securitization, a valuable theory within discourse analysis, posits that security discursive structures elevate a policy subject beyond normality due to its threatening nature. Once framed in securitizing discourse, it merits serious attention, resources, and extraordinary actions.11 Plan Colombia was suddenly situated in the discourse of “narcoterrorism,” “narcotrafficking,” and “communism.” Corporations that economically benefit from the initiative provided the security discourse to sell this large-budget item to both Congress and the general public.

One of the most exciting and contributive aspects of discourse analysis, however, is that data are collected from a wide range of resources that often are dismissed by conventional methodologies. In addition to the political elite and business class noted previously, scholars look toward movies, music, video games, entertainment, and other venues of popular culture.12 For scholars of discourse analysis, these are not neutral forms of expression. They serve as discursive vehicles that affect foreign policy. They can work as subtle pieces of propaganda, often unbeknown to the general public, creating and reinforcing certain identities and meanings that inevitably justify foreign policy initiatives. A poststructuralist would look at a program as seemingly innocuous as Netflix’s current hit show Narcos (2015–present). In subtle form, this show builds upon and reifies powerful representations that inform U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. The white, English-speaking U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Steve Murphy is sent to Colombia to intervene during the height of power of Pablo Escobar (1949–1993). The Colombians unfortunately cannot resolve this drug-related violence themselves. As a result, the United States has to (reluctantly) intervene to address Colombia’s problems. The show deeply represents the need and justification for U.S. intervention in Latin America. The United States is profiled as superior and efficient, whereas Colombia is inept and corrupt.

The show further serves U.S. foreign policy interests by delegitmizing guerrilla movements that Washington has been historically against. Murphy profiles the urban guerrilla group M-19 (Movimiento de 19 de April) as a vacuous movement formed by university students who “were reading too much Karl Marx.”13 Narcos continues to depict the group as involved in drugs, kidnapping, and other forms of brutality. In one episode, the brutal leader of the group, Ivan the Terrible, gives Escobar Simon Bolivar’s sword, which was stolen during an M-19 heist (an event that never happened). These are powerful words and images. They are represented as a group of murderers with no genuine motivation. Colombian university students are so obtuse that they take up arms, kidnap, and kill simply for reading leftist literature. But the reason that there are guerrilla groups is much more complex. What is forgotten from the discourse and imagery is the assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (1903–1948), the ensuing Violence (La Violencia) civil war (1948–1958), election fraud, governmental brutality, and Washington’s support for corrupt regimes. The name itself, the Movement of the 19th of April, was coined after the electoral fraud of the 1970 election.14 In fact, members of the group became so popular, a number succeeded in electoral politics, such as Gustavo Francisco Petro, who won the mayorship of Bogota in 2014, and a number of local representatives. Researchers dedicated to discourse analysis ferret out these subtle messages and their implications for foreign policy agendas.

Representational Practices: How-Possible versus Why-Questions

Since discourse in foreign policy has developed into a vibrant research program, capturing its value and impact in one article is a taxing effort. Furthermore, since the research stresses the powerful role of ideas, it can be an elusive topic, difficult to grasp. As Vivien A. Schmidt (2008, p. 304) astutely notes about the research on discourse, there are “lots of ideas about ideas.” Nonetheless, one of the most useful (and easiest) ways of understanding the approach is through discursive representational practices. Far from being neutral representations, the United States constructs a U.S.-centric view of the world, based on its own images, identities, and interests, while marginalizing the voices and experiences of others. Our knowledge of the world comes from these representational practices which, in the words of Michael Shapiro (1992, p. 110), “help reproduce an institutionalized form of domination.” Ultimately, discursive activities are used not only to frame and define foreign policy initiatives, but also to sell such policies to the broader public. Turning back to Doty (1993, 1996), her work advances what she calls the discursive practices approach. This approach focuses on the how-possible question, as opposed to the conventional why-question. Why-questions are related to rationalist approaches such as neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism. Based on scientific positivism, they emphasize self-interest, rational actors, material factors, objectivity, and causal hypotheses. Utilizing both qualitive and quantitative methodologies, scholars dedicated to the positivist research agenda endeavor to bring the cause-and-effect research program of the natural sciences to foreign policy.15 Why-questions posit research questions such as “Why does terrorism happen?” A poststructuralist is more concerned with what the “terrorist” label signifies for foreign policy.

Despite being incredibly valuable, the why-question alone leaves foreign policy analysis incomplete. To fill the gap, the how-question focuses on how ideas, meanings, and identities become produced and reproduced in the first place. These representations not only inform the foreign policy decision-making process, but also ultimately decide the course of action to take. In fact, representations often entail binary opposites, in which an “antagonistic Other” develops vis-à-vis an “opposed Self” (Herschinger, 2012, pp. 65, 90).

In Doty’s (1993) specific case of U.S. intervention in the Philippines, the discursive representations socially construct a context of good-versus-evil binary opposites in which the noble United States must save the young and naïve Filipino nation from the evil Soviet Union. The political elites of the time find the Filipinos, as well as Asians more generally, to be “child-like” and “vulnerable to propaganda” (Doty, 1993, p. 311). The Soviet Union is depicted as “imperialist” and inclined to “take others through aggression” (Doty, 1993, p. 311). In stark contrast, the United States “has moral obligations” to save these children from Soviet aggression. After all, U.S. officials highlight, the United States is a nation that “engages in noble causes” (Doty, 1993, p. 311). Within these discursive structures, foreign policy is framed and created. As Doty (1993, 316) notes, the development of foreign policy discourse “tell[s] us about the interpretive orientations at work that created a ‘reality’ that gave rise to certain possibilities.” Within this discourse, Foucault reminds us, truth is created and “hardened into an unalterable form in the long baking process of history” (Rabinow, 1984, p. 79). Following these truthful representations, the only possible policy is intervention in the Philippines’ affairs.

Discourse Beyond U.S. Foreign Policy

Discourse analysis is not limited to the foreign policy of the United States. Nor is it limited to military interventions. It now offers insight into the foreign policy of any state on just about any issue. Scholars have developed insightful research programs to help understand the complex foreign policies of the European Union (EU). Research explaining the development of the world’s most successful supranational organization was initially dominated by conventional cause-and-effect scientific theories that addressed the why-questions. Focusing on functional integration (Mitrany, 1966), economic spillovers (Haas, 2004), and rational choice institutionalism (Pollack, 2003), these theories have significantly furthered our understanding of the EU.16 Yet, dismissing the how-question, they remained incomplete.

Pioneering scholars began to expand our understanding by highlighting the pivotal role of discourse and the concomitant reification of European identity. In a seminal study on discourse and European integration, Diez (1999) examines how the “performativity” of discourse developed and legitimized a European identity (p. 599). Without such a discursive identity, integration would stall. One consequential area of discourse is how the anti–European Economic Commuunity (EEC) British would rely upon the word “common” market, whereas the pro-EEC Germans would use “community” (Diez, 1999, p. 602). “One can reasonably assume that, to most people, the utterance of these words seemed innocent and descriptive,” Diez (1999, p. 602) astutely observes, “but they were not.” Instead, these discursive performative structures legitimized and sold the idea of an overarching “community.” Diez (1999) also shows the importance of competing narratives and how they inform foreign policies. State interests here are not just preexisting facts, but socially constructed. The world laid witness to dueling discourses again nearly 70 years later, when voters in the United Kingdom went to the polls and, quite surprisingly, opted to withdraw from the EU. Discourse played a pivotal role (Menon & Salter, 2016).

Discourse also plays a significant part in the EU’s foreign policy abroad. One fruitful research program focuses on Turkey. Turkey has applied for EU membership, but to no avail. Whereas a positivist approach would stress geographical, economic, and political variables, discourse analysis would address how the identity of Turkey, vis-à-vis that of Western Europe, has developed overtime. From this perspective, the EU is reluctant to accept Turkey because it fails to fit the white Christian identity. Drawing upon a foreign policy discourse analysis (FPDA) of EU elites, MacMillan (2016, p. 5) finds that discourse constructs identities and representations of an Other that plays into the EU’s foreign policy decision-making process, observing that “identities tend to be constructed vis-à-vis an Other (or Others), which may be perceived in many ways; as threatening, inferior, simply different, as not upholding universal values, as an internal Other, or even as superior.”

For many EU elites, who are inevitably influenced by public opinion, EU identity often clashes with that of Turkey. As MacMillan (2016, p. 150) notes about the French, for instance, the EU is “based on a ‘European civilization’ understood in cultural terms, with Christianity playing a strong role.” EU political elites collectively reproduce and legitimize this representational difference between the two geographical areas. Essentially, discursive structures build upon identities and create an “Other,” particularly in foreign relations with poorer, nonindustrialized countries. These Others are usually threatening, which generates serious security-related policies.

