The Doppelgänger in International Relations
It is clear by now that the Russian state has for a decade offered a double representation of Russian identity. It seeks an “objective” portrayal of the “real” Russia while simultaneously using tools of disinformation in ways that confound many Western observers. And perhaps this has lasted much longer -- the centenary of 1917 reminds us that even the revolutionary state ran both a respectable, diplomatic foreign ministry and at the same time the Comintern, the latter encouraging global revolution, not least against Western colonial rule (Reynolds, 2017). But any state can produce doubles of itself. Wouldn’t the more audacious act of power to produce doubled representations of its opponents?
In fact, the trick is to produce the doppelgänger of one’s opponents. A double is not the same as a doppelgänger. The literal translation of doppelgänger is double walker, and in the German sense it has been understood as someone who accompanies you through your life, as you go along. They cannot be shaken off. The term has been interpreted in English and Spanish as a twin or double, which misses the potential usefulness of projecting dual identities in international relations. A double or twin suggests a definite other person or other state; the twin is not-me. A doppelgänger suggests a like-me, a shadow-me. It suggests we each have one preferred identity and one that is perhaps messier or less attractive in some way. My argument is that states can create a doppelgänger of their opponent in order to highlight the opponent’s less-preferred self and to highlight discrepancies and contradiction between the opponent’s preferred and other selves. This has force or power because it reveals the opponent’s inability to control how others perceive them.
Since the Colour Revolutions of the 2000s we have seen a strategic attempt by Russia to shape how others view and engage with it. On the one hand, this is an attempt to showcase what others may find attractive in Russia -- its culture, history, sense of civilisation. The problem, Putin said in 2012, is that:
Russia’s image abroad is formed not by us and as a result it is often distorted and does not reflect the real situation in our country or Russia’s contribution to global civilisation, science and culture. [...] But our fault lies in our failure to adequately explain our position. (Putin, 2012, italics added)
Here Putin seeks a more accurate representation of Russia in global media and politics. The problem is the real Russia is being distorted, he says. Putin’s speech coincided with enormous investment in RT and a broader, assertive communications effort to project Russia’s narratives about itself and the world (see van Herpen, 2016). On the other hand, in a parallel effort to undermine negative opinion about Russia, we find Russia giving paramount role to disinformation and obfuscation. The very distortion Putin bemoans can be detected in Russian claims about the Ukraine conflict, MH17, and interference in Western elections.
We could simplify these two communication strategies as the “dark” and “light” side of Russian identity management and soon realise we are left with a confusing greyness. This is an interpretation familiar in Russia’s own popular culture itself, for instance in the Night Watch and Day Watch sci-fi movies directed by Timur Bekmambetov (2004, 2006), in which two “sides”, light and dark, compete for power in a city but neither side wins and it emerges that light is as morally compromised as dark. That confusing greyness and that blend of accuracy and distortion is evident in the programming of RT, too. At first glance, its coverage of Russia is relentlessly positive about Russia itself while pointing to social ills and inconsistent policies of Western opponents. However, RT also reported police mistreatment of Pussy Riot during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and its social media initiative #1917LIVE to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution was informative, well-researched and, at a time when Putin sought to downplay 1917’s significance, RT offered an entirely different, celebratory narrative. Hence, with RT we can never been 100 percent sure what degree of veracity is being offered.
Russia offers no stable identity, then, because its “organs” of representation offer, simultaneously, a doubled representation of Russia (a wonderful civilisation, but with problems and counter-narratives highlighted by RT) and a doubled relation to notions of truthfulness and accuracy (represent us accurately, please, global media; but all representation is just construction). The historian of public diplomacy Robin Brown notes that, in a digital world that offers greater informational porosity of societies, ‘As people get to see more of what you are doing it becomes more important to try and create more complex picture of who you are’ (Brown, 2018). Russia has taken this on board. Russia tries to offer a clean, objective self and a dodgy doppelganger. This makes engaging with Russia very difficult, because it is not quite clear what Russia is.
