Tag: narrative

How stories matter: Thoughts on contextuality, temporality, reflexivity & certainty

In early September, the circulation of the now iconic picture of Alan Kurdi, the little Syrian Kurdish boy who drowned along with his mother and brother in the attempt to cross the Aegean Sea, prompted me to write a post reflecting on what ‘we’ as academics might do. I argued that we could, possibly, use “our knowledge of global affairs to connect the dots and lay bare how Alan’s story” is emblematic of so many themes we touch upon in our research – and indeed, the moment created by the (ethically difficult) circulation of the picture became an opening to provide depth and nuance for those willing to listen.

Screenshot 2015-12-29 16.25.39I suggested that, if academics wanted to do ‘something’ in response, this something might include telling “the stories of all the children who died crossing the Mediterranean – and their parents and grandparents, and aunts, and uncles.” Now, it would be presumptuous to think that Anne Barnard of the New York Times read my post (and she is not an academic either), but imagine my delight to see her piece on the Kurdi family’s journeys published yesterday.

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#BringBackOurGirls, Feminist Solidarity & Intervention – Part Two

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 12.52.27 PMMy first post on the Duck focused on the emergence of the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag and campaign, pointing also to the ease with which hashtags can get appropriated and campaigns derailed. Yesterday, #BringBackOurGirls Nigeria (@BBOG_Nigeria on twitter) started a one week campaign to mark 500 days since the abduction.

Given the continuation of the campaign, in today’s post I want to dig a bit deeper in examining the urge to do “something”: Why do some events capture our attention while others fail to produce any kind of reaction? What kind of reactions are helpful? And – for whom?

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Strategic narratives: An uncertain science

Timing is everything; I’m not sure its good to be publishing a paper about strategic narratives just as the US cuts its Advisory Commission on Public Dipomacy, although RAND have begun exploring this field. National-level policymakers still try to tell stories about where their state and the international system are heading and should head. To the extent these narratives create expectations, shore up identities, create buy-in from partners, or have other discernible effects, we can say strategic narratives matter. The investment states have made in their international communications infrastructures in the past decade indicates the hope that aspiring or existing Great Powers can get their story out to overseas publics and elites. At the same time, sometimes just having an ambassador who carries his own bag can create a good impression. The ‘science’ of strategic narratives remains uncertain.

Hence, colleagues and I are trialing a working paper ‘Forging the World: Strategic Narratives and International Relations’, available to download here. It is authored by Alister Miskimmon (Royal Holloway), myself and Laura Roselle (Elon/Duke), and is based on the keynote Miskimmon and I delivered to International Studies Association (ISA) South at Elon University in October 2011. It comes from our long disatisfaction with how IR scholars treat media, communications and questions of influence, and how media and communications neglect many of the power dynamics of IR. It also comes from our experience working with foreign policymakers as they try to show measurable ‘impact’ of the narratives, and their attempts to harness new digital methods to monitor overseas public opinion. We plan to publish a book developing these ideas late in 2012, and we have panels on the subject at ISA San Diego in April and BISA/ISA Edinburgh in June with some great scholars (Neta Crawford, Karin Fierke, Antje Weiner, Robin Brown, Monroe Price, Amelia Arsenault), so if you’re interested in please come along or look for the papers. For now, we’d really appreciate it if the Duck commentariat have comments on the paper.


Narrative Horror and the Downfall of Leaders #1: Rupert Murdoch

You have devoted your life to creating a great empire, one that stretches around the world and wields influence over politics and culture in a number of countries. Decades of criticism and conspiracy about the pernicious effects of your empire only testify to your importance. You have groomed your successors and shaped the climate they will work within. Biographers will not be able to knock the magnitude of your achievements. Your story is written. You are legendary, a mythical figure in your lifetime, hated, loved, known. So imagine the agony of losing this reputation in a single act and finding that all you built can be swept swiftly away. Instead of being remembered as a great empire builder you’ll be remembered for a single, tawdry episode. The horror!