This leads us into one of discourse’s most valuable research projects: North-South relations. Discursive studies contribute decisively to our understanding of these contentious relations. Conventional literature has relied more on materialist forms of domination such as economic and military intervention. These scholars place emphasis exclusively on the physical domination that the North exerts over the South. Despite offering significant insight into the complex relations between rich and poor nations, solely focusing on material factors seriously restricts our understanding of domination and, in effect, foreign policy.

On the other hand, postcolonial scholars broaden our insight into North-South relations by highlighting more subtle forms of domination. Following the works of Edward Said, Franz Fannon, and Ashis Nandy, among others, theorists observe how the North privileges a European and U.S. view of the world, while marginalizing the voices, history, and experiences of the South. In other words, the North constructs a world in its own image and interests, while the South remains voiceless. The North is described as positive, developed, and civilized, whereas the South is negative, underdeveloped, and uncivilized. Knowledge of the South comes from the North’s representational practices.

Binary oppositions such as First World/Third World, developed/underdeveloped, and descriptions like “failed states” create and legitimate this subservient North-South power structure. This domination, however, extends deeper than just discourse. In representing the South, the North often speaks for Southern countries by defining their history and experiences for them. Scholars dedicated to postcoloniality point out that North-South relations are particularly contentious because not only does the North claim an authoritative representation over the South, but any efforts to challenge the discursive activities are quickly dismissed. “Colonialism, then, to put it simply,” Leela Gandhi (1998, p. 16), an expert in the field of postcoloniality, writes, “marks the historical process whereby the ‘West’ attempts systematically to cancel or negate the cultural difference and value of the ‘non-West’.” Due to the dominant discursive representations of the powerful Western nations, the South is rarely heard. Hence, postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988, p. 66) once famously asked, “Can the subaltern speak?”

Many scholars stress that they cannot, or with great difficulty. Edward W. Said, in his seminal study Orientalism (2003), points out that due to the Eurocentric representations of the Middle East, the knowledge developed regarding the area has been dominated by the narrow prejudices common throughout Europe. In fact, these representations justified the intervention into and dominance of Asia by European conquests. Building upon Derrida and Said, Doty’s (1996) masterful case study on the United Kingdom’s colonial relations with Kenya helps explains how British foreign policy colonized the imagery of the “native.” Far from being just a geographical colonization, “native” became a category that connoted either the strong willingness to work or a laziness that could only be corrected and civilized by the white man. Such discursive structures of superiority, bordering on adult-child relations, became the practiced and routinized identity reproduced over time. Noting the value that postcolonial research has for “real policy issues,” Doty (1996, p. 67) shows how such discourse led to the use of Kenyans as slaves and other forms of mistreatment, including counterinsurgency tactics against the Mau Mau Rebellion (1952–1960). Doty’s work, and postcoloniality in general, contributes significantly to foreign policy by expanding our understanding of what domination can entail.

Discourse analysis has migrated far beyond the industrialized world and North-South relations. The approach is employed to understand the growing phenomenon of South-South relations. Due to the influence of the highly cited Argentine scholar Ernesto Laclau, along with his partner Chantal Mouffe, discourse analysis has become prominent in analyzing the foreign policies of Latin America. Laclau and Mouffe (2001) developed discursive theories on hegemonic and counterhegemonic articulations that transform societies. Building upon and going far beyond Gramscian hegemony, poststructuralist scholars observe that nodal points serve as selected and prioritized discursive points that stabilize meaning and, thus, create an overarching hegemonic discourse. The hegemonic discursive formation, such as the hegemony of liberal capitalism, then becomes an unquestionable fixed reality.

Scholars have applied Laclau and Mouffe’s discursive approach to offer insight into, for example, the foreign policies of Argentina (Sánchez, 2011) and the historic tensions between Chile and Bolivia (Wehner, 2010). Focusing specifically on the governments of Argentina’s Juan Domingo Perón (1946–1955; 1973–1974) and Brazil’s Getúlio Dornelles Vargas (1930–1933; 1951–1954), Groppo (2009) utilizes discourse analysis to help explain the rise of populism and its role in the world.17 Outside Latin America, Oga (2004, p. 287) borrows from Laclau and Mouffe to understand how opposing institutional discourses of “Asian values” and “open regionalism” have facilitated or undermined the integration of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Laclau and Mouffe have had a positive and indelible impact on discourse in foreign policy.

