Cartoons in IR: Reaching a Wider Audience

Cartoons - image

Niek Kremer, Wouter Wakker

In the world of today, IR is everywhere. As issues are becoming increasingly transnational, the importance of IR is becoming ever more prevalent. With the rise of various transnational issues, such as nuclear proliferation, combating climate change, and international security, comes an increasing responsibility of the general public to educate itself on such issues. However, in the turbulent world of today it becomes difficult if not impossible for ordinary citizens to do proper research into such political topics on the side. In fact, next to your job, your hobbies, your family and social media, it is quite understandable that time is on short supply. And yet, with Donald Trump claiming to plan to build up the USA’s nuclear capacity, nuclear proliferation is becoming a hotly debated topic again in both national and international politics. Moreover, climate change has been a frequently discussed topic over the past decades, though with the election of Trump and his anti-climate change stance it becomes clear that there’s much more work to be done. And finally, with the European Refugee Crisis still ongoing, with terrorism attacks still widespread across the world, international security is of primary importance. After all, with elections coming up in The Netherlands and France, an uneducated electorate on these issues could prove disastrous if history is any indicator.

Although IR theorists have written numerous useful theories and ideas with regards to the topics described above, we see in practice that these ideas have a very limited audience outside the circle of IR scholars. We argue that this gap of knowledge between the electorate and IR scholars could be closed by using political cartoons as an instrument to deliver their message to a wider public. This would be a welcome addition to IR as its ability to reach different audiences has been limited to the traditional medium of an academic journal or published book. In fact, the IR culture has gone as far as using the same type of language in its articles since the field was born (e.g. the use of abstract and dense language as this is often associated with science). Although our undergraduate courses teach us to keep in mind that the reader may have limited knowledge about IR, in practice we see that a lot of scholars go out of their way to use abstract language. The result is evident: IR scholars publish their research in IR journals, which are then read again by IR scholars (and, to a lesser extent, scholars of other academic fields, mostly social sciences). As such, the reach of IR theories outside the world of IR scholarship is very limited. In this article we use nuclear deterrence theory as an example of how IR could leave this vicious circle.

According to Lucy Caswell, “the editorial cartoonist has both opinion-molding and opinion-reflecting roles within the community served by his or her publication.”[1] It is exactly this personal connection cartoons have with their audience that would help IR to bridge this gap between the general public and IR scholarship; for example, via its opinion-molding role the cartoonist would be able to inform the public of the urgency of these transnational issues. After all, after a hard day’s work it is easier to become informed about political issues via a short cartoon than by reading a 20-page long research article. Abraham captures this thought when he mentions that “cartoons are intended to transform otherwise complex and opaque social events and situations into quick and easily readable depictions that facilitate comprehension of the nature of social issues and events.”[2]

Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be a stretch to argue that cartoons reflect a simplified reality. Indeed, in the cartoon above we have sketched a simplified version of the nuclear deterrence theory. This IR theory argues that the possession of a nuclear arsenal by two powers reduces the chance of conflict as the costs of such conflict would be too great to bear.[3]  In our cartoon this becomes apparent: the US and Russian president are in a phone call where the topic of conversation is quite pressing: both nations appear to be afraid the other would bomb them. However, instead of launching a pre-emptive strike to neutralize the other party, they are reminded what the consequences of such a strike would be. Ultimately, they come to the conclusion it might be better to venture into a more diplomatic route to solve their dispute.

The scenario just presented is not much of a stretch: after all, this exact scenario took place during the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962. Moreover, this scenario isn’t just limited to the past. As a matter of fact, it is displayed on screen even in popular culture; for example, during the plot of the second season of Amazon’s hit series ‘The Man in the High Castle’: in the finale one of the parties contemplates the idea of a pre-emptive nuclear strike, where at the last possible moment it was called off due to the fear of nuclear retaliation.

Despite the important function political cartoons could fulfil, they are often dismissed as an ineffective medium for widening the public understanding of social issues as cartoons would lack any ‘deep reflection’: they may be too simplified.[4] But dismissing cartoons outright for the aforementioned reasons wouldn’t do them justice. As Linus Abraham remarks, “the problem with cartoons is not so much the ‘lack of deep reflection’, but rather how to ‘unriddle’ the ‘deep reflection’ they may hide.[5]  For example, when we analyze a cartoon ourselves, there’s an unconscious process at work that we would only be aware of after we’ve seen the cartoon: based on our past experiences, we begin to connect certain themes, thoughts, emotions and even ideological viewpoints together to uncover the specific meaning behind that cartoon. Consequently, cartoons may yet deliver the complex reality we desire to uncover as IR scholars.

In conclusion, political cartoons could prove to serve a powerful role in communicating powerful ideas in IR to the wider public. Via its opinion-molding role cartoons could spread the message of IR in a simplified and entertaining medium. This role is a key objective for IR as many of its theories still apply very much to contemporary struggles reaching from climate change to international security and nuclear proliferation. It is our hope that IR scholarship embraces this role of political cartoons as spreading the IR perspective is key to solving the aforementioned issues in our increasingly complex world.


Abraham, Linus. “Effectiveness of Cartoons as a Uniquely Visual Medium for Orienting Social Issues.” Journalism & Communication Monographs 11, no. 2 (2009): 117-165.

Caswell, Lucy Shelton. “Drawing Swords: War in American Editorial Cartoons.” American Journalism 21, no. 2 (2004): 13-45.

Sagan, Scott D. “The Perils of Proliferation: Organization Theory, Deterrence Theory, and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons.” International Security 18, no. 4 (1994): 66-107.

[1]Lucy Shelton Caswell, “Drawing Swords: War in American Editorial Cartoons,” American Journalism 21, no. 2 (2004): 14, accessed March 5, 2017,

[2]Linus Abraham, “Effectiveness of Cartoons as a Uniquely Visual Medium for Orienting Social Issues,” Journalism & Communication Monographs 11, no. 2 (2009): 119, accessed March 5, 2017,

[3]Scott D Sagan, “The Perils of Proliferation: Organization Theory, Deterrence Theory, and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” International Security 18, no. 4 (1994): 67, accessed May 5, 2017,

[4] Linus Abraham, “Effectiveness of Cartoons as a Uniquely Visual Medium for Orienting Social Issues,” Journalism & Communication Monographs 11, no. 2 (2009): 121, accessed March 5, 2017,

[5] Ibid, 212.