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Axis of Evil: Moral Frames 101

In political discourse, language is used strategically to legitimise concepts, ideas, and policies in the mind of the listener. A good heuristic for understanding this phenomenon are two overlapping theoretical frameworks, one being George Lakoff’s theory of moral frames, the other being Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory (MFT). 

Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, says that the way in which someone says something - or how they frame a particular issue - says more about their moral or ideological position than anything else. Haidt, a moral psychologist, says that humans value different moral foundations to varying degrees, depending on both genetic and environmental factors, and that disagreements about religion or politics boil down to one group attributing more weight to a particular moral foundation than the opposing group does.

Haidt’s theory in particular has been robustly supported through empirical research. For example, in a 2013 study, Stanford researchers believed they could encourage conservatives to support climate change policies by abandoning the typically used frame of Care, and instead, framing the issue of human induced climate change as a degradation of the earth, which to religious conservatives, is a sanctified object created by God. When climate change related policies are framed as follows: “our carbon emissions are ‘hurting’ the earth”, the idea is to evoke empathy through personification of the planet. This kind of empathy is related to the moral foundation of Care. For political liberals, the concept of reducing Harm and Caring for others, especially marginalised groups, is the most important moral foundation bar none. In contrast, for conservatives, other moral foundations can take primacy over Care, depending on the context. 

For religious conservatives especially, the notion of Purity or Sanctity is an essential moral foundation. It is linked to the concept of sacralized objects, such as a tabernacle in Christianity, the purity of which is a moral concern, whereby dirtying or degrading the tabernacle would be seen as a moral infraction. It is also tethered to the spiritual concept of bodily purity, which is nearly ubiquitous in religious contexts. 

But, why is this important to know? I hear you ask. Well, because this study brilliantly demonstrated the power of moral frames. 

The conservatives were in fact convinced to support the green policies that they had previously rejected, simply because the moral frame aligned with their moral foundations. Thus, by framing an issue through a certain lens, you can get the public to support your policy decisions full scale. This fusion of cognitive linguistics and moral psychology is a mechanism of persuasion, a mechanism that political speech writers understand all too well.

The quintessential example of this was the Bush administration's rhetoric. There is no forgetting the infamous terms War on Terror and Axis of Evil. This ‘good vs evil’ frame allowed the administration to claim moral superiority and conduct their policy accordingly, in an unbridled, sanctimonious, and unethical way. It was also augmented by a modern day crusade metaphor. Five days after the September 11 attacks, Bush described the War on Terror as a crusade, invoking the concept of mediaeval Chrisitan crusaders retaking the Holy Land from Muslim populations by force, just as it happened roughly 1000 years prior. 

The term ‘axis’ is of course a metonym for Fascism/Nazism which triggers a conceptual mapping between the atrocities committed by Hitler’s regime, and the chosen enemy of today, regardless of how inaccurate that metaphorical link is. In fact, conservative media was often criticised during the Bush era for the flippant way in which Nazi comparisons were thrown at any political figure or anti-war faction that refused to submit entirely to America’s foreign policy endeavours. Regardless, the rhetorical strategies of the Bush administration are well documented and need not be relitigated here. What needs to be addressed is how US politicians and corporate media writ large have resuscitated this exact method of casting aspersions for the newly designated supervillains of today. 

US members of Congress, on both the Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle – which again highlights the bipartisan nature of Washington when it comes to pugnacious foreign policy initiatives –  have been reviving Bush’s Axis of Evil frame for the modern geopolitical landscape, mostly since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. 

In April, Congressman Josh Gotheimmer (D-NJ) used the Axis of Evil designation in his appeal to Congress to vote through the Iran-China energy sanctions act; an act intended to curtail Chinese purchases of Iranian petroleum products, as part of the United States’ broader goal to destabilise Iran’s economy. Yet another win for the Israel lobby in Washington. In May, after voting through another gargantuan aid package, which included $60B for Ukraine and $26B for Israel, Congressman and member of the House Intelligence Committee, Darin Lahood (R-IL), claimed the funding was necessary to stop “an axis of evil”. Good to see everyone got the memo.