Poststructuralist-Positivist Divide

It would be grossly unfair to suggest that poststructuralists have cornered the market on discourse in foreign policy. Constructivists have made significant contributions in this area. Constructivism is distinct from, but not completely incompatible with, poststructuralism. Both view reality as socially constructed. However, epistemologically, constructivists are distinct in that they remain unchanged in their support for the scientific method and cause-and-effect analyses. Whereas poststructuralists remain suspect of positivism, constructivists embrace it. Alexander Wendt (1999, 39), the pioneering scholar in constructivism, announced in his widely read book Social Theory of International Relations that he was a “positivist.” Wendt’s object was to supplant the more materialist causes stressed by IR theorist Kenneth N. Waltz with the causal powers of identity and meaning (Ringmar, 1997). Despite stressing the role of a socially constructed world, research would stay causal.

Constructivism has become extremely useful at shedding light on foreign policy analysis. In a recent example, Carina Van de Wetering (2016, p. 1) draws upon what she calls a “critical constructivist” point of view in analyzing U.S. policy discourse between the first and second terms of Bill Clinton’s presidency (1993–2001). Despite using discourse as the main unit of analysis and maintaining poststructuralist’s ontological approach of a socially constructed world, she breaks with the agenda’s fundamental epistemology and utilizes a positivist methodology. Discourse is not only a way to socially construct a world, but also a causal variable that leads to policy effects. “Of course, researches that make use of the ‘why-question’ and causal variables are valid in themselves,” Van de Wetering (2016, p. 16) writes as a criticism of poststructuralism, continuing that “a research based on a ‘how-possible question’ limits itself to understanding underlying discourses instead of providing a concrete explanation for policy change.” Thus, utilizing more of a why-question approach, Van de Wetering (2016, p. 14) finds that the administration’s discourse shifted significantly from a “dangerous” discourse in the first term to a “democracy” one in the second. This variance in discourse led to variance in real foreign policy options.

There is also a growing movement to fit discourse analysis within the quantitative positivist paradigm. Scholars code for discourse and use regression analysis or agent-based modeling to quantitatively measure the effect that discourse has on foreign policy. Lustig (2016) does an exceptional job at coding the foreign policy discourse of two consecutive Brazilian presidents who served between 1995 and 2010: Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Differentiating between hard and soft power, Lustig (2016) aims to measure the continuity or rupture of foreign policy discourse with other South American nations. Interestingly, while coding and quantifying speeches, Lustig (2016) finds that although there was continuity between the two governments regarding hard power, the discourse of soft power tended to climb with the leftist leader Lula. This work is of great importance for discourse and foreign policy for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that discourse plays a significant role in foreign policy, even in South-South relations. Second, one discovers that discourse in foreign policy can be amenable to a striking range of methodological approaches, such as quantitative methods in this case.

Criticisms and Rebuttals

All this notwithstanding, discourse analysis is not without its critics. Stemming from the positivist/antipositivist divide, scholars have expressed significant dissatisfaction with poststructuralism’s rejection of a causal epistemology. Given poststructuralists’ skepticism of science, it is no wonder why positivists have had a difficult time accepting their theories. As positivists have long argued, there is not only a reality, but it is also amenable to cause-and-effect understandings of the world. Despite offering legitimacy to the poststructuralist ontology, which he famously coined a “reflective approach,” the famed IR scholar Robert Keohane (1988, p. 379) vehemently advocated the causal hypothesis testing model as the best fit for international relations. “I also object to the notion that we should happily accept the notion the existence of multiple incommensurable epistemologies, each equally valid,” Keohane (1989, p. 249) added, saying that “such a view seems to me to me to lead away from our knowledge of the external world, and ultimately to a sort of nihilism.” Keohane struck a chord with many other academics who echoed similar complaints. Even those sympathetic to the discursive approach have faulted poststructuralists for failing to engage in causal analysis (Price & Reus-Smit, 1998; Banta, 2012), while others lobbied strongly to maintain scientific causation as the preferred epistemology (King, Keohane, & Verba, 1994; Jarvis, 2000; Brady & Collier, 2004; Kurki, 2008).

