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date: 18 January 2018

Foreign Policy and Communication

Summary and Keywords

Communication has a significant impact on foreign policy, both in the policy-making process and at a higher level associated with the nexus of foreign policy and international relations. Communication involves the transmission or conveying of information through a system of symbols, signs, or behavior. Communication connects individuals and groups; (re)constructs the context; and defines, describes, and delineates foreign policy options. The current trends are the synthesis in many areas, with a focus on the psychological processes associated with who communicates, how, to whom, and with what effect in the realm of foreign policy; and the structural characteristics of communication or discourse. The major areas of study on foreign policy and communication include: (1) the making of foreign policy and the role of mass media in this process; (2) how foreign policy is understood as a communicated message by allies and adversaries in international relations; and (3) constructivism, poststructuralism, and discourse analysis. Within the scope of foreign policy and media falls work associated with the CNN effect, framing, and public opinion. Work within international relations has focused on how foreign policy signals international intent, including threat and willingness to cooperate. Constructivism and discourse analysis emphasize the need to look at the (re)construction of ideas, identities, and interests rather than taking them for granted.

Keywords: foreign policy, communications, international relations, constructivism, postructuralism, discourse analysis


Many readers will associate the topic of foreign policy and communication with the role of mass media in the agenda setting, decision making, and implementation of foreign policy making. However, this chapter draws together a number of different literatures that address how communication, broadly speaking, affects foreign policy, both in the policy-making process (at its various steps), but also at a higher level associated with the nexus of foreign policy and international relations. Scholars of foreign policy, mass media and communication studies, audience costs, policy legitimacy, and discourse analysis have all addressed issues of communication and foreign policy. This is because communication refers to the transmission or conveying of information through a system of symbols, signs, or behavior. Foreign policy, for its part, includes not only the foreign policy process involving agenda setting, formulation, adoption, implementation, and evaluation, but the placement of foreign policy decision making within the wider realm of cultural, social, and political context in the global system. Communication serves to connect individuals and groups; (re)construct the context; and define, describe, and delineate foreign policy options. The current trend is one of synthesis in many areas and a greater attention to the psychological processes associated with who communicates, how, to whom, and with what effect in the realm of foreign policy, and to the structural characteristics of communication or discourse. The focus, but not the exclusive area of interest here, will be on mediated communication and its role in foreign policy. (For more on foreign policy, the foreign policy section has over 40 chapters in this compendium.)

The major areas of scholarly work that impart important insights on foreign policy and communication include: (1) the making of foreign policy and the role of the mass media as domestic determinants in this process; (2) how foreign policy is understood as a communicated message by allies and adversaries in international relations; and (3) constructivism, poststructuralism, and discourse analysis. Within the area of foreign policy and media falls work associated with the CNN effect, framing, and public opinion – all focused on the foreign policy-making process. Work within international relations has focused on how foreign policy signals international intent, including threat and willingness to cooperate. The literature on domestic audience costs, for example, addresses reputation by asserting the importance of creating credible foreign policy threats, and is beginning to address how exactly these communicative processes work. Constructivism and discourse analysis provide an important contribution by emphasizing the need to look at the (re)construction of ideas, identities, and interests rather than taking them for granted. Communication associated with discourse is central in this process.

One way to break down the communication process itself is to look at who communicates what to whom via what channels for what purpose. This is certainly an appropriate way to analyze the literature, particularly from the United States, on communication and the foreign policy-making process itself. The linearity of this model, however, is called into question by the scholarship on discourse and is taken up by many scholars, including a strong international group. This scholarship raises methodological issues or critiques as much of the literature in the area of poststructuralism and discourse analysis eschews the use of positivist methodologies or causal inferences. A final section in this essay sets out the work from both traditions in the study of communication and foreign policy during war and conflict.

Communication and the Domestic Determinants of Foreign Policy

The foreign policy process is often studied by analyzing the steps associated with public policy making, including agenda setting, formulation, adoption, implementation, and evaluation. Communication is central to each stage and can be grouped into interpersonal communication (within groups or among individuals) and mass mediated communication (in which technology mediates communication). For example, some scholars study the effects of communication within elites groups involved in decision making. Work in this category includes analyses of how groups shape policy options, such as in Allison’s research on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Janis’s work on groupthink, for example, suggests that groups will develop a narrower range of policy options due to communication patterns associated with group dynamics that discourage innovative or risky or unpopular suggestions from being brought up. There is also work on how individuals interpret messages (communication) about particular policies based on individual characteristics such as level of risk acceptance or avoidance (prospect theory), operational codes, historical analogies, and cognitive processes. See the compendium essays on many of these topics under the foreign policy section.

While noting that communication is inextricably linked to these individual and group processes associated with the formation of foreign policy, foreign policy scholars in the post–WW II era, especially in the United States, who have focused on communication have traditionally focused on mass media as a domestic determinant of foreign policy (see also Doug Van Belle’s compendium piece). Often the focus on media is related to the policy-making process itself. For example, identification of a problem and its classification as something that can be solved or addressed is linked with agenda setting; formulation of a policy is linked with interest articulation and decision making; and policy legitimation is linked with the implementation of the policy. Foreign policy scholars often see media as one among many players in the process. However, for many political communication scholars studying foreign policy and communication, the media is the message. That is, there is an active group of scholars who focus their attention on the role of mass media as an institution in the setting of the foreign policy agenda and the shaping of public opinion about foreign policy decisions.

