category archive: Middle East

The Definition of Strategic Narrative: an Evolving Concept in International Affairs

In an earlier post, I outlined ways in which the term strategic narrative is used in current practice,  in public relations—as an element of marketing—and in the academic field of international relations.  This post returns to the evolution of the term as an applied concept in foreign affairs.

According to International Relations professor Alister Miskimmon (who I asked by email), the first published use of the term “strategic narrative”  was by Lawrence Freedman, a professor of War Studies at King’s College, London.  In 2006, Freedman wrote a paper called The Transformation of Strategic Affairs.   Many of the insights in Freedman’s work stem from the Western experience of war in the post-9/11 years, and the discovery—the hard way, through experience—that the era of large scale land warfare may be decisively over. In its place, the future promises smaller wars, waged by insurgents as well as governments, in which human factors such as behavior, culture and communication play meaningful roles.

In this context, Freedman identifies “strategic narratives” as a kind of secret weapon of networked combatants fighting irregular wars.  In Freedman’s view, a story that connects people emotionally to an identity and a mission “helps dispersed groups to cohere and guides its strategy.  Individuals know the sort of action expected of them and the message to be conveyed.”

Thus, in Freedman’s definition, narrative is a function of strategy in the most traditional sense related to the science of war.  In that vein, he argues that: Continue reading

Posted in: International Politics, Middle East, Narrative Research, National Security, Politics and Policy, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2011: Year of the Protest Narrative

E.M. Forster famously distinguished events that are yoked only by their temporal order from those that we would consider a narrative (which he called “plot”), in which events are causally linked, with this pithy comparison:

1. The King died and then the Queen died (2 events tied only by temporal order)

2. The King died and then the Queen died of grief (the second event is caused by the first)

I’ve had this distinction on my mind as year-end wrap-ups circulate in the media.

photographer: David Shankbone

Protestors on Wall Street, September 30, 2011

The global scope of economic crisis and dramatic protests give commentators a lot of latitude to tell the story of this year in a variety of ways.  Did Mohamed Bouazizi’s galvanizing protest by fire, and the subsequent fall of the Tunisian government cause Egyptian protests? And did these, in some way cause Occupy Wall Street? Do the protests in Chile, Tel Aviv and Russia have anything to do with each other, or with others? Continue reading

Posted in: Intercultural Communication, International Politics, Middle East, Politics and Policy, Popular Culture Tags: , , , ,

Afghanistan Narrative, Still Wrong, but Reparable

Earlier this month, Benjamin Hopkins and Magnus Marsden, authors of the forthcoming Fragments of the Afghan Frontier, argued strenuously in a New York Times Op Ed that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is as culturally inept as it was when we went to war a decade ago. The American obsession with viewing Afghanistan though the lens of tribal tradition is borrowed from 19th century Brits, whose understanding tribal mores was in large part composed of fanciful inventions of their own. Above all:

Afghanistan is not a country of primitive tribes cut off from the modern world. The singular focus on tribes, the Taliban, and ethnicity as the keys to understanding and resolving the conflict misses the nuances of the region’s past and present. Rather than fanatical tribesmen or poor victims in need of aid, many of these people are active and capable participants in a globalized economy.

The U.S. military addresses cultural issues, even in how to dress**

Why does this profound institutional failure persist? I read it and hear versions of the premise that Afghans don’t live in the same globalized world as Americans all the time in defense contexts. The fact that it does persist  should give us deep pause about how resources have been expended to create a more ‘culturally aware’ national security community. Continue reading

Posted in: Intercultural Communication, International Politics, Middle East, Narrative and Cognition, Narrative Research, National Security, Political Analysis, Politics and Policy, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Verifying Sources in the Era of Amateur Video

The competing narrative continuing to unfold about the ongoing violence in Syria reflect how completely amateur video has now transformed our understanding of what “news” is. Activists’ homemade videos have shattered the idea that the Syrian government’s claim to be restoring “stability” to towns under attack from “armed terrorists” can be taken at face value.

Yet, amateur videos cannot be verified easily, and for that reason also cannot be taken at face value. In order to try to tell the “whole” story, Reuters, CNN and other mainstream sources seem to be frequently reduced to a version of stuttering about how, although they are showing citizen footage, they can’t vouch for it’s accuracy.  The New Yorker, commenting on an August  5th video below, notes that, “Like all of the amateur videos coming out of Syria, where the foreign press has been banned, this footage has not been independently verified.”

Other journalists, like Dissected News founder James Miller, are rewriting the terms of journalistic objectivity to try to make sense of, and verify, amateur video claims.   Like traditional journalism,  this new form requires a zealous desire get the story right and the passion–and knowledge of context–to uncover truth. But it also requires the talents of a film critic—the ability to read images, to interrogate pictures for what they reveal and conceal, and to explore how they are constructed.