Advocates of discourse analysis, however, concede that there is a reality. As mentioned earlier, reality has no value until we attach meaning to it. Much more important, however, is the fact that scholars have gone to great lengths to situate the poststructuralist paradigm within the greater discipline of international relations. These are important developments, since poststructuralists have historically viewed themselves as “dissident” theorists (Ashley & Walker, 1990, p. 259). Lene Hansen has been in the forefront of the methodological battle, making a solid case for why scholars of discourse often opt out of the scientific realm. In Security as Practice, Hansen (2006) debunks critics by advancing a valid poststructural theory and method. From this methodological perspective, the causal epistemology is not always the best fit for discourse in foreign policy. “It is argued that poststructuralism cannot be formulated as a causal theory,” Hansen (2006, p. 2) points out, “because the relationship between identity and policy is constitutive and performative.” This discursive identity is neither fixed nor stable; rather, it changes over time, depending on the social context. Therefore, poststructuralists ask significantly different questions than do positivists.

In one example related to the foreign policy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Hansen (2006) explains that the objective is not to advance a cause-and-effect research program relating the organization to security threats. For poststructuralists, it is “how ‘threats’ or ‘instabilities’ become constituted as such in the first place” (Hansen, 2006, p. 25). They do not simply exist, but rather are constituted through discursive practices and identities that historically evolve and transform how we see the world. Research, therefore, aims to ferret out the evolution of discourse, meaning, and identity, as well as how it inevitably informs the decision-making process. Hansen does a great service for discourse in foreign policy by engaging directly with critics and developing a vibrant and attractive poststructural method for not just foreign policy, but international relations scholarship more generally.

Discourse Analysis in Current World Events

Moreover, discourse analysis is particularly valuable in our current world. Research related to the attacks on September 11, 2001, one of the most formative events of the twenty-first century, has benefited greatly from the scholarly literature. Richard Jackson (2007) takes a discursive approach to understand how Washington socially constructed the Islamic threat of terrorism in the post-9/11 world. For Jackson (2007), the terrorist and enemy does not merely exist. Drawing upon official governmental speeches, public intellectuals, think tanks, and other sources, Jackson (2007) finds that the Islamic terrorist has developed over a long period of time through discursive structures, particularly after 9/11. The “core narratives” have certain meanings, labels, and ideas that legitimize the Islamic terrorist theme (Jackson, 2007, p. 397). Research not only includes terrorism, but also the concomitant foreign policies that ensue in its aftermath. “With their successful repeated articulation,” Rowley and Weldes (2012, p. 182) find with official militaristic discourses, “representations come to seem as though they are inherently or necessarily connected and the meanings they produce as natural and an accurate description of reality.” The resultant socially constructed reality “appear[s] inevitably to require a military response” (Rowley & Weldes, 2012, p. 182). Consequently, such representations lead to and justify war, surveillance, and other courses of action. Not only is discourse analysis valuable for security issues like terrorism, but it also offers valuable insight into a slew of current events that are highly important for the world’s foreign policies. These include, but are not limited to, climate change (Methmann, 2010), children’s rights (Holzscheiter, 2010), drug and human trafficking (Herschinger, 2011; Aradau, 2004), gender (Brenner, 2009), and international migration (Huysmans, 2006).

In fact, with the rise of social media, discourse analysis has never been so important. The recent death of Cuban ruler Fidel Castro (1926–2016) illustrates the point. Who was Castro? What is his legacy in the world? His death has sparked a battle of narratives, each one trying to become the prominent and official discourse. To the so-called exiles in Miami, he was a villain.18 He nationalized property, took away people’s freedom, and enslaved a nation. His foreign policy was to spread communist totalitarianism around the globe. To Castro’s supporters, however, he was a hero. He helped bring healthcare and education to an impoverished, insignificant Caribbean island. Internationally, he supported revolutionary popular movements in nations like Nicaragua and El Salvador, pushed back fascism in Angola, and staunchly fought for the end of apartheid in South Africa. The battle for meaning does not end. Did Castro stand up to and defy U.S. imperialism, which made him a heroic figure, or did he enslave an island because he was a monster? The way in which his legacy is framed informs foreign policy initiatives such as lifting the embargo and reestablishing relations.

Discourse in foreign policy goes far beyond its analytical value. It offers useful solutions to pressing foreign policy issues. One area worth noting is conflict resolution. There is a growing research agenda that focuses on how expanding discourse analysis can help states engage in fruitful conflict resolution policies. Oliver Ramsbotham has become one of the major contributors to this stream of discourse analysis. Ramsbotham (2010, p. 15) has stressed the importance of communicative conflict resolution in order to decrease “radical disagreement” and “linguistic intractability.” Essentially, state and nonstate actors need to address discursive issues. At the heart of this disagreement and intractability lies “agonistic dialogue,” in which enemies continue to engage in war, but one of words instead of blows (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, & Miall, 2012, p. 377).