Who Communicates

The actors who communicate during the foreign policy making process include the political leadership, opposition groups, advocacy groups, interested foreign audiences including political leaders, the public, and the media themselves. Not all are involved at all times and with all issues or potential policies. Western (2005), for example, argues that an advocacy process shapes the debate over specific policies. Even protest groups are involved in this process (Knopf 1998). While advocacy groups are often important, much of the literature has focused on the interaction of the political leadership and the mass media in the development, presentation, and legitimation of foreign policies. Much of this work has focused on the case of the United States; however, there is a growing recognition that comparative work is needed in this area. For example, Kriesi (2004) argues that decision makers, challengers, and the media are the most prominent actors, but that their roles differ across institutional context and according to issue-specific context. Two important variables, then, are the concentration of power in parliament and government and the institutional accessibility of actors.

Walter Lippmann is often cited as the first to examine the interaction of media as an actor in policy making with the 1922 publication of Public Opinion. Lippmann argued that journalism with its coverage of particular events and in particular ways could shape public opinion about matters of the day, and therefore could affect the functioning of democracy. One of the classic works that included an explicit analysis of the US press and foreign policy was Bernard Cohen’s 1963 work that dealt with the competition between the political leaders’ desire to preserve the prerogatives of diplomacy and the desire of the press to enhance democracy (and to meet the bottom line). This pointed to a complex relationship that is still the focus of much scholarly research today. By 1991, O’Heffernan had reviewed the relationship of media to the foreign policy-making process, arguing that “interdependent mutual exploitation” explained the relationship. Political leaders, on the one hand, often want to preserve a wide range of options in foreign policy making, do not want to be constrained by public opinion, yet want to use media to reach audiences with their own messages. Media, on the other hand, seek to inform the public and highlight important political issues, including those in the foreign policy realm – all while earning profits and not alienating important governmental information sources.

Media’s Effect on Foreign Policy – CNN Effect

Many scholars have focused on media’s substantive effect on foreign policy decision making and the debate over a CNN effect falls clearly into this category (see Gilboa (2005) for one review of the literature). Introduced first as a shorthand for the idea that media coverage can push political leaders to make, change, or implement particular foreign policies, the “CNN effect” idea addressed the perception of a different media context in the world of 24/7 news networks. The instant global dissemination of footage and reporting from distant locations suggested that a qualitative shift in the relation between media and policy would occur insofar as such footage might stir publics to demand sudden humanitarian or military interventions before policy makers had a chance to formulate an official position. Steve Livingston (1997) argues that the media may play three non-mutually exclusive roles. The first is as an agenda-setting agent. The idea here is that media coverage of a problem, event, or circumstance, such as natural disasters or other human tragedies, compels or pushes policy makers to commit funding or personnel to that area. Second, the media may act as a block against the achievement of a certain foreign policy by pointing the audience to pay attention to a particular issue. Third, media coverage can function to decrease the perceived timeframe for policy making, pushing leaders to make decisions more quickly than might be desired.

Other researchers have attempted to establish the degree to which anecdotal stories of the CNN effect have merit. Strobel asserts, in work on policies related to peace operations, that “the news media are rarely, if ever, independent movers of policy” (1997:5). Robinson’s (2002) study of media coverage of humanitarian crises argues that when policy is uncertain and the framing of the government’s actions/non-actions are critical, media coverage can have an effect on policy making. Van Belle’s earlier studies of foreign aid allocations and media coverage showed that media coverage was related to allocations. The more coverage a country received, the more foreign aid was allocated (Rioux and Van Belle 2005; Van Belle et al. 2004). A later study, however, studying post–Cold War allocations did not show the same effect, something Van Belle (2007) attributes to the end of a very structured Cold War foreign policy-making process.

This work emphasizes the role of media in shaping the foreign policy process, either by shaping the agenda or by affecting the timeframe of decision making. It is often difficult, however, to determine which way the causal arrow goes. Does media coverage force an issue onto the policy agenda or does media coverage focus on issues pushed there by political elites? Many of the academic studies of the CNN effect have determined that the relationship is complex, and involves competition between and among various political actors and media outlets.

Entman’s (2004) network activation model incorporates many of these ideas, suggesting that there is a hierarchy of actors including the administration, other political elites, and media organizations and journalists, and that discord and uncertainty affect how media cover issues related to foreign policy. Wolfsfeld (1997) argues that there is a political contest between political leaders and opposition and that this contest shapes the degree to which mass media affect political conflict. That is, the contestation over media can shape foreign policy because who wins the access and framing battle for media coverage also shapes the context of foreign policy making. While political leaders usually have the upper hand in this competition, under certain circumstances challengers can use the media to exert political influence. An important additional consideration for scholars has been how journalistic norms and standard operating procedures affect the formation of news about foreign policy (Cook 1994).

Some might argue that communication scholars have sometimes overestimated the role of media in foreign policy making, while foreign policy scholars have often underestimated the role of mass media. Overall, however, there has been a growing recognition that the process is not unidirectional, and is, in fact, quite complicated. Miller’s work (2007), for example, contends that to understand the role of media pressure on foreign policy one must understand the conversation between political leaders and the media. In particular, leaders may feel compelled to respond to media coverage and questions posed during press conferences. These responses are shaped by reputational concerns, distinguishing among media coverage, media pressure, and media influence. At times the media do shape the political agenda, but there are often political interests quite willing to activate and enable the coverage of those covered issues. This general discussion of foreign policy and mediated communication raises one of the most important concepts associated with the literature on foreign policy and communication: framing.

What Is Communicated: Framing

While some of the literature on the role of media in foreign policy making focuses on how media bring issues to the forefront or agenda, other research emphasizes that how messages are framed is of crucial importance as well. Much of the literature on foreign policy either implicitly or explicitly addresses the role of framing. This is because communication implies a framing process. The selection of words, images, ideas, and themes – or framing – of foreign policy issues, policy options, and policies themselves affects the process of foreign policy making at every step.

Just et al. (1998:134) say that frames refer to “structures…that select or highlight particular bits of information in constructing an argument or in evaluating an object.” Leighley (2004:258) defines a frame as the presentation or conceptualization “of an issue, event, or idea associated with other beliefs or values.” Right away one notices the many levels of components or structures that may be associated with a frame. These structures are comprised of events, issues/subjects, ideas, and actors as frame components that establish definitions of problems, policies or issues, causal interpretations and proposed solutions, and convey affect or moral judgment.

Entman (2004:5) defines framing as “selecting and highlighting some facets of events or issues, and making connections among them so as to promote a particular interpretation, evaluation, and/or solution.” Wolfsfeld (1997:35) defines an interpretive frame as “central organizing idea[s] for making sense of relevant events and suggesting what is at issue.” Most definitions of frame have in common the notion of an organizing principle that structures meaning. This will be discussed below in more detail because this difference has implications for what scholars assume about the purpose and effects of framing. Entman (2004:7) applies “frame” to texts or messages, rather than to the “interpretive processes that occur in the human mind.” He distinguishes framing from work focused more on cognition, including work on schemas and heuristics.

Frames can refer to large or small components. These include master frames (Snow and Benford 1992) that are broad in scope and include values about the political system or process, and issue frames that are more narrowly focused on specific policy or political issues. Druckman (2004) makes the distinction between equivalency and issue frames. Equivalency frames are those that are logically equivalent presentations. International relations scholars have picked up on the issue of framing in discussions of identity construction (Lynch 1999; Risse 2000; Schimmelfennig 2003; Muller 2004) and normative change (Keck and Sikkink 1998). Framing at its broadest includes the construction of the story of realism itself (Beer and Hariman 1996), and at its most specific includes the changing of one word in a survey question to elicit a different response. Finally, Tuchman (1978:209) makes an important point when she says that frames “both produce and limit meaning.” So, an additional purpose of framing is to keep competing frames out of the discourse or to counter them.

In the foreign policy realm, the communication of frames lies at the heart of agenda setting, policy advocacy, and policy legitimation. Much of the scholarship in this area assesses how political leaders (Smoller 1990; Kernell 1997; Grossman and Kumar 1981) and/or opposition (Wolfsfeld 1997) frame messages about foreign policies. Political leaders usually have a considerable ability to shape the way issues, policies, and events are depicted. When one talks about spin (Brown 2003), one is talking about framing. Leaders may choose to communicate using particular frames during different policy phases, at varying levels of elite and public consensus, and under different international contexts (Roselle 2006). Wolfe (2008), for example, argues that loss framing is more prevalent before a foreign policy is implemented and gain framing is more prevalent after. Entman’s (2004) cascading network activation model is also about how frames are created under particular conditions. And as some IR theorists have noted, political leaders can attempt to “filter identity discourses” within a state (Checkel 2004:234), and can frame policies “with public justifications which enact the identity and moral purpose of the state” (Lynch 1999:18). Still, leaders in the United States and in many other countries complain about their inability to get their message on television, and often claim that media are biased and/or antagonistic (Grossman and Kumar 1981).

Successful frames are tied directly to familiar, compelling, and/or persuasive values, myths, or identities. Snow et al. (1986) refer to this as frame alignment. Others refer to this as resonance and the literature in the realm of foreign policy has moved to assess how identity shapes foreign policy over time. Herman (1996), for example, explains changes in Soviet foreign policy by analyzing changes in “collective ideational constructs” that were successfully communicated and won acceptance within a particular political and structural environment. Schimmelfennig (2003), in his study of European integration, recognizes the importance of collective identity within a rhetorical action framework that emphasizes strategic behavior. Entman (2004:17) argues that “presidential control over framing of foreign affairs will be highest when dealing with the culturally congruent or incongruent. In response to these situations, elites outside the administration tend to remain silent, and their quiescence allows the administrations’ claims to flow unimpeded, directly through the media.”

