tag 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: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Behavioral Economics Go to War

Review of Behavioural Conflict, Why Understanding People and their Motivations Will Prove Decisive in Future Conflict, by Andrew Mackey and Steve Tatham

I cannot think of any books about warfare’s future that come across as hard-hitting, full of actionable pragmatism, and deeply humane all at the same time.  But Behavioral Conflict: Why Understanding People and their Motivations will Prove Decisive in Future Conflict is all three.  The authors, both career members of the British military, Major General Andres Mackey (Ret) and Royal Navy Commander Steve Tatham (who I count as a friend, having met him in Ankara a few years ago), make their case by drawing on a combination of their own experience, case studies and close analysis of how communication actually factors in war.

Hard-hitting and pragmatic:  Mackey and Tatham are precise and lucid about what they mean by “behavior” and how to make use of it to gain advantage in conflict. They, and behavioral psychologist Lee Rowland, who adds a chapter on the science of influence, are not putting forth any of the following: A call for greater “cultural awareness,” a mushy program about how to change others’ attitudes, or a repeat of the last decade’s focus on consumer marketing as the key to public diplomacy.   They offer instead this thesis based on a simple chain of claims:

  • The world of human motivation and perception is inevitably complex.
  • It is more important to try to shape behavior than it is to change people’s attitudes.
  • Behavior shaping begins with a discrete grasp of the circumstances under which people already behave in ways that are desirable, and extends to efforts to replicate those or similar circumstances. Continue reading

Posted in: Books & Films, Decision making, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, Narrative Research, National Security, Politics and Policy, Strategic Leadership, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Announcement: U.S. State Department Strategic Narratives Public Meeting

At the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, CA, November 29

From the State Department Announcement:

The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy will hold a public meeting on the topic of strategic narratives November 29, 2011, in Santa Monica, CA, in partnership with the RAND Corporation. The meeting will take place at the RAND offices at 1776 Main Street in Santa Monica, CA, in the Forum Auditorium. It will begin at 9:00 am and end at 3:00 p.m. with doors open for registration and continental breakfast at 8:30 a.m. The event will be webcast live and will emphasize open-forum question and response periods with the audience.

To attend, contact the RAND Corporation no later than November 21 by phone at (412)683-2300 ext 4906 or email to maria_falvo@rand.org and provide your full name, citizenship (U.S. citizenship is not required to attend), and institutional/organizational affiliation. Continue reading

Posted in: Conferences, Narrative Research, National Security, Politics and Policy, Public Diplomacy, War and Violent Conflict 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: , , , , , , , , ,

Egypt Uprising Narrative as Youth, New Media Driven: Wrong

Ala' 'Abd al Fatah (image courtesy of Wikimedia and Manalaa.net 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: , , , , , ,

Egypt Narrative Promises a Long Unfolding

The story of the Egyptian demonstrations continues to unfold (photograph courtesy of Rami Raoof under Creative Commons license)The story of the Egyptian demonstrations continues to unfold (photograph courtesy of Rami Raoof under Creative Commons license)

The current events unfolding in Cairo offer little in the way of narrative comfort. Instead, news commentators, analysts, even participants—weighing in breathlessly from the street on Twitter or Al Jazeera—seem struck by ambiguous meaning of events. Is looting spontaneous or sponsored by the Mubarak government to provoke requests for government protection? There are no clear successors to a Mubarak government, and no clear mechanism for a non-military succession. Why have the police abandoned the protests?

Continue reading

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