Great power politics and strategic narratives of war
Despite possessing overwhelming military capabilities, war presents Great Powers with complex problems. The study of communication is central to understanding the challenges Great Powers face in conflict. This chapter illustrates how Great Powers are constrained by strategic narratives even as they attempt to address challenges through the projection of strategic narrative. We define strategic narrative as a means for political actors to construct a shared meaning of the past, present, and future of international politics to shape the behavior of domestic and international actors. Strategic narratives are used to legitimate action and reinforce domestic support as well as being instrumentalized to challenge the counternarratives of foes. States and other actors attempt to create “buy-in” for their narratives across a range of policy issues as they seek to shape responses to problems and to influence the direction of global order and its governance more broadly. In the policy issue of war and conflict, strategic narratives exist in a complex media ecology which has ushered in a new paradigm of war characterized by more diffuse causal relations between action and effect, creating greater uncertainty for policy-makers about the conduct of war (Hoskins and O’Loughlin 2010, 3). By media ecology we refer to the whole complex of interdependent relationships through which communication is generated, circulated, and interpreted in world politics. Thirty years ago we could speak confidently of national and local ecologies with news cycles held together by mainstream press and broadcasting. Today, once we add the mesh of Internet, 24/7 rolling news, smartphone comments, environment monitoring systems, and all other media that feed into communication about politics, then we find the continuation of local and national media ecologies but these are supplemented and reconfigured by overlapping small worlds of localized digital exchanges and transnational vectors of multilingual content and unforeseeable connectivity. Great Powers must harness these ecologies to ensure the success of their strategic narrative whilst fulfilling the expectations of constituencies at home and abroad about how Great Powers should behave in the first place. They must communicate their narrative into spaces within which people already hold on to narratives about their own lives and those of their countries
and communities. In this way, Great Powers are tangled in webs of narrative whilst simultaneously seeking to shape the narrative terrain. Our argument distinguishes our approach to strategic narrative from those of Betz and Freedman in this volume. We argue that the role of strategic narrative can only be explained when we break narratives up into three types: system narratives concerning the past, present, and future of the international system as a whole; identity narratives concerning the identity and character of actors in the system; and policy narratives about specific domains such as war, economy, and climate change. In this way we situate strategic narratives within the broader study of international relations. Certainly war and conflict are one domain in which we find strategic narratives. But putting strategic narrative in this broader context brings two advantages. First, attention to strategic narratives helps us understand more fundamental dilemmas in international relations concerning alliance management, institution-building, and power transition. Second, by analyzing strategic narratives of war alongside system and identity narratives we can identify how incongruence between these narrative types undermines support for war or brings confusion to a state’s