After being voted Speaker of the House back in October 2023, Mike Johnson (R-LA), in typical neocon fashion, went on Fox news to warn Sean Hannity about the newly defined axis of evil constituting "the biggest threat since WW2”. That same month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel quickly jumped at the chance to launch the axis of evil framework back into our discourse, including in it, North Korea, for old times’ sake. US defence specialists, like Commander of US forces in the Indo-Pacific, Admiral John Aquilino, have also warned that these four countries constitute a nascent axis of evil. The list goes on, and will continue to grow as political tensions rise.

A burgeoning Russia-China-Iran axis is certainly a threat to US hegemony, and the anti-western sentiment from these nations isn't something to scoff at, especially considering their nuclear capabilities, affinity for authoritarianism, and their growing share of the global energy market following the recent BRICS expansion. Nonetheless, the leaders of these nations don’t exactly want to foist authoritarianism on the rest of the world and to destroy the liberal order. These countries have made it clear that what they want is for the US to stop dictating the balance of power in their own backyards. Whether you agree with that or not is a different matter. The point is that this ‘axis’ wants more influence and less strategic hostility from the US in their own regions, which is a vastly different goal than ‘destroying the liberal order’ or simply hating “our freedoms” as Bush so disingenuously framed it in 2001.

In the case of China, their view of the US and the current international order is far more nuanced than what Western policymakers would have you believe. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes that many analysts view China as a “revisionist power” as opposed to a “revolutionary power”, i.e. “one that aims to increase its influence, adjust some rules in its favour, and change aspects of the order that it views as undermining its interests, rather than seeking to upend the system entirely”. Chinese diplomat Fu Ying, has reiterated that nuanced position and there is independent research to substantiate this revisionist vs revolutionary distinction. It may not be as submissive a stance as the US would like, however, it's a far cry from the prevailing narrative in Western contexts, that China is dead set on usurping the US. Besides, this growing ‘axis’ did not manifest out of thin air through some sort of magnetic pull that attracts evil-doers together. The enmity between the US and these nations is rooted in historical relations and the dynamics of great power politics. 

The US has generally failed to engage in good faith with Iran since the 1953 coup d’etat, when the UK and US overthrew Iranian democracy to protect their oil investments, eventually precipitating the 1979 Iranian revolution which established the theocratic regime we know today. The US-Israel relationship has also played a key role in this hostility, particularly since the late 1960s. As for Russia, they could just as easily have been a Western ally had they not been driven into the arms of the Chinese by an outright refusal from Brussels and Washington to set a limit on NATO expansion. Finally, China has only become a legitimate ‘enemy’ this century, primarily because they threaten the dominance that the US had enjoyed during the unipolar era. Despite these facts, anti-Russia discourse is as entrenched as it was during the Cold War. Anti-China discourse from the State Department and US media has also become the norm over the past decade, leading to a now record low approval rating of China amongst American citizens. 

Admonishing the human rights violations committed by these countries’ governments is imperative, yes, but framing these nations as evil and Western nations as intrinsically good is a blatant subversion of reality. America has long supported undemocratic regimes in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and beyond; so discontent with human rights violations is clearly not a real issue for Washington. The carnage and destabilisation throughout the Middle East is more tied to US and UK foreign policy decisions than it is to any other states. So how is it that they are evil and we are not? Do these effacements of the rules based international order and human rights violations not count when we do it? That simply does not compute. In reality, ‘good vs evil’ frames are just overly reductive and only have value in the rhetorical domain for the purpose of persuasion.

There is still a colossal military disparity between America and any other state on Earth. The US still has at least 750 military bases spread across 80 or more countries which constitute 75 to 85 percent of the world’s total overseas military bases. Not exactly the perilous security landscape that the Axis of Evil based discourse makes it sound like. A Russia-China-Iran axis, at least according to ‘balance of power’ politics, may have been a foregone conclusion over time. However, accelerating this process was not an inevitability, and the rhetoric and policies of America’s representatives have done exactly that. 

The Axis of Evil frame has only recently resurfaced, but the framing of these nations as evil has been a cornerstone of US political discourse for decades.The disconcerting part is that the power of this revived moral frame is immense, evidenced by the fact that most people have to be implored not to fall for the same rhetorical strategies as they did 20 years ago. Moreover, it is nothing more than a page out of the old playbook – and according to polls on US public opinion towards these nations (China, Russia, Iran) it seems to be, once again, working like a charm.


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