When possible, we need to move beyond this type of discourse. “Dialogue for mutual understanding is the communicative foundation upon which conceptual and cultural peacebuilding is constructed,” as Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, and Miall (2012, p. 377) note. However, in a contentious case such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these authors stress that we need to embrace such disagreeable discourse, learn from it, and accept it as part of the human dialogue to construct peace. It should be the initial focus of the conflict resolution investigation, not set aside and dismissed as practitioners often do. In fact, discourse has become such an important feature in conflict resolution that the U.S. government has dedicated millions of dollars in research on discourse and extremism.19 Discourse is an international feature that cannot be ignored.

Emancipation: Relations Between Nicaragua and the United States

One of the most contributive features of discourse analysis in foreign policy is its end goal: emancipation. While the why-questions advance causal issues, poststructuralists aim to problematize discourse and emancipate those on the losing end of discursive structures. In the words of Andrew Linklater (1990, p. 9), emancipation entails “freeing social actors from unnecessary constraints and from institutionalized forms of distorted thought and communication.” This means challenging hegemonic discourse and fixed meaning, as well as opening up a space for alternative voices, experiences, and, therefore, realities. Of course, emancipation can be problematic. Rarely, if ever, have countries been able to challenge the discourse and socially constructed realities of empires. The United States is in a particularly unique position to exert the dominant hegemonic discursive order. And, as David Slater (2004, p. 20) notes, there is a “pervasive tendency to ignore the contributions of African, Asian, Latin American intellectuals and their counter-representations of West/non-West relations.”

One unique case involves U.S. relations with Nicaragua. U.S. foreign policy there has historically personified “ugly gringo” imperialism. Attracted by Nicaragua’s geopolitical strategic position, as well as its natural resources, Washington took a strong early interest in the poor Central American country.20 In the conventional sense, the United States exercised great physical power over the small nation, periodically invading, propping up brutal dictators, supporting the corrupt Somoza dynasty (1937–1979), and carrying out illegal and covert wars (1981–1990).21

Volumes have been written on the relations between the two countries, but discourse in foreign policy has attracted little attention.22 In the case of Nicaragua, however, the United States not only dominated its economics and politics, but also its history. Through discursive activities, U.S. officials defined the relationship based on its own interests, biases, and images. This led to neglect of the Nicaraguan experience. Brutal dictators were lauded for promoting stability, prosperity, and security, and military occupations, according to Washington, were in the interest of Nicaragua. Officials branded any challenges to its hegemony as banditry and terrorism. Marines were “electoral guards” protecting the country from so-called bandits like Augusto César Sandino (1895–1934), a Nicaraguan hero who fought U.S. occupation in the early part of the 20th century (U.S. Department of State, 1932a, p. 798). The Nicaraguan National Guard, known for its historic human rights abuses, became an agent of “maintaining peace and order in Nicaragua” (U.S. Department of State, 1932b, p. 793).

The U.S. media and education reflected the discourse of policymakers. The New York Times often referred to the U.S. promotion of “democracy” in Nicaragua (e.g., The New York Times, 1931). Any challenges to U.S. hegemony were quickly discredited. When President José Santos Zelaya proved to be less than compliant for Washington, he was denigrated by U.S. reports and even educational texts.23 Nicaraguan experts Thomas W. Walker and Christine J. Wade (2011, p. 14) point out, “He is commonly described in U.S. textbooks on Central American and Latin American history as a corrupt, brutal, cruel, greedy, egocentric, warmongering tyrant.” However, this depiction is scarcely related to reality and is more of a reflection of Zelaya’s defense of Central American interests and sovereignty (Walker & Wade, 2011, p. 14).

During the U.S. covert war against the country in the 1980s, Nicaraguan heroes were defined as “terrorists” and “communists,” and U.S. policy, much of which was domestically and internationally illegal, as halting the “spread of communism” and promoting “democracy.”24 As in Doty’s work, these discursive structures gave rise to binary oppositions that became the hardened truth about Nicaragua. The threatening “Others” provided the context for U.S. intervention. U.S. intervention, then, was not motivated by their own geopolitical and economic interests, but the desire to create “stability” and “democracy” for the welfare of the Nicaraguan people. The civilized/noncivilized constitutive reality became the crux of U.S.-Nicaragua relations for the past and present.

