Over the Horizon: From Pulp Fiction to Foreign Policy

Over the Horizon: From Pulp Fiction to Foreign Policy

In 1903, the novel "Riddle of the Sands" was published to great acclaim in the United Kingdom. Written by Erskine Childers, the novel told the story of a secret German invasion flotilla prepared to overrun Great Britain. The best of a large genre of "invasion literature" warning in dire terms of the threat that Kaiserine Germany posed to the British Empire, "Riddle of the Sands" apparently helped convince First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill to reposition the Royal Navy to northern bases, safe from German attack.

In a paper presented at the 2011 American Political Science Association conference, Dr. Kelly Greenhill invoked the example of "Riddle of the Sands" in support of an argument about the impact of fiction on strategic thought. Greenhill's paper, part of a larger book project, is one of a growing family of academic literature to study the interaction of popular culture and state policy. Other examples include Dan Nexon and Iver Neumann's edited volume "Harry Potter and International Relations," and Dan Drezner's "Theories of International Politics and Zombies." While many of these works attempt to evaluate foreign policy or civil-military relations in light of specific works of popular culture, Greenhill's work tries to draw direct links between policy and fiction more generally. Given what we know about the viewing habits of contemporary foreign policy analysts, attention to the subject is probably overdue.

The idea that films, novels and television programs can have political impact is hardly new. For at least the past 150 years, governments have dedicated steadily increasing resources toward employing media in the service of state policy. Classic examples of propaganda -- or state-sponsored art, if you prefer -- include Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" and the U.S. government-commissioned "Why We Fight" series produced during World War II. Some of these artworks are produced directly by the state, while others represent collaboration between governments and private producers. David Sirota has recently argued that the film "Top Gun" is an example of this type, as is Reny Harlin's recent film about the Russia-Georgia War. These films represent a state-supported effort to move public opinion through the medium of fiction, although the line of effect between state intent and public impact is often difficult to discern.

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