Myth-Based Discursive Formalism: A Theoretical Framework for Understanding Non-Realist Foreign Policies

Document Type : Research Paper


1 Myth-Based Discursive Formalism: A Theoretical Framework for Understanding Non-Realist Foreign Policies

2 A PhD Candidate in International Relations, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran



Foreign policies of many countries in various conditions have been proved to be inconsistent with the predictions and prescriptions of realism. In this article, a realist foreign policy is defined as one followed on the basis of what realists regard as being rational, more or less risk-averse, furthering national interest and security, employing diplomacy as the preferred way for achieving goals, taking into account others’ vital interests, making a balance between one’s power and objectives, and being prudent. However, nearly irrational unrealistic foreign policies are not uncommon and attempts for explaining them have led to the emergence of other theoretical frameworks that take into account various factors, from cognition to bureaucratic politics to the role of identity and emotions in order to supplement realism.
In this article, a discursive formalist theoretical framework based on Ernst Cassirer’s understanding of myth as a form of thought with extra-rational elements and categories has been introduced to show how unrealistic foreign policies—especially those inspired by ideologies such as nationalism—become possible through the formation of specific emotions, identities, and cognition. These elements and categories, when taken into language, acquire fluidity resulting from semantic and semiotic exchanges. Therefore, discourse analysis can help us understand them in specific cases. In order to emphasize the significance of unconsciousness in its interplay with mythical discourse, Lacanian psychoanalysis has been employed. Then, the limitations posed by the ideational structure of the international system comes into play to make changes in myth-based foreign policies inevitable et again the shift is not beyond the realms of possibility of mythical form of thought. 
Mythical form of thought as a whole contains certain characteristics and categories that make unrealistic foreign policies possible. It does not distinguish between objective reality and most subjective experiences such as fantasies and dreams and between objects and their representations such as pictures or symbols. This can be seen in nationalist ideologies where national symbols are as important as the nation itself, and any disrespect for the representations of the nation and/or its representatives are taken as disrespect for the nation leading to emotional reactions. The overemphasis of mythological form of thought on causality makes whatever cannot be easily understood or explained by a specific tangible cause to be attributed to something the effect of which cannot be verified, for example, the conspiracy of others; hence adding to the common pessimism in international life leading to proneness to preventive measures. Parts and whole are not separable here. Therefore, every characteristic is taken to be essentially the same as the object. Thus, for example, in Nazism, being German/Arian provides one with a superiority over others. The way in which similarities work result in over-generalizations that make, for example, the other an enemy.
As space is divided into holy and unholy/profane places and holy spaces cannot be disintegrated, the homeland or even beyond that may take a holiness that makes defending it not only legitimate but also a necessity. This may lead even to over-expansionist aspirations to include the holy spaces that are somehow in the hands of others as a mission that cannot be ignored. Perhaps the most significant example is the Zionist territorial expansionist ideal of a territory from the Nile to the Euphrates. Time in this form of thought is not linear; present is not distinguished from the past which is justified and even sanctified. Referring to the past in order to justify and legitimize specific actions in the present thus becomes common in foreign policies no matter how different they are.
If this form of thought exists in the cultural background of a society, mostly through the existence of particular myths, such as city upon a hill, the Russian World and the like, it can be unconsciously present in the cognition of everyone. When this mythical form of thinking becomes dominant, the agents of foreign policy reflect it in the form of narratives that have an unconscious dimension being explicable by psychoanalysis according to which the symbolic order, as the intersubjective relations, norms, rules, conventions and the like is the site of unconsciousness. The symbolic order which exists both at domestic and international levels imposes limitations upon actors. It is where the desire of the subject is formed and the real is perceived through the subject’s desire. Yet both the subject and the symbolic order face the lack as the subject cannot actualize its desire and the symbolic order cannot provide the subject with fantasy. When the state as an international agent faces the limitations of the international structure, its foreign policy may change but again within the limits of mythical thought.  Consequently, a mythical state, on the basis of a predestined mission and a sanctified past becomes an exceptional state assuming that whatever it imagines can be achieved in one form or another. These elements together form an identity that makes unrealistic policy choices possible.


Main Subjects

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