National identity has been addressed in the literature as “a constructed and public national self-image based on membership in a political community as well as history, myths, symbols, language, and cultural norms commonly held by members of a nation” (Hutcheson et al. 2004:28). National identity, then, should constrain how leaders seek to legitimize policies. George (1989) suggests that because information about policies will be more detailed and sophisticated at the elite level and less so at the level of the mass media, leaders’ communication via the mass media will be more broadly consistent with dominant national values, myths, and identities. In his work on coalition building, Snyder (1991) notes that because these “myths are necessary to justify the power and policies of the ruling coalition, the leaders must maintain the myths or else jeopardize their rule” (1991:17). These myths are not simply used strategically by groups as political instruments, although that certainly is true: “[o]ften the proponents of these strategic rationalizations, as well as the wider population,” notes Snyder, “came to believe them” (1991:2). These beliefs then affect future policy decisions.

To Whom: Public Opinion

This discussion of resonant frames highlights the importance of the audience in the literature on communication and foreign policy. Just as various actors’ communication may affect foreign policy making, mass media communication about foreign policy will be directed at various audiences. These audiences include the political elite and decision makers themselves, the public, and foreign audiences. Members of the political elite have high information needs, pay closer attention to communication related to issues of interest to them, and also have more knowledge on those issues. Many members of the public may be quite interested in foreign policy events or issues during times of high tension or crisis, but during relatively calm periods the public is not usually attentive to foreign issues. From radio to television to internet, the range of media has expanded and much of the information about the world and about foreign policy comes from mass media. This explains the growing interest in the role of media in the conduct of foreign policy. This also points to the importance of different audiences in the policy-making process.

Certainly political elites and interest groups may be involved in policy making, but the development and expansion of mass media has increased the amount of information available to the general public. The literature on foreign policy and communication is often linked to that on foreign policy and public opinion. The literature on foreign policy and public opinion ties in directly to communication processes because public opinion is shaped by communicated messages, narratives, images, and stories about foreign affairs, events, states, and people. Many scholars place this literature into two groups: one that asserts that public opinion is unstable and not a major determinant of foreign policy making while the other asserts that public opinion is more rational and that leaders do or should pay it more attention (Holsti 1992). Although much of the literature in both areas does not directly address the communicative link between public opinion and political leaders, a growing subset does address this area. Entman (2000), for example, suggests that political elites do not necessarily rely on public opinion polls for an understanding of public opinion, but they do rely on media coverage of public opinion.

Much of the literature suggests that the public pays attention to foreign affairs most attentively in crisis or during war (Knecht and Weatherford 2006). Particularly in these situations political leaders have the ability to shape mass media coverage: the events are most often happening far away from the homeland, and the political leaders often have the most up-to-date information. At least theoretically, leaders will pay attention to public opinion when the public is paying attention. However, leaders’ courting of overseas opinion is an increasingly significant phenomenon, exemplified by attempts early in the Obama Administration to engage with the Muslim world. The opinion of people “on the move” is another emerging research agenda. In Europe there is a body of audience ethnographic studies which indicates that, particularly for migrant and diasporic publics, news about war, conflict, and international affairs is particularly important in determining individuals’ sense of security and belonging in the UK, Germany, and elsewhere (Gillespie 2006, 2007).

Via What Media: Communications Revolution

There is no doubt that the mass media environment has become increasingly complex as the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been marked by a communications revolution.

The literature in communication and political communication acknowledges that the type of media can shape the framing of messages (McLuhan 1994). From works on the differences in newspaper and television coverage to the new role of the internet, the characteristics of the medium itself are important to consider. This is directly relevant to foreign policy in a number of ways. Dizard (2001), for example, argues that electronic information and resources are affecting foreign policy by (1) raising a new set of strategic issues; (2) changing how information is used and stored in the foreign policy-making establishment; and (3) the rise of public diplomacy. Robin Brown (2005) argues that “the diffusion of communications technologies, ranging from the telephone to the Internet, is producing a more open, more public, political environment and that this environment modifies the type of political strategies that work.”

The rise of 24/7 television news coverage and the internet are the focus of special attention in the literature on the communication revolution and foreign policy. Besides the complicated effects associated with television coverage of events and decisions to a worldwide audience, Hanson (2008) suggests that the development of the internet has increased transparency of governmental actions and events around the world. In particular, new technologies allow nongovernmental actors to communicate more easily and allow international events to be more broadly transmitted. Communication transparency, then, has a place in the foreign policy-making process. Livingston (2003:257) categorizes transparency into (1) domestic transparency that focuses on the state’s disclosure of information; (2) imposed transparency that attempts to gain access to information from others; and (3) systemic transparency that refers to the proliferation of communication technology. The increased reach and availability of communication technologies allows nongovernmental groups to organize and communicate their positions on issues related to foreign (as well as domestic) policies. In this sense, technology has empowered additional actors in the foreign policy process.

Studying what is covered in the mass media about foreign policy shows that the media within a state tend to focus on their own state’s involvement (Archetti 2008). Related to the study of what is shown in the news is work on communicated messages more broadly. For example, Baum (2004) argues that the new trend of soft news, which places greater emphasis on dramatic, human-interest themes and episodic frames and less emphasis on knowledgeable information sources or thematic frames, tends to induce suspicion and distrust of a proactive or internationalist approach to US foreign policy, particularly among the least politically attentive segments of the public.

Communication for What Purpose?