International relations is full of leaders and legends who achieved much but will be remembered for a totally different and humiliating reason. The Spanish novelist Javier Marias calls this narrative horror:

Its what we call “vergüenza torera”, literally, “a bullfighter’s sense of shame” … Because bullfighters, of course, have loads of witnesses, a whole arena full, plus sometimes a TV audience of millions, so it’s perfectly understandable that they should think: “I’d rather leave here with a ruptured femoral artery or dead than be thought a coward in the presence of all these people who will go on to talk about it endlessly and for ever.” Bullfighters fear narrative horror like the plague, that final defining wrong move, they really care about how their lives end.

And ‘it’s the same with … almost any other public figure’ – the retired pop star whose paedophilia is suddenly and definitively public, the movie star whose career is eclipsed by a racist outburst or car chase, the president whose eight years in office will be remembered for a misplaced cigar, the international office holder for whom a graphic accusation of rape is never exorcised from the public mind.

It is these single tawdry episodes that Marias writes of, but I wonder if narrative horror is looming for Rupert Murdoch. There are many hoping that we are at the beginning of a chain reaction episode that will bring the downfall of his News International business and potentially his wider News Corps empire in the US, Australia and Asia. It seems the editors and journalists of his UK newspapers operated an institutionalized practice of bribing police and hacking into the voicemails of anyone newsworthy, including murdered schoolchildren and dead soldiers, not to say the sitting Prime Minister’s bank account and the medical records of his ill children. The ingenious practices that have made his UK newspapers so successful became – inside a week – the disgusting practices that force him to start shutting those newspapers down. His bid to take over the pay-TV operator BSkyB is now opposed by all parties. Such a twist in the larger tale of his empire-building can only be a blow to Murdoch’s pride.

If this has happened in other countries, a new mythology will quickly form, especially as these practices have long been suspected. The troubling links in the UK between News International and the current Prime Minister’s choice of press officers raises questions about a new iron triangle of press, police and political leaders that exerts control of public information that could be replicated anywhere institutional arrangements allow. Murdoch failed to contain the crisis in the UK, now he must fear contagion. The sense of narrative horror must be setting in.

Under this pressure, will Murdoch say or do something that will obliterate his life story so far? We might think this unlikely – he’s too smooth an operator, too experienced, and his reporters know where everyone’s bodies are buried. But Marias’ point is that you cannot know your own face tomorrow – what you are capable of, and how you will look to others. We have a parallel, private or theoretical self who could break through any moment and ruin all our hard work and public reputation. How far will this go and how will he react? Parliament has called for him to give evidence next week. It is a chance for the final defining wrong move.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of International Relations is that the decisions leaders make aren’t fully explained by their rational reading of structural forces or immediate conditions. Life intervenes: character and psychology, personal glory and horror, boldness and panic. So I’ll call this Narrative Horror #1 and invite contributions about other leaders who lost it all – or who found a way out.


A Truth Commission for Iraq

Back in 2003, the name Ricardo Sanchez appeared in several posts on my personal blog. At the time, the now-retired General was “the top U.S. military official in Iraq.”

Over the years, Sanchez provided honest and forthright assessments of the Iraq war. Even though I didn’t always agree with his analysis of what should be done, I respected his contributions to the political debate. Lately, he’s been pushing a “truth commission” for Iraq and I think that the U.S. should pursue something like that to document the course of the Iraq war.

Sanchez’s evolving views of the Iraq war are worth outlining.

In October 2003, Sanchez pointed out that violence in Iraq was increasing, despite political figures at home bragging about improved life without Saddam Hussein. In November of that year, Sanchez used the word “war” to describe the post-“mission accomplished” environment in Iraq.

In October 2007, Sanchez gave a fairly prominent speech that was very critical of the Bush administration’s prosecution of the Iraq war.

From a catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic war plan to the Administration’s latest surge strategy, this Administration has failed to employ and — and synchronize its political, economic, and military power. The latest revised strategy is a desperate attempt by the Administration that has not accepted the political and economic realities of this war and they have definitely not been able to communicate effectively that reality to the American people.

He continued by adding, “There has been a glaring, unfortunate, display of incompetent strategic leadership within our national leaders.” In his view, too many decisions about the war reflected partisanship rather than the needed cooperation and bipartisanship needed to achieve success.

He criticized, for instance, “inept coalition management” and all-around “failure” by the National Security Council. The speech was a little short on detail, but Sanchez clearly thought that there was plenty of blame to go around. The “greatest failures in this war can be linked to America’s lack of commitment, priority, and moral courage in this war effort.” Specifically, “America must hold all national agencies accountable for developing and executing the political and economic initiatives that will bring about stability, security, political, and economic hope for all Iraqis.”

In his memoir, published a few years ago, Sanchez said that the Bush administration “led America into a strategic blunder of historic proportions.”

Most recently, Sanchez has been calling for a “truth commission” to investigate the torture and other abuses that occurred in Iraq. “If we do not find out what happened,” he says “then we are doomed to repeat it.”

I’ve been thinking about Sanchez’s “truth commission” a great deal lately because of the fact that the Obama administration, pro-war Republicans (not the Ron Paul wing, small as it is) and the Army have together embraced a narrative crediting “the surge” with making Iraq a success story after all. Obama’s own “surge” in Afghanistan commits his administration to the Iraq example. Republicans get to pretend that the Iraq war wasn’t a horrible mistake from the planning stages and the Army saves face and avoids a Vietnam-like diminution of its relevance and credibility.

I’ve blogged about the flaws in this logic previously. Additionally, Andrew Bacevich’s latest book deftly explains why this narrative is inaccurate — though he acknowledges its prominence.

What could correct the narrative? Maybe only Sanchez’s imagined truth commission. Unfortunately, while the UK conducted a war inquiry, I do not expect to see anything like it in the USA.


Identifying Groupthink

Many of the Journolist critics have expressed concerns that the listserv’s membership — you had to be political “center to left” to join — fomented groupthink.

Andrew Sullivan’s critique is succinct, but he’s hardly alone in leveling the charge: “It is this tendency to groupthink and exclusivity that concerns me.”

Reihan Salam, who was generally sympathetic to Journolist in an on-line piece he wrote last week, has recalibrated his argument to criticize J-list about the alleged groupthink problem:

What I meant to say, and evidently didn’t say very effectively, is that JList is inevitable. So the best we can do is criticize pernicious groupthink, which is where the tendency of “like-minded people become friends and start to think even more alike and help each other out” goes badly wrong.

The irony, of course, is that this widely embraced criticism (and a few others) — emanating mostly from opinion writers on the right, but resonating throughout the right-wing blogosphere and other media outlets — actually reflects the kind of pack journalism the critics purport to be criticizing.

Of course, critics have lept to this conclusion without any real evidence. Only a tiny fraction of the more than 10,000 Journolist emails have been reproduced publicly and no one has demonstrated that the listmembers (like me) unthinkingly mimiced any kind of ideological line in their public writing.

There is actually another important example of hypocrisy embedded in Salam’s latest piece as well, as the young writer reveals his early days in journalism:

I did work at The New Republic as an intern in 2001, and I spent most of my time there, and as a freelancer the year after, beating the drum for the invasion of Iraq.

Political scientists argued as early as the 2002 buildup to war that the Iraq war drums reflected groupthink. First impressions were apparently accurate — and the media played along with the dominant narrative.

As one final point, keep in mind that “groupthink” worrywart Andrew Sullivan embraced the Iraq war like my sister once embraced David Cassidy.


Bailing out the bailout

Rachel Maddow just asked perhaps the most insightful question of this bailout to date: Is this economic crisis global warming or the Iraq War? Is it a real crisis that builds slowly that people fail to acknowledge, or is it a bunch of hype and hysteria over what is, in the end, nothing.

Laura D’Andrea Tyson says that this credit crunch is real and real bad, and your job is at risk. Its not a bail-out, but a rescue of a broken market.

Therein lies the rub. I think there are two fundamental issues that have doomed the bailout bill earlier today.