The U.S narrative was confronted with a challenge when the Sandinista National Liberation Front Sandinista (FSLN) overthrew the Somoza dynasty in 1979. The Sandinistas (named after Sandino) made a conscious effort to redefine their history, incorporate different voices and experiences, and, in turn, destabilize and problematize the historically hardened discursive structures and truths about the country and its relations with the United States. Nicaragua’s identity and history became transformed. Instead of Sandino being the historically constructed “bandit” and “outlaw,” he became a national hero, defending the sovereignty of the country. Nicaragua completely reversed his image, dotting both the urban and rural landscape with Sandino statues, art, murals, and memorabilia. Nicaraguan famed poet-singer Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy composed the song A Sandino, in which he extols how Sandino “loved his people so much.” A huge silhouette is perched high upon Tiscapa Lagoon in the capital city, Managua, reminding the population and visitors of this commanding heroic figure. Even the country’s airport was renamed Augusto C. Sandino.

Nicaragua’s challenge to U.S. representations went much farther than the image of Sandino. As the Reagan administration supported the contra rebels and made great efforts to attach a “totalitarian communist” and “terrorist” meaning to the 1979 revolution, the Sandinistas continued to challenge such conceptions with counternarratives through speeches, journals, books, murals, art, and everyday discourse that began to routinize alternative representations. Academic journals began to discuss Washington-supported “terrorism,” and murals, which became a ubiquitous presence in the urban in rural areas, demonstrated U.S. intervention and gross human rights abuses.25

In fact, Nicaraguan history, written by Nicaraguans themselves, started telling alternative narratives. Local intellectuals started to observe imperialist motives that caused instability, economic destruction, and severe human rights abuses. The average Nicaraguans even participated in events that highlighted the brutality of the Somoza dynasty and other horrors of U.S. intervention.26 Discourse prioritized and routinized the Nicaraguan experience. Even the new national anthem written by Carlos Mejia Godoy in 1979, included the line “Yankee, enemy of humanity.”27 Nicaragua’s identity went from backyard banana republic to one of heroic stance against the imperial state.

Attesting to the power of discourse, meanings, and imagery, Washington has done its utmost to rewrite the country’s legacy when the Sandinistas lost power in 1991. This includes painting over murals, replacing Sandino’s name from the airport, changing the Nicaraguan national anthem, and removing street signs, journals, books, and other memorabilia related to the revolutionary past.28 In fact, the battle of discourse and meaning still plays out today. When Dora Maria Tellez, a Sandinista guerrillera who dedicated her life to overthrowing the Somoza dynasty and creating democracy in her country, won the prestigious and lucrative Robert F. Kennedy Professor Award at Harvard for the 2006 university year, that revised her definition as a “terrorist” by U.S. officials.29 Despite Tellez being hailed as a hero throughout Latin America, the U.S. hegemonic discourse ultimately denied her this status. The role of discourse in foreign policy proves to have real-world implications.


Scholars have long argued that research should advance questions that influence the livelihood of people (King, Keohane, & Verba, 1994). Despite strong criticisms against the method, discourse in foreign policy clearly meets these expectations. The approach not only addresses real-world problems, but it also has developed into a rich and relevant research program. Traditional theories have devoted far too much attention to material variables. Filling an important gap in the literature by highlighting the instrumental role that discourse plays, scholars dedicated to the approach offer extensive insight into a diversity of pressing issues for foreign policy analysis, ranging from intervention and security to integration, migration, and South-South relations. Academics and practitioners alike owe a great deal of debt to those dedicated to the study of discourse. The growing literature in discourse in foreign policy has proved to be valuable for understanding past and current events. It will continue to offer significant insights well into the future.


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(1.) Since discourse in foreign policy has its roots in poststructuralism (referred to also as postmodern and critical scholarship), this study takes that approach. It later stresses the contributions of constructivism and other positivist approaches that have grown within the research program.

(2.) For a poststructuralist critique of anarchy, another important given in foreign policy and IR scholarship, see Ashley (1988).

(3.) Living abroad during the events of 9/11, as a professor at the University of Central America (Managua, Nicaragua), I was surprised by the different modes of discourse and interpretations surrounding the events. Most students with whom I spoke, despite lamenting the innocent deaths, interpreted the events as “just desserts” for all the intervention in Latin America.

(4.) For more on discourse and U.S. foreign policy after 9/11, see Sjöstedt (2007) and Rowley and Weldes (2012).

(5.) The term rapist comes from President Donald Trump’s discourse during his 2016 presidential campaign. As Costello (2016) notes, although Trump was successfully elected, the discourse of the campaign has had a negative effect on U.S. politics and society.