The literature on communication and foreign policy has clearly addressed not only how actors communicate in the realm of foreign policy, but why they do so. Entman (2004:4), for example, says that political leaders “peddle their messages to the press in hopes of gaining political leverage,” while Brown (2005) emphasizes that political actors use media to mobilize support. Likewise, Pan and Kosicki (2001:59) suggest that “framing is a discursive means to achieve political potency in influencing public deliberation. It is an integral part of the process of building political alignments.” Nor is the achievement of legitimacy a matter only for nation-states: non-state political actors such as Al-Qaeda strive to use political communication to legitimate their beliefs and actions and elicit consent from dispersed actual or potential followers (Hoskins and O’Loughlin 2008).

Domestically, leaders may be concerned to one degree or another with securing domestic support for, or acquiescence to, a foreign policy decision from a variety of groups including elites, interest groups, and/or the public, a fact that raises concerns about policy legitimacy and coalition-building. Students of American presidential communication have long emphasized the importance of elite and popular support (Denton and Hahn 1986; Tulis 1987; Stuckey 1991). Leaders use media to explain and justify policy decisions because in a democracy leaders rely on the public for votes.

George (1989:584) notes that policy legitimacy is important to the President of the United States so that “the forces of democratic control and domestic pressures do not hobble him and prevent him from conducting a coherent, consistent, and reasonably effective long-range policy.” In the United States, policy legitimacy is tied to the role of political elites and public opinion in policy making because these political forces have a powerful role in decision making and may act as a counterweight to leaders and their agendas. Therefore, policy legitimacy is important because it creates a “fundamental consensus” which eases constraints on policy making (George 1989:585). Moreover, it is important to remember that policy ideas are conveyed through political communication. When leaders attempt to legitimize policy, communication is central for shaping both the context for elite discussion and public opinion, something that certainly reflects what Tulis (1987:4) calls the rhetorical presidency. This duty is undertaken through the mass media. As Trout asserts: “the process of shaping the image of the environment in support of a given policy at a given time is both politically significant and at the foundation of legitimation” (1975:256).

According to George (1989), policy legitimacy has two components. First, a leader “must convince people that he knows how to achieve these desirable long-range objectives” (George 1989:235). George calls this the cognitive component that establishes the feasibility of the policy. Second, an American leader must convince others in his administration, Congress, and the public “that the objectives and goals of his policy are desirable and worth pursuing – in other words, that his policy is consistent with fundamental national values and contributes to their enhancement” (George 1989:235). This sounds very much like Gelpi et al.’s (2005/2006) argument that the public’s tolerance for casualties depends on beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of the war and beliefs about the chances of success. This brings us to the blurring of the lines between a domestic and international focus in the scholarship.

Foreign Policy and Communication in International Relations

Acknowledging that categories are artificially constructed, the next general area of scholarly literature that addresses communication and foreign policy does so not from a primarily domestic or comparative perspective, but through the lens of international relations. Communication and foreign policy are inextricably linked to diplomacy, signaling, and threat perception, for example. The literature on honor, face, prestige, and reputation highlights the importance of audience and the strategic nature of communication. The vast literature on diplomacy is covered in a number of other essays in the compendium and will not be directly addressed here. In addition, foreign publics as audience are covered extensively in the related essay on public diplomacy in this compendium.

David Wedgwood Benn (1992:3) has written that “the role of information is so fundamentally important in the shaping of political perceptions that one is sometimes in danger of overlooking it.” Certainly the realist paradigm in international relations minimized the importance of communication and foreign policy, yet other work called for attention to information framing and reception in the international realm. Classic works in this area include those of Jervis (1970, 1976), Axelrod (1976), and Riker (1986). In his early work, Jervis (1970) distinguishes between signals and indices. Signals are characterized by tacit or explicit agreements about their meaning, while indices “carry inherent evidence that the image is correct because they are believed to be inextricably linked to the actor’s capabilities or intentions” (1970:xi). Communication in the form of signals and indices, then, is central to how foreign policy is understood by adversaries and allies. Work on image and reputation in the international system (Jervis 1989; Jervis et al. 1985) is also about the framing or communication of intent. In O’Neill’s (1999) work on symbolism that addresses honor, social face, prestige, and moral authority, he stresses communication in a strategic context. O’Neill argues that communication goes beyond language and rhetoric. Much of this work highlights the importance of credibility as well as framing in the communication of foreign policies and in foreign policy behavior. Jervis also notes that the reception of foreign policies will be shaped by a number of different characteristics, including by prior images and rationalization, for example.

Audience Costs

One current thread in the scholarly research agenda that addresses foreign policy and communication is one that studies audience costs. Foreign policy making demands that leaders communicate not only with domestic audiences but with international audiences as well. In particular, states must signal or communicate their foreign policy intentions. Those who study audience costs assert that political leaders can better communicate foreign policy intentions in democracies. In democracies the public can hold leaders accountable by voting them out of office if leaders back down from a policy (e.g., a threat). Thus, the argument suggests that leaders in democracies will not make threats lightly, other states’ leaders understand this dynamic, and therefore the threats are more believable.