In Dostoevsky’s novella, The Double, the protagonist Gol loses any secure sense of what he is. Titular councillor Gol is suddenly confronted by a doppelgänger who begins work in his own civil service office. The doppelgänger flourishes as Gol’s career plummets, to Gol’s bewilderment, horror and alarm. He is faced with two versions of himself. Is he a passive-aggressive, bitter, friendless bureaucrat? Or is he the new Gol, a confident but unctuous rising star? Is he somehow both? Which values does he embody? Is this new double a projection of what he would need to be, to retain his career? Gol cannot cope. It is not just that he suddenly faces his divided, fragmented self -- no version of which is particularly likeable. It is that this divided self is exposed for all his colleagues to see, at work, in the street, at office parties. Wherever he goes, his doppelgänger magically appears and embarrasses or scolds Gol in some way. The novella depicts the public loss of control of one’s self. If Russia had done an appalling job of projecting its double identity, accurate and distorted at the same time, it might face the crisis Gol experienced.
Jessica “Zhanna” Malekos Smith (2017) reads Dostoevsky’s novella as offering insight into Russia’s communication strategy. She argues:
Based on your adversary’s unique proclivities and implicit biases, the aim is to construct a tantalizingly misleading ‘Information Doppelgänger’, that will deceive them and hamper their efforts to discover your true strategic objectives.
The point here is to construct a confusing identity of one’s self in order to make it difficult for opponents to make decisions about how to engage you. If you don’t know what Russia really is -- how power works there, whether its state is aware of its shortcomings, what its overseas intentions might be -- then it is difficult to form a strategy for relations with Russia.
I take a different lesson from Dostoevsky than Smith. Constructing a double or doppelgänger of oneself is only a first creative act of power. Certainly, Russia has done this and it has caught the eye of Western opponents who have at times lurched into what Robin Brown calls a ‘propaganda panic’ (Brown, 2014). But the truly creative act of power is to create a doppelgänger of the other, forcing the other to deal with the anxiety and weirdness of finding one’s identity split and the continual strain of knowing that a second version of themselves is there for all to see, 24/7. It is this loss of control of how the self is viewed that Gol finds unbearable in Dostoevsky’s The Double -- the possibility his doppelgänger may appear at any moment leads him into paranoia. Since how your self is viewed will determine how others engage with you, this marks a loss of any sure footing in one’s relations. This makes the construction of your opponent’s doppelgänger such a vicious and potentially destabilising act of power in international relations.
Has this been done before?
Let us take two examples. First, let us take the case of the Western intervention in Libya in 2011. Roselle’s (2017) analysis shows that France and the UK led intervention and produced a doppelgänger of the US in order to embarrass the US into supporting their action. They offered an identity narrative of the US as international leader committed to uphold certain values, and a narrative of the international system that chronicled that system being set up principally by the US itself. When a situation infringed the values of that system, if the US failed to act then it would be left out of the system it created and would be failing to uphold the values it seeks to uphold. This projected a doppelgänger of the US. The US should be this (first image: its self-identity about its role maintaining the liberal international order) but it is actually being this (second image: failing to act as it should in this geopolitical situation). This suggests the US has always walked with this negative double aspect of its character by its side, ready to take the lead. And by acting, France and the UK make this visible to the world. It is not just a matter of Sarkozy or Cameron using rhetoric to point out US hypocrisy. Unless the US acts too, it cannot gain any control of the geopolitical situation and thus some control of how it is perceived. As his advisors warned him the US was being “left behind” by the situation, Obama authorised military action, sanctioning a visible expression of US state power in order to eliminate perceptions of the possibly weaker, slower self and project instead the “correct” self.
Britain’s identity during the Suez Crisis in 1956 offers a second example. Until then, the US-UK “special relationship” partly constituted a security community based on aspects of shared identity, argues Janice Bially Mattern (2005). This broke down over Suez; when Israel and then France and the UK invaded Egypt to regain control of the canal, the US would not support the UK position. It accused the UK of ‘collusion’ with France and Israel, challenging the legitimacy of any special relationship (Mattern, 2005: 111). If the charge stuck, this would create a contradiction in the UK’s subjectivity: how could it understand itself as a moral authority if it was guilty of collusion? The US had constructed a negative double of the UK, a miserable doppelgänger that shamed British leaders, an act of what Mattern calls ‘representational force’. The UK responded by accusing the US of supporting terrorism. The UK was acting against ‘Nasser’ to secure Europe. Since US subjectivity entailed identifying as the protector of Europe, the US ultimately acquiesced and followed the UK’s framing of Nasser. and the UK opted to side with France and Israel. Nevertheless, the UK’s Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned and this ended any self-identity of the UK as a great power in the international system.