(6.) For a study on discourse and former president George Bush’s “axis of evil,” metaphor, see Heradstveit and Bonham (2007).

(7.) For an academic understanding of how materialist theories clash with constructivism and poststructuralism, consult Burchill and Linklater (2009).

(8.) For a conventional understanding of power, see Mearsheimer (2001). Richard K. Ashely is the first IR scholar to problematize positivism, neorealism, and structural materialism. For detailed criticisms, see Ashley (1983, 1984).

(9.) More generally within poststructuralism, there has been theoretical tension regarding power and discourse, particularly concerning the divide between the discursive theories of Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas. Although the debate is beyond the scope of this article, see Kelly (1994) for a more in-depth account.

(10.) The link between the contras, who aimed to overthrow the democratically elected government in Nicaragua, and human rights abuses and drugs is well documented. See “The Contras, Cocaine, and Covert Operations” in George Washington University’s National Security Archive for a wide range of documented evidence.

(11.) Securitization has developed into an expansive research approach. See Buzon, Waever, and de Wilde (1998). For the role of corporations in Plan Colombia, see Ripley (2014).

(12.) For a concise yet effective treatment of the movie Avatar (2009) and its relationship to foreign policy, see Rowley and Weldes (2012). For a more extensive look into the role of entertainment, consult Weber (2006).

(13.) This quote is taken from episode 2, season 1 of Narcos (August 28, 2015).

(14.) For more on M-19, see García Durán, Loewenhertz, and Hormaza (2008).

(15.) In addition to quantitative positivists, qualitative scholars have advanced vibrant research programs addressing the why-question. For an in-depth account of related research and the methods, see George and Bennett (2005).

(16.) For an authoritative text on theories related to EU integration, see Bache, Bulmer, George, and Parker (2011).

(17.) For a better understanding of Laclau’s discursive research on populism, see Laclau (2007) and Laclau’s (2009) prologue in Groppo’s book. This is Laclau’s Prologue in Groppo (2009).

(18.) Exiles in Miami wrote such tweets[AU—note: you don’t mention any tweets in the text; revise this?] and celebrated Castro’s death. See Alvarez (2016) for more on the community’s reaction.

(19.) See Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. For more on conflict resolution and discourse in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, see Latif and Majelan (2014). For the application of discourse and conflict in central Asia, see Thompson and Heathershaw (2005), who contributed to a special issue of Central Asian Survey dedicated to the role of discourse.

(20.) Military strategists had begun to highlight the growing importance of Central America. The publication of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783 by Alfred T. Mahan in 1890 emphasized the imminent need for political and economic control over the area. Mahan’s writings, which significantly influenced Secretary of State James G. Blaine (1881 and 1889–1892) and a young Theodore Roosevelt, compared the Central American isthmus to the area of the Mediterranean during the rise of the Roman Empire. Nicaragua was also the choice area for the isthmus canal (Espino, 2001).

(21.) For more on U.S. coercive economic and political policies in Nicaragua, see Zamora (1995, 1996) and Booth, Wade, and Walker (2006).

(22.) The only literature touching on discourse is Schroeder (2005).

(23.) For Zelaya’s stances and challenges against U.S. hegemonic interests, see Booth, Wade, and Walker (2006).

(24.) See Boyd (1985) and Reagan (1988, 1990). For the illegality of the war, consult Walker and Wade (2011).

(25.) For murals, see Kunzle (1995). For Nicaraguan intellectuals and reassessing the U.S. role, see Nunez (1986), Zamora (1995), and Baltodano (2010).

(26.) The author has witnessed such events firsthand. Repliegue, celebrated with a long walk from the capital, Managua, to the smaller city of Masaya, reminds Nicaraguans of Sandinista logistical support, as well as the tactic of moving thousands of innocent people away from the capital and bombings conducted by Somoza on June 27, 1979. Every July 19, Nicaraguans celebrate the overthrow of the Somoza regime.

(27.) Mejia Godoy wrote and composed an impressive number of songs, poems, and hymns aimed at the average Nicaraguan. They glorified the revolution and challenged U.S. intervention, and, thus, altered the identity of the Nicaraguan people.

(28.) For example, the former mayor of Managua and president Arnoldo Alemán renamed the airport Managua International Airport. He was also involved in erasing murals and other revolutionary discourse and imagery (Kunzle, 1995). The airport was renamed Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in 2007, and now features paintings of Sandino.

(29.) Interview with the author in Managua, Nicaragua (May 31, 2011).