There have been a number of critiques of this argument based on the need to understand better the communicative processes involved. Slantchev (2006), for example, points out that making commitments credible is difficult at best. Schultz notes that while rational choice models assume that more information is good, this is not always the case because it is not true that actors always “use information correctly and efficiently” (2000:60). Warren (2008), in his theory of communicative structuralism, suggests that the literature on audience costs assumes a communication network, signals transmitted via that network, a mass audience to receive the signals, and the means to effect a coordinated response. He argues that the structure of communication networks affects the creation and development of mass audiences and that this has significant implications for theories associated with audience costs. In particular, mass media networks must be sufficiently free and sufficiently dense. Baum (2008) argues that “media in multi-party democracies are more likely to make competing frames – including alternatives to the government’s preferred frame – available to citizens when the chief executive engages the nation in a foreign conflict.” He showed this in his study of support for the war in Iraq across countries, finding that people in those countries with greater media access and a great number of political parties were more likely to oppose the Iraq War and their countries less likely to supply troops.

Constructivism/Poststructuralism/Discourse Analysis

The role of mass media is central to understanding the construction of foreign policy, and is useful to scholars interested in “discursive structures and framing processes” (Lynch 1999:262). As discussed above, frames are political instruments set within a broader social context, and they have purposes that include more than persuasion. Thus framing at the domestic level and through mass media is central to the construction and maintenance of state identities (Bruner 2002; Rowland and Frank 2002; Nau 2002), and this leads one to a necessary look at the role of communication in the formation and (re)construction of the broader social context. While constructivism opened a door in international relations to the examination of identity and interest construction in part discussed above, recent poststructural work has focused specifically on discourses – at the heart of communication processes.

In international relations theory, early constructivist literature on the role of state identity (Katzenstein 1996; Lapid and Kratochwil 1996; Wendt 1999; Kubalkova 2001; Hopf 2002; Checkel 2004, 1997) argued that identity affects foreign policy and international relations. Identity, wrote Lynch (1999:22), indicates: “how each state understands the meaning and purpose of regional and international organizations, the role the state should play in the world, and the kinds of interests worth pursuing.” State identity, then, directly affects the context for foreign policy making. This perspective suggests that identities are complex and multifaceted, and must be (re)constructed over time (Checkel 2004); how this is accomplished was less clear and is directly related to communication.

Wendt (1996:57) argued that “rhetorical practice,” through “consciousness-raising, dialogue, discussion and persuasion, education, ideological labor, symbolic action, and so on” could affect identities and interests. Others who address communication and identity focus on communication among or between states, and argue against realists who “dismiss public justifications as empty talk, with no impact on the actual pursuit of policy” (Lynch 1999:44). That is, the possibilities for policies are constructed as identity and interests are constructed. Yet, the specific communication dynamics associated with constructivism are still understudied and underspecified. Rousseau (2006), for example, argues that characteristics of the communication system within a state affect the degree of shared identity, i.e., the greater the concentration of the media, the higher the level of shared identity. One critique of constructivism is that it has focused too much attention on ideas or culture and too little attention on the agency of actors within an institutional or strategic context (Barnett 1999). Communication is central to an actor’s agency.

Other critiques of some constructivist work question whether or not this construction can be studied with a positivist methodology or whether the search for causal mechanisms is both fruitless and detrimental to the full understanding that foreign policy is embedded in meanings and constructions without linear direction. In particular, poststructuralists, following in the tradition of Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, Laclau, and Mouffe, make this argument. For example, as Hansen (2006:1) writes, “[t]he relationship between identity and foreign policy is at the center of poststructuralism’s research agenda: foreign policies rely upon representations of identity, but it is also through the formulation of foreign policy that identities are produced and reproduced.” So foreign policy cannot be understood as a linear or causal relationship between variables such as identity as independent and policy as dependent. These are mutually constructed. Important works include Campbell’s (1992) analysis of US foreign policy, Crawford’s (2002; 2004) use of informal argument analysis to understand the underlying beliefs and political arguments about slavery and colonialism; Fierke’s (1998) work on the end of the Cold War; Hansen’s (2006) work on the Bosnian War; and Hoskins and O’Loughlin’s (2007) study of the interplay of media and political discourses in the representation of terrorist threats and policy responses.

Crucial here is the acknowledgment of the importance and political nature of language that is both structured and unstable. Hansen does make the argument that a poststructuralist methodology – understood as “the procedures and choices by which theory becomes analysis” (2006:2) – is desirable. Others agree, suggesting that a systematic and transparent methodology adds legitimacy to the scholarly work (Crawford 2004; Hopf 2004). Some argue, as Holland does, that poststructuralism is strong on discourse but poor on cultural context and constructivism is strong on culture but weak on discourse. He offers yet another option, writing that critical geopolitics “offers a preferential starting point, conceptualizing foreign policy as culturally embedded discourse” (Holland 2008:6). This brief essay can in no way cover all of the issues associated with the various schools of thought associated with constructivism, poststructuralism, discourse analysis, and/or critical geopolitics, but a fundamental contribution of these literatures must be acknowledged. Take, for example, works associated with Securitization Theory or the Copenhagen School (Buzan et al. 1998), or Critical Discourse Analysis (Fairclough 2007; Nabers 2009). These works take discourse seriously.