As it turns out, a picture is not worth a thousand words at all.  A picture is just like words – it may tell the truth, it may deceive, but it is never the transparent conduit to fact we once thought it was.  It is up to good journalists to decipher them, and learn to read them as they do sources’ statements: as complex, layered signals that say as much about the worldview of the people making them, as they do about events at hand.

It’s an important task,  as Miller points out:

… Some news agencies have occasionally been duped by propaganda promoted by individual “activists”, but those observers who are more tuned in, after months of experience, to the claims of the activists, now know which individuals or groups produce credible information, and they know when to be extra-skeptical about reports. However, many of these claims are reliable, and the media who drop in on the Syria story need to pay attention to the journalists who are working hard to separate the “good” reports from the “bad”. Because in Syria — to take a position — one side is lying, one side is mostly truthful, and thousands of lives are in the balance of the two.

Posted in: International Politics, Middle East, News and Journalism, Political Analysis, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , ,

Narrative in Complex Decision Making: an Interview with Mary Crannell

Mary Crannell is one of those people whose broad intelligence and enthusiasm are hard to contain, as I learned when we met recently through a shared acquaintance.  As the president of Idea Sciences, a decision-making support consultancy based in Alexandria, VA, Mary spends much of her  time thinking about what technologies and processes will help her customers—such as the IMF, NATO, QinetiQ, the US Army, the UK Army, Verizon and Herman Miller, to name a few—arrive at good decisions.  She is a frequent traveler to sites of conflict, as in a recent visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, where decision-making is an urgent, complex and ongoing task.

I was gratified when Mary agreed to share some of her thoughts on the role of narrative in decision-making generally, and in directing the American role in the world in productive directions, which is a concern many of her clients share.

Mary Crannell, President, Idea Sciences

AZ: How do you use narrative frameworks to help people make decisions?

MC: It is important to give people a way to define the vision of what they are trying to accomplish whether they are leading a state, a nation or an international organization. Is the system you are leading “on purpose?”  We start with a vision.  Continue reading

Posted in: Decision making, Information Systems, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, Middle East, Narrative Research, National Security, Public Diplomacy, Strategic Leadership, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: “The End of the West: the Once and Future Europe”

English political theorist and former Labor Party MP David Marquand’s recently published The End of the West: the Once and Future Europe, comes at an opportune moment.   The Greek financial crisis, U.S. jibes at NATO, and the suggestion by disgruntled British conservative party members that the UK quit the EU foretells a continental reckoning at hand.

Marquand’s thesis is that changing global circumstances press into relief both unresolved ambiguities that now must be resolved if the European Union is to continue as a viable institution.  The creators of the European Community were eager to forge the organization, and to feel they were beginning to put the outrages of hyper-nationalism, in Nazism and fascism, and the ethnic hatreds exemplified by the Holocaust behind them. These terrible events stood in sharp contrast to the modern Western self-ideal: rational, egalitarian, and humanist, rather than racially minded, and the European Community was a way to return Europe to that better model of itself.

As a result of this fervor to move beyond the horrors of World War II, the founders of the European Community (later the European Union) never explored ambiguities regarding the implications of being “European.” These included complex issues of ethnic identity vis-à-vis national and European identity, the degree to which supranational governance would override the national sovereignty of member countries, and basic questions about geography—what are the territorial boundaries of Europe, and are they identical with some sort of defining quality of Europeanness? Continue reading

Posted in: Books & Films, International Politics, Middle East, Political Analysis, Politics and Policy, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , ,

Egypt Uprising Narrative as Youth, New Media Driven: Wrong

Ala' 'Abd al Fatah (image courtesy of Wikimedia and under Creative Commons license)

NPR’s Michele Norris interviewed Egyptian blogger and software Ala’ ‘Abd Al Fattah on June 6 about his role and perceptions of the uprising in Egypt that brought down the Mubarak regime earlier this spring.  Among Al Fattah’s insights: the narrative of events in Egypt as a primarily youth led and Internet driven and urban are incorrect.  As he notes: “by that exclusion you also exclude a very big aspect of what it is about.”

NORRIS: You’re here in this country in part to describe what happened in Egypt. Are there things that happened there that people don’t well understand? Here, when there are large uprisings or large news events like this, a popular narrative takes hold and sometimes it’s correct and sometimes it’s not completely correct.

Mr. AL FATTAH: I think a lot of it is misunderstood and misrepresented in both internationally and even locally from the framing of this as an Internet-led revolution to a framing that it’s a youth revolution. All of that is based on the aspects of reality, but it excludes the majority of the people who participated in the revolution.

And by that exclusion, you also exclude a very big aspect of what it is about. And also, there’s a lot of focus on Tahrir while you had the majority of the revolution was happening outside of Cairo. And some of its most amazing stories were in – there were six towns that were completely autonomous after the third day of the uprising, and people had to manage the cities and had to organize themselves to keep the cities functioning. And that experience is amazing, and it’s not really being discussed.