First, this is a really complicated mess, and no one understands what is actually going on. Who among you actually understands credit-default swaps, or the leveraging of commercial paper for mortgage-backed securities? Not me. Probably not you. One of the major difficulties here is that there is no story to explain what is happening, leaving no reason to justify the extraordinary actions necessary to save the economic markets. There’s a lot of assigning of blame, but there’s little explanation of what actually is the problem. I’m not saying that there needs to be a blue-ribbon commission producing a report. Rather, what is needed is a narrative that makes sense of what is going on in such a way that people can actually understand what is happening and that justifies a response. All we have now is a series of bank failures, the biggest drop in the Dow ever, and a back and forth of Presidential politics.

So what has actually happened? Two items have broken through: 1) people can’t pay mortgages and 2) wall street bankers made some poor bets. Neither of these really sounds all that drastic, and neither of these really calls out for action. People are annoyed with others who borrowed over their heads when they were responsible, but its hard to blame families for tough economic times. No one really has any sympathy for Wall Street.

The massive problems that remain–the credit crunch, the insolvency of key financial instruments, the potential lack of cash for business operations, this is much more significant but much less of the story. If a rescue operation is going to have any chance of success, its proponents need to develop a narrative on the crisis before they can sell the solution.

Second, this is a “bailout.” Of Wall Street, no less. No one likes to bail-out fat cats who make poor decisions. Except that at this point its far beyond a bailout, its rescue of a broken financial system by extensive nationalization, regulation, and government intervention. This intervention needs another frame. FDR, who has re-emerged as everyone’s favorite President these days, was an expert at this. The New Deal socialized large parts of the economy. Lend-Lease paved the way for entry into World War II. But Roosevelt was expert in telling the American People that, when your neighbor’s house is on fire, you give them the hose now and worry about payment later.

This is more than a bailout, its a rescue of a broken system on the verge of collapse. Except that you wouldn’t know that from the event itself. If Congress and the Administration are going to rescue the economy, they need a plausible narrative of what is going on to explain the seriousness of the problem and to form the basis of a political coalition. Then they need to start talking about a government rescue to save the economy, and drop all this Wall Street bailout jargon.


Why its so difficult to debate the war in Iraq

Over at Early Warning, William Arkin has generated incredible traffic to his site–over 1500 comments on one post–over his recent posts on the Iraq war. Arkin took on a very central issue in our debate over the war, and in doing so, exposed the continued difficulty we as a nation have in developing a language to debate the war.

Arkin’s initial column noted how “the troops” in Iraq–the enlisted soldiers who bear the brunt of the fighting in this war–are reacting to the rising criticism of the war:

Friday’s NBC Nightly News included a story from my colleague and friend Richard Engel, who was embedded with an active duty Army infantry battalion from Fort Lewis, Washington.

Engel relayed how “troops here say they are increasingly frustrated by American criticism of the war. Many take it personally, believing it is also criticism of what they’ve been fighting for.”

First up was 21 year old junior enlisted man Tyler Johnson, whom Engel said was frustrated about war skepticism and thinks that critics “should come over and see what it’s like firsthand before criticizing.”

“You may support or say we support the troops, but, so you’re not supporting what they do, what they’re here sweating for, what we bleed for, what we die for. It just don’t make sense to me,” Johnson said.

Next up was Staff Sergeant Manuel Sahagun, who is on his second tour in Iraq. He complained that “one thing I don’t like is when people back home say they support the troops, but they don’t support the war. If they’re going to support us, support us all the way.”

Next was Specialist Peter Manna: “If they don’t think we’re doing a good job, everything that we’ve done here is all in vain,” he said.

Note what’s going on here. In all of his messages to “the troops,” President Bush and his senior military leadership have continually emphasized the centrality of the war in Iraq to the war on terrorism and the need to defeat terrorists in Iraq in order to guarantee the safety and future of the United States. These soldiers identify with their mission to such an extent that they take any criticism of the mission as an attack on themselves. And, indeed, at a certain level, they need to identify with their mission in this way in order to make any sense of why they are there and what they are doing. Arkin recognizes the problem:

I’ll accept that the soldiers, in order to soldier on, have to believe that they are manning the parapet, and that’s where their frustrations come in. I’ll accept as well that they are young and naïve and are frustrated with their own lack of progress and the never changing situation in Iraq. Cut off from society and constantly told that everyone supports them, no wonder the debate back home confuses them.

However, its when Arkin makes a critical remark about the make-up of today’s military and who owes who what that he opens up the real can of worms:

So, we pay the soldiers a decent wage, take care of their families, provide them with housing and medical care and vast social support systems and ship obscene amenities into the war zone for them, we support them in every possible way, and their attitude is that we should in addition roll over and play dead, defer to the military and the generals and let them fight their war, and give up our rights and responsibilities to speak up because they are above society?

…But it is the United States, and the recent NBC report is just an ugly reminder of the price we pay for a mercenary – oops sorry, volunteer – force that thinks it is doing the dirty work.

The notion of dirty work is that, like laundry, it is something that has to be done but no one else wants to do it. But Iraq is not dirty work: it is not some necessary endeavor; the people just don’t believe that anymore.

…America needs to ponder what it is we really owe those in uniform. I don’t believe America needs a draft though I imagine we’d be having a different discussion if we had one.

This generated some 900 comments to his blog at washingtonpost.com.
Now, Arkin knew what he was doing, and did it on purpose, intending to make a very important point. He initialy responded:

I knew when I used the word “mercenary” in my Tuesday column that I was being highly inflammatory.

NBC News ran a piece in which enlisted soldiers in Iraq expressed frustration about waning American support.

I intentionally chose to criticize the military and used the word to incite and call into question their presumption that the public had a duty to support them. The public has duties, but not to the American military.

So I committed blasphemy, and for this seeming lack of respect and appreciation for individuals in uniform, I have been roundly criticized and condemned.

Mercenary, of course, is an insult and pejorative, and it does not accurately describe the condition of the American soldier today. I sincerely apologize to anyone in the military who took my words literally.

The point he wants to make is:

Those in uniform who think about and speak out about this predicament [Iraq] are rightly frustrated and angry. Many seem to find some solace in blaming the media or anti-war “leftists” or the Democratic Party or the liberals, or even an ungrateful or insufficiently martial American public.

But if those in the military are now going to argue that we are losing in Iraq because the military has lacked for Something, then the absence of such support should be placed at the feet of the Bush administration, Rumsfeld and company, and a Republican Congress — not on the shoulders of the American public, who have been nothing but supportive, even those who have opposed the war.

…When I hear soldiers and war supporters expressing their frustrations about the American public or the news media, something doesn’t quite seem right — even when the soldiers and war supporters aren’t talking about me. I know that those in uniform would like to bring the war to an honorable conclusion, but are they blaming those who are against the war and the news media for having tied their hands under a Bush administration which is certainly the most warrior-oriented in the past 20 years? Is there no space for respectful acceptance of the possibility that people who also love the nation and care about our security think that the country is wasting national treasure – lives and money – on an unwinnable cause?

There Arkin hits the the central issue on the nose. Is there no political / rhetorical space for one to argue that the best way to support the troops is to stop their leadership from doing any further to deepen American involvement in Iraq? Might the best way to support the troops be to bring them home?

Of course, here Arkin stumbles into the rhetorical trap laid by the Bush Administration. It generated over 1500 comments to his post. In this debate,

In the middle of all of this are the troops, the pawns in political battles at home as much as they are on the real battlefield. We unquestioningly “support” these troops for the very reasons that they are pawns. We give them what we can to be successful, and we have a contract with them, because they are our sons and daughters and a part of us, not to place them in an impossible spot.

And yet this is exactly what we have done. Its “the troops” who occupy an impossible spot in Iraq. They need all the best support we can offer them to do the impossible job they have been given. They believe–perhaps because they must, perhaps because they honestly do think so–that they can succeed if given the chance and if given just a little more help. A few brigades here, better Rules of Engagement there, more active patrols, more training, and “we” can turn the corner. So, all who want to support “the troops” who are our sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, (and in my case, an uncle) really want them to have every chance to succeed and don’t want to be put in the very uncomfortable position of saying no to them.

And this is just what the Administration wants, for it makes it next to impossible to have an honest debate about the role of the military in Iraq. Witness the recent debates in the Senate–the various resolutions under discussion for possible debate (only in the Senate…) talk about a lack of confidence in the mission and leadership but still promise to continue to fund the troops. The Democratic-led Senators want it both ways, and Bush (and his allies in Congress) are raking them over the coals for it, and the Democrats with any national ambition are caving over the resolution. Just notice McCain’s come-back–if you really believe the war is wrong, then why aren’t you just de-funding it and ending it now? While perhaps Russ Fiengold would support this, few others would, and once they conceed that–they won’t de-fund “the troops” but have serious problems with the way the war is being fought, they end up with the same problem as Arkin.

In his final words on the subject (a post which has a mere 600 comments), Arkin assesses the substantial criticism he has recieved, attempting to understand how those who have attacked make sense of the world and Arkin’s place in it:

As this line of argument goes, the soldiers themselves and those who have served in Iraq are the only ones who really know what it is like, what the war is about, and what should be done. The media in general and war opponents in particular intentionally and purposefully provide a negative and discouraging view that doesn’t comport with what the soldiers see, so goes this argument. But the bigger point is that any dissenting voices are just those of whores, politicians, tin foil hat liberals, or worse, un-Americans. In this view, there are no actual experts in this world, no one who studies and measures public opinion, no one who studies war or the military, who do not wear the uniform. This is not some post-modern relativism, it is pure anti-elitism. The elite think they know it all, while those who do all of the dirty work, who do all of the suffering, are methodically ignored and dominated.

Finally, commenters attack what I wrote as the work of Democrats and “liberals.” I’m lumped with Bill Clinton, that degenerate who decimated the military and the Kerry-Sheehan-Hillary-Gore-Pelosi evil axis, which now threatens more of the same. Fight back, the commenters say to their brethren. America for too long turned the other cheek against terrorism and now it is time not just to fight but to draw battle lines and show no mercy in that fight. They have, after all, shown no mercy for us.

In this narrative, I have spat upon the American soldier and thus America, called the true patriots naïve and un-educated. I have all the power and control all of the words and through my actions I enslave others and ensure that only my type and my class prospers.

The reconciliatory and peace-loving narrative is that only the soldiers are honorable and virtuous, and no matter how despicable I and my ilk are, they will still “save” me from the enemy. The evil narrative is that they will happily watch me die, serving not as protector but as judge of who can live and who does not deserve to.

Patrick has previously discussed the role of “expert” knowledge and offered a very insightful analysis into the anti-elitism, you’ve never been there so you don’t know what its like argument, and that’s not really the point I’m interested in discussing here. Rather, its Arkin’s second point, that what he is encountering are two versions of a larger narrative about those who criticize the troops. Its a narrative that the Bush Administration and its pro-Iraq war allies have spent the past 5 years articulating, reinforcing, supporting, and defending.

What “we”–as scholars of IR who study the role of language and narrative in world politics–have “found” in our work is that you can’t defeat a narrative simply by poking holes in it or finding flaws in its ability to explain this or that particular outcome. No, the way you combat a narrative is with another narrative. Creating real space for dissent requires developing, articulating, and promoting a counter-narrative in which that dissent makes sense.

Though the Bush administration continues to stick to its narrative about Iraq, the recent election and Bush’s record-low public approval ratings reveal discomfort with this narrative. The American public has its doubts. The time seems ripe for an alternative.

The problem the Democrats in Congress have is that, while they can offer alternative facts, figures, and even plans, they are having a real hard time offering an alternative narrative in which all the other stuff makes sense. Indeed, when Arkin calls for a “space” in which one can love his country and still think that the war in Iraq is a waste of blood and treasure, he is in a sense asking for an alternative narrative in which his dissent makes sense. We’ve seen the beginings of some of these narratives from the various presidential candidates, but the trick that they need to master is how to develop an alternative narrative of dissent that a) validates their earlier positions on the war, b) explains the current failure c) offers an imperative to leave Iraq and d) doesn’t offend those who they are counting on for Votes in 2008. That’s a tough road to hoe, and if any of you out there can square this circle, you’re really onto something.

As Arkin has discovered, entrenched narratives, even ones under siege, are stubborn and difficult to dislodge.


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