The study of discourse takes as central “public, discursive activity” or communication to the understanding of foreign policy and international relations more broadly. Some scholars suggest that public discourse structures the behavior of states by constraining and constructing the realm of the possible in foreign policy: “In particular overall policy must hold a definite relationship to discursive structures, because it is always necessary for policy makers to be able to argue where ‘this takes us’” (Waever 1996). Overall, argues Waever, “[p]ublic, discursive activity constitutes a realm with its own coherence, logic and meaningful tensions and by studying this, one can capture strong structuring logics at play in foreign policy.” The notion of structure is central here as there is a clear distinction between discourse analysis and attempts to discern individual or collective meaning (in a psychological sense) from articulated messages. Structure here is akin to Waltz’s sense of structure. So, discourse here is not “cheap” and is layered, having a significant effect on foreign policy behavior by constituting the meaning of the present situation, the identities of those involved, and the nature of the relations between them. Rather than treat policy and discourse as independent variables and seek to construct explanations of what caused policy change (e.g., “when and how does discourse matter?”), analysis of discourse asks how the policy came to be something that would be considered in the first place (Holland 2008:10) and what other policies were thereby rendered unwarranted or even unthinkable.

War and Crisis

The chapter concludes with a section on how the literature on foreign policy and communication deal with war and crisis. It has been events such as war and crisis that have driven much of the literature in the areas explored above – especially because international threats and violence have been some of the central issues of foreign policy making. Because communication is central to foreign policy generally, it is central to foreign policy and war. In this area, too, communication is key because “[w]ithout rhetorical framing, it would be impossible for any policy maker to present a case for war” (Wolfe 2008:2).

There has been an ongoing debate about the role of media during war and conflict. While many politicians, military planners and officers, and journalists claim that media can “lose a war,” most of the scholarly literature in this area again is more complex. Hallin’s classic work on Vietnam, for example, showed that US media coverage of the Vietnam War was, for the most part, supportive of the war until elite consensus began to falter. In addition, as the war dragged on and events on the ground seemed not to match the statements of leaders (creating a credibility gap), media had a more difficult time reconciling images and words. Building on the study of the Vietnam War, many scholars have sought to understand the coverage of particular wars. Analysis of media coverage of the Falklands War, for example, showed how the British government was able to control information in part because of the short duration and long distance and isolated location of the war (Harris 1983). The two Persian Gulf Wars have also provided historical cases for recent research on communication and war.

Research on the role of media in the conduct of the first Persian Gulf War assesses the “pool” system of organizing journalists, the military control of information, and the emphasis on technology and a “bloodless war” (Taylor 1992; Young and Jesser 1997). The video images of so-called “smart bombs” suggested a technological marriage of military and media capabilities. Bennett and Paletz’s edited book, Taken by Storm (1994), is a seminal piece on the first Persian Gulf War. Much of the recent literature on the second Gulf War is focused on the role of multiple media outlets, including al Jazeera, and the performance of the American press in legitimizing the use of force in 2003. Some have even addressed a so-called “al Jazeera” effect (Seib 2008). Hoskins (2004) explored how previous wars in Vietnam and Iraq offered “template” images or episodes through which journalists and political leaders tried to make sense of the unfolding 2003 Iraq War and its aftermath. In addition, scholars have been interested in how the embedding of journalists has affected the coverage of war (Tumber and Palmer 2004). Some suggest that embedding allowed television viewers to see and empathize with soldiers in the field while obscuring the bigger political issues and international context.

More generally, scholars have looked at how media structure and messages affect the likelihood of a state going to war – that is, choosing a foreign policy of war waging. Van Belle argues that shared press freedom across countries affects whether or not those states go to war. This is due to the role of the free press in the foreign policy-making process. First, a free press demands that leaders seek to explain and gain support for their foreign (and domestic) policies, and second, the policies must at the very least appear to be responsive to the public. In addition, Van Belle (2000) argued that press freedom is a “much more robust indicator of peaceful coexistence between states than democratic political structure.”

Those who study audience costs argue that leaders who are more likely to be removed from office (either through the ballot box – Fearon 1994; Schultz 2001, or through an elite ouster – Weeks 2008) make more credible threats and are more cautious in initiating conflict. Another group of scholars argues that, at least in countries with open media systems, information about casualties and various views on the conflict (including oppositional views) heighten audience costs and make states with open media less likely to initiate conflict (Van Belle 2000; Choi and James 2006). Mansfield and Snyder (2005), on the other hand, argue that during transitions of political systems, leaders must try to consolidate power and are much more prone to removal from office than before, and this increases the likelihood of conflict. They argue that this is because of the use of nationalist rhetoric that rallies the population during transition, making it more difficult for the leader to back down. So, in established democracies and in open media systems, because leaders are more prone to removal, conflict is less likely, while in transitional states, because leaders are more prone to removal, conflict is more likely.

The central explanation for the difference in these cases seems to be that in transitional states a point may be reached beyond which leaders cannot back down because they have built up public support for conflict behavior to such a high degree, and opposition political elites within the system stand ready to exploit this. Fearon (1994) and Baum (2006) do recognize that there may be a threshold beyond which leaders are more likely to go to war in democracies, but the focus in the literature has been on the pacifying effects of audience costs. Snyder (2000) makes the argument that “democratization produces nationalism” (p. 45) because leaders use nationalism to consolidate power. Nationalism can thus rally people around a new government, and can increase the likelihood of conflict, according to this argument. By promoting nationalism and, in essence, implying a promise of action to support nationalism (i.e., increasing audience costs), a leader is less able to back down, and conflict becomes more likely (see Baum, 2006, for a similar idea). Mansfield and Snyder make a similar argument about transitional, rather than democratizing, states: “[w]hen an autocratic regime breaks up, there is a dramatic rise in the importance of mass political ideology for legitimating the power of ruling authorities and other elites. The people can no longer simply be repressed or bought off; they must be persuaded” (2005:60–1). Mass persuasion implies a primary role for the media in this process as citizens turn to media to understand political changes, leadership decisions, and the construction of the idea of the state and its foreign policy. Snyder argues that “democratization produces nationalism,” especially during the early phase of democratization, in part because institutions, including the media, are not strong enough (or independent enough) to counter “the influence of nationalist mythmakers” (p. 54). Leaders’ abilities to use media depend on (1) their ability to control sources; (2) journalists’ independence and professionalism; and (3) segmentation of the media market (p. 56).

A group of scholars are examining the role of technological advancement in current and future war scenarios. Specifically, new technologies have the potential to increase the amount of information available both to military commanders and to political leaders about the course of the war (Owens 2000). In addition, new technologies bring the possibility of new threats from small groups (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 2001). This point will be discussed in the section on terrorism below.

Finally, there is a group of scholars who question what makes states secure in the first place. Fierke (2007) writes, reviewing definitions of security, that “security is about being and feeling safe from harm or danger” and that security is a contested concept. The fact that security is so often viewed by political leaders as related to military security against external military threats is, many would argue, already assuming quite a lot. This assumption then leads to foreign policies that prioritize military solutions to international differences. Hence, the construction or communication of a worldview that gives military instruments of power primacy is central to the understanding of war and peace in the international system. “What is Foreign Policy?” is an important question for scholars who work in this vein (Gaskarth 2006:332).


Clearly related to historical developments, an area of research that has grown significantly in the past decade is that of the role of communication and the mass media in relation to terrorism and policies related to it. (See the related essay, Terrorism and Counter Terrorism in Cyberspace.) A central question raised in this literature is to what degree mass media facilitate terrorism by giving terrorists a platform for their grievances and a showcase for their violence, and with what effect. The technological revolution in communications has only contributed to the ability of non-state actors, including those using violence to send messages to the world. This creates a complex foreign policy-making environment for political leaders.

Research in this area focuses on the dynamics of communication related to terrorism. For example, one result of foreign terrorist activities is that foreign sources and American victims are preferred over American political sources in the mass media (Nacos 2007). So, according to Nacos, during and after terrorist events, American political leaders lose their usual preeminence in the media during times of crisis. This means that the foreign policy-making environment is changed as terrorists and their allies can often communicate via the mass media with a broad audience. Nacos notes that this is different when terrorists strike on American soil. In this case, American political officials have the ability to dominate the mass media and communicate directly with the American people. Studies of political communication on and after 9/11 suggest that American political leaders used media effectively to promote support for governmental policies in reaction to 9/11 (Reynolds and Barnett 2003). Yet there are differences across different countries due to differences in the structure and role of media in various societies. For example, the BBC and CNN covered terrorist activity in different ways, in part due to different journalistic traditions and structures (Barnett et al. 2008). The Russian media coverage of Chechnya was described in terms of terrorism, and for the most part, the coverage has demonized the Chechens (Oates 2005).

Another set of scholars associated with cultural studies sees terrorism itself as communication (see, for example, Schmid and De Graaf 1982). Violent acts labeled terrorism are a means through which a group can communicate, to be sure, but this literature also suggests that the structure of media itself – particularly in commercial media systems – encourages or enables this type of communication. Violence sells. In addition, through discourse analysis these scholars deconstruct the language used by political leaders and others to produce political violence: “the media and culture are directly implicated in the wars of meaning which pervade contemporary politics” (Lewis 2005:249).

In response to the emergence of transnational terrorism, innovative recent studies have addressed the diffusion and contestation of communications by or about terrorist groups across national borders and how media and now citizens in different countries transfer and translate stories across different channels and platforms (Corman et al. 2008; Hoskins and O’Loughlin forthcoming 2009; Awan et al. forthcoming 2010). Debrix (2008), for example, analyzes tabloid geopolitics, arguing that certain mediatized discourses “take advantage of contemporary fears, anxieties, and insecurities to produce certain political and cultural realities and meanings that are presented as commonsensical popular truths” (p. 5). Weber (2006) analyzes US film in the post–9/11 period to illuminate the discourse on US foreign policy.

The breadth in the scope of the literature on terrorism mirrors the breadth in the literature on communication and foreign policy more generally. Scholars working within different disciplines, subfields, and intellectual traditions have all addressed the importance of understanding communicative processes associated with foreign policy. Often this work is found in disassociated scholarly research streams: scholars in one group have not usually reached across to others. This, however, is changing significantly. Scholars are beginning to pursue interdisciplinary and more internationally inclusive research working groups. One example is a working group, in part supported by ISA workshop monies, that is studying strategic narratives and international relations. This international and cross-disciplinary collaboration presents an exciting opportunity for future research within this area.


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For helpful comments and ideas I am grateful to Nanette Levinson, Ben O’Loughlin, Ken Rogerson, Phil Seib, anonymous ISA reviewers, and the ISA International Communications Section.