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The Heroic Framing of US Foreign Policy


This dissertation concerns the US presidential use of heroic framing in connection with foreign policy. I identify "heroic framing" as speech which describes policies in terms evoking the heroic narrative, either explicitly or implicitly through references to heroic characters. The technique of heroic framing both encourages audiences to view a situation in terms of stark moral absolutes and normalizes casualties and violence as an aspect of these heroic conflicts. This rhetorical technique thereby combines fear appeals with important dimensions of inspiration and reassurance. To develop this concept, I draw primarily on Jungian archetype, social psychology, organizational leadership and feminist international relations theory. My ultimate aim is to see whether the president's heroic framing of foreign policy heightens domestic support of and foreign attention to those policies. Extending Samuel Kernell's theory of "going public" and James Fearon's theory of audience costs, I hypothesize that presidents use heroic framing as a multivocal signal. First, by using heroic framing, presidents seek to increase domestic support for politically contentious policies. Meanwhile, by speaking forcefully about a subject in heroic terms, presidents also cue foreign leaders to the seriousness of their intentions.

To test the hypothesis that presidents use heroic framing strategically and do gain greater domestic and foreign attention as a result, I employ a multi-modal research design. I first use a content-analytic and statistical approach to measure the impact of the president's rhetorical choices on the media, on congressional action, and on public opinion polls for every month from 1981 through 2005. I then perform two historical case studies to examine the impact of the president's use of heroic imagery on domestic and foreign response to US foreign policies during 1983 and during the 2001-2004 period. Along the way to testing my main hypotheses, I use the extensive database I created of the presidential use of heroic rhetoric to explore differences in the use of heroic imagery across individual presidents, across policy domains, in response to presidential popularity crises, and in the context of war. Through statistical analysis, I determine that the president's use of heroic imagery does increase domestic attention to foreign policy subjects. Similarly, presidential speech patterns suggest that foreign policy targets would do well to respond to the US president's increased use of heroic framing, since it does generally signal commitment to conflict. These statistical findings of the significance of heroic framing are supported by an examination of the cases of 1983 and 2001-2004. In 1983, Ronald Reagan's use of heroic framing for policy advocacy and for public reassurance was misinterpreted by the USSR as a signal of conflict commitment - a misperception which very nearly led to nuclear war. Meanwhile, in the period 2001-2004 George W. Bush made extensive use of heroic framing to promote the War on Terror and the Iraq War. Through an analysis of opinion polls, I determined that even after the US failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush's intensive use of this technique led to an increase in domestic support for his Iraq War policy, which provided a critical boost to his 2004 re-election effort.

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