Both of these examples show that creating a doppelgänger of one’s antagonist can produce behavioural effects. It may be that, with its use of Facebook advertising to drive racial and political antagonism during the 2016 US election, Russian strategists have begun thinking about creating negative doubles of a chief opponent. Let us finally consider how we can theorise the production of doubles as having force.
Doubling as force
This raises a final point: how to respond if another is doubling you up? In his own novel, The Double, Jose Saramango (1987) takes the situation further than Dostoevsky. He takes the moral offensiveness of “having a double” and adds a consequence: one of the two selves must be eliminated for things to “fit”. This cleaves more to the English or Spanish concept of double rather than Germanic doppelganger. On first learning of his double, a bit-part character in movies he rents, the protagonist Tertuliano responds in confused horror, spraying his bathroom mirror with shaving cream to eliminate both faces. But he realises that when there are two, subterfuge is possible -- each pretends to be the other to commit blackmail and adultery. The protagonist realises this is harmful and ultimately sets out to kill his double. In Saramango’s novel, the will to eliminate the double becomes primary. But in IR this is very difficult because it is a realm of doppelgängers. One cannot simply eliminate or kill off how one’s state is perceived and understood by others -- what it is to others – because that messy relation of preferred and non-preferred selves is there for others to see. Ultimately one has to try to live up to others’ expectations: Obama had to join intervention in Libya, the UK had to back down over any world role.
By implication, it may be strategically useful to project a doppelgänger of your opponent. It forces the opponent to reflect on themselves, with all the anxiety that brings. This is not just a matter of pointing out your opponent’s hypocrisy, some gap between what they say and what they do. Nor is it about the confusion we might feel in modernity about what a thing is. There are no shortages of such anxieties. We face cultural anxieties about cloning (Mitchell, 2011). We witness unease at “data doubles” of ourselves being how states and corporations see us or artificial intelligence “coming alive” and managing the systems we inhabit (Smerity, 2018). In international affairs we find confusion in postcolonial efforts to understand the doubling, performative role of totems and symbols in the non-Western world but also, crucially, uncertainty about the same role played by West’s own totems and symbols (Latour, 2011). Doubling is happening and we rarely like it.
Being doubled-up -- having one’s doppelgänger exposed -- is also about the force of feeling and knowing that others are making your country a spectacle. The point about spectacles is they are events that drive audiences to gather round and watch. Not only do they see you, as represented by your opponent. They also share the experience of watching, and of exchanging views about the spectacle, and thus become a public who can share the emotional practices of mocking, praising and otherwise engaging with your state on their terms.
The very loss of control of the process and timing of when one considers one’s own image and identity is a source of anxiety. A state and those concerned with its image realise their state is always on display and vulnerable to critique, and that critique may even have substance. Individual leaders have always had thicker skins than others to being impersonated - President Trump being famously thin-skinned on this score (Cull, 2017). Doubling-up is the impersonation of one’s country, the creation of a doppelgänger that you feel misrepresents your national character, and you feel that act of misrepresentation is motivated by malign intent. This harm is doubled by witnessing its projection as spectacle for others to look upon and react in ways beyond the control of you and anyone in your country. Hence Mattern writes of ‘representational force’: the states feels the force of being perceived and responded to in ways beyond its control.
The new media ecology offers new opportunities for states to manage not only their own identities, but their opponents’ too. Russia is a classic example. It has doubled up on projecting accurate and wilfully misleading narratives about itself, but its identity is also being narrated by others in ways it cannot control, for instance through a New Cold War lens (see Horn, 2018). With its use of Facebook to drive social antagonisms during the 2016 US election campaign Russia has shown the beginning of efforts to create a double of its antagonist. But international relations is rife with other examples of states doubling their opponents to force them into behavioural change. When we consider the dynamics of media and identity we can begin to theorise how this works. This leaves the production of doubles as an intriguing tactic to be explored further in international relations.
Thanks to Alister Miskimmon for comments. All faults lie with the author.
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