Two important questions flow from al Fattah’s interesting observations. One is about what is left out of the popular narrative of the uprising as high tech and youth driven. And the second question is why? What is the function of the high tech narrative?

One kind of answer is supplied by Mona el-Ghobashy. Writing in Middle East Report earlier this spring, the Barnard political science professor outlines “the reality … that Egyptians had been practicing collective action for at least a decade” preceding the 2011 events, although their increasing political sophistication was repeatedly characterized as the effect of economic pain Egyptian officials.  While social media and mobile phones enabled the synchronization of protests on January 25, it was this ‘invisible’ history that shaped a people capable of such effective demonstrations they toppled a police regime.

As for why the high tech, youth driven narrative holds such sway in Western media: To a degree it reflects a kind of vanity we hold about ourselves. In the United States, in particular,  it is hard for us to imagine political sophistication in parts of the world we do not know well, or what it looks like. So we imagine revolutions in the image of ourselves we like best: as an eternally young (vis-a-vis Europe) country whose technologies have enabled and inspired the rest of the world. In one version of the Egyptian uprising, we see a satisfying reflection of the kind of revolution we would have liked to inspire.

Posted in: Intercultural Communication, International Politics, Middle East, Political Analysis, Politics and Policy, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , ,

U.S. Should Stop Asking if “They Like Us”

The September 11 attacks spawned a public mania in the United States for uncovering whether people in other parts of the world “like us,” and if not, understand why they “hate us.” Ten years later, the U.S. State Department and, more broadly, national security community is still using this uninformative metric.

It is time to break down what the question “do you like the United States” actually means to those who we ask —whether directly through polling, or through the interpretation of symbolic actions (signs, flag burning) or the aggregation of media statements, or in any other fashion.

Most people in the world, especially those of greatest strategic interest to the U.S., cannot answer whether they like the United States based on personal information or knowledge. Despite rising international travel to the United States, most of the 60 million foreign visitors last year came from just five countries: Canada, Mexico, the UK, Japan and Germany.

The number of those who can answer based on a sense of intellectual or cultural proximity is equally small. The common wisdom since World War II is that American popular culture—movies, television shows, McDonald’s—is loved abroad, even when American policies are not. Globalization encourages competition and hybridization of cultural forms. Economics professor Tyler Cowan has argued that the “21st century will bring a broad mélange of influences, with no clear world cultural leader.” Continue reading

Posted in: Intercultural Communication, International Politics, Middle East, National Security, Politics and Policy, Public Diplomacy Tags: , , , , ,

NY Times tells the Story of the Story of Obama’s Mideast Speech


The degree to which communication’s globalization has changed the way we think and talk about the news is evident in today’s reporting on Obama’s Middle East speech.  Once upon a time, communication-via newspaper, radio, what have you—was considered a transparent vehicle conveying to readers and listeners what was happening on the ground.

Not so any longer. Now we are in full postmodern swing and “the news” highlights not only things that happen in the world (like presidential speeches), but how they are worded, and who these words are supposed to impact, and how different audiences may interpret what is said.  The fact is that these elements of communication always mattered, but the speed and visibility of our interactions with those elements has helped press into relief the degree to which they play a part in how events themselves (like peace talks, political decisions, elections, wars) unfold.  All of this made the concept of narrative more important—narrative is the elements of communication in action, all working together on a jointly constructed story of events unfolding in real time, and it also the interplay of that construction with events themselves. Continue reading

Posted in: International Politics, Middle East, National Security, Political Analysis, Politics and Policy Tags: , , , ,

“Global Drops out of “War on Terror” in post-bin Laden Narrative

When President Obama addressed the nation and the world last night to report Osama bin Laden’ death, I was surprised by the absence of a global element in his message.  Obama is known for his multilateral, global approach to foreign affairs, and it the lens through which he seems most comfortable framing American actions in the world.  The war waged by the Bush Administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was relentlessly globalized, as the name “global war on terror” suggested.  And it has been a consistent thread in U.S. messaging to remind those in the Middle East and Central Asia, and elsewhere, that bin Laden’s brand of global jihad killed more Muslims than any other group.

Obama’s message last night made a strange reversal.  The larger narrative framing the search for and killing of bin Laden was emphatically Americanized.

The effect of this framing, if there is any, remains to be seen.   In the global swirl of fast moving media, not to mention events, the President’s words may soon fall away as memorable in the global context.  Or they may be picked up—Afghans, Iraqis and Pakistanis as may wonder how much of the brunt of an effort reconceptualized as primarily American they must be called to bear.

We can be sure however, that the reminder that Obama was at the helm during this moment of American bravery is intended as a formative statements in the story of his presidency, which is now being written in advance of the 2012 presidential elections.

Posted in: Middle East, National Security, Political Analysis, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , ,