Geopolitical Fictions: Fantasy, Reality, and International Diplomacy on ‘Madam Secretary’


Most international political thrillers rely on the interplay of fantasy and reality, using real countries and familiar politics in the frame of a fictional narrative. What makes CBS’s Madam Secretary unusual, even within that context, is that its episodes actually borrow from recent international events, relationships, and histories. The show’s universe can often feel like a surreal look into a parallel reality.

Madam Secretary is a fictional series, but television’s influence on people is very real. As with other, similar thrillers, it regularly risks spreading incorrect ideas and unmanageable ideals — recall 24’s inaccurate framing of torture as a legitimate and reliable way to extract information. And the way people understand international politics affects how they vote, which affects foreign policy, which affects foreign relations. That makes it imperative to check the facts and, in turn, consider the way one’s perspective on foreign relations is influenced and informed by fictional storylines.

Having a Master’s of Public Diplomacy means I am trained to look critically at not only the diplomatic relations between nations, but also at how these nations are represented in media around the world. A nation’s “brand” is an aspect of public diplomacy that focuses on the corporate-style image of a nation and its global standing. An example might be how, possibly as a result of their World Cup win, Germany is considered the most popular country in the world this year. Madam Secretary gives me flashbacks to the public diplomacy campaigns we drew up in school, as its fictional storylines follow the sort of programs we’d draft and questions we’d examine in class: How do you encourage democracy in this country? How do you encourage peace between different ethnic groups in a region? But the show has a tendency to rely more on the audience’s familiarity (or lack thereof) with relations between countries, in episode arcs that repackage real events.

The Chinese teenage genius Fu Xinpei, who asks for political asylum in an episode called “Just Another Normal Day,” is reminiscent of past political incidents involving Ai Weiwei’s politics and the dramatics of blind activist Chen Guangcheng. In contrast, Fu Xinpei has a more personal motive, one that Secretary McCord finds out when considering her request. The dispute between China and Japan over islands in the South China Sea featured in the episode is very real, but watching it, I wondered how many of the show’s 12 million viewers — and, for that matter, how many Americans — knew about the situation. The dispute in the South China Sea has seen a recent surge in interest in the past few years, but it’s not nearly as easy to understand or solve as the episode suggests, especially since the dispute also involves Vietnam and the Philippines, and our knowledge of the region’s natural resources is based more on extrapolation than detailed surveying.

The broad-brush lines with which nations are painted on Madam Secretary give me pause. In the pilot, I was struck by the use of Yemen as the scene of a hostage crisis. Instead of bringing new information to the storyline, it seems like Yemen was used as an all-purpose Random Middle Eastern Country, because it’s not a country we hear about a lot on the news. This is likely because, despite Yemen’s connection to the Arab Revolutions, Egypt is the country treated like the Revolutions’ poster child.

Sometimes an episode just sets up and delivers the same information a foreign policy buff might know offhand about a country, instead of delving deeper into other aspects of it. The new prime minister of India in “Passage” is shown as nationalist, much like its new real-life PM, Narendra Modi. That nationalism is later tied to hubris when the PM initially refuses help in response to a national disaster that is partly exacerbated by corporate American interests. This conflict rang particularly untrue since Modi had just visited the United States that past month, to a warm reception.

It’s preferable when Madam Secretary doesn’t use familiar incidents as opportunities to pontificate but instead focuses on ongoing relationships, such as in “Blame Canada.” In depicting America’s relationship with Iran, the show was able to dramatized the dialectic between the realist security ideas of the previous Secretary of State — whose appointed chief negotiator, Allen Bollings, is most interested in military action — and Secretary McCord’s liberalism, which hopes to find a peaceful solution. The episode ties the US’s relationships with Iran and Canada together in a way that reminded me slightly of Argo. Still, I found the president’s idealism in terms of becoming independent from foreign oil and bringing peace to the Middle East slightly suspect, as it reflected such a wide swing from his eagerness for military action earlier in the episode.

Madam Secretary has only featured a made-up nation once so far, in a storyline where the fictional Republic of West Africa puts the State Department in the middle of a genocide crisis. No doubt the story was meant to echo the situations in Sudan and Rwanda, which is why the country had to be fictionalized, in the same way that made-up countries are used in the movie The Interpreter or on shows like The West Wing. I can appreciate the story the writers want to tell, but it contributes to the same narrative we’ve seen several times before about African nations, often conflating them into one vague idea of “war-torn Africa.” This can be especially frustrating when real stories specific to certain nations could be told instead: entrepreneurship (Rwanda), the cultural market (Nigeria — the RWA characters even speak Igbo! Come on!), and healthcare (Botswana) would all be surprising, preferable options.

When the show gets specific in depicting the other aspects of diplomacy, outside of individual nations and specific relationships, it really shines. One of my favorite episodes featured the country of Nauru. Their multi-talented president/prime minister/foreign minister/etc. was a motif of levity throughout the episode, and the country’s importance incorporated a unique bit of science diplomacy, involving the placement of NASA’s new telescope.

Yet Madam Secretary‘s midseason finale, which aired Sunday, was a great example of how the show could — and should — incorporate individual countries. Its plot focused on the current political situation in Venezuela, using celebrity and sports diplomacy to ease the relations between Venezuela and the US. As Germany’s aforementioned popularity (and anyone who’s seen the Olympics) can attest, sports diplomacy really can be effective in changing the way nations relate to each other. Although Venezuela isn’t one of the major players on the international diplomatic stage that we’re always hearing about in the news, Madam Secretary‘s treatment of the country actually illuminated viewers’ understanding of its role in the world. And now that the show’s main mystery has taken on an international aspect, I’m hoping future episodes will bring more of these nuanced, specific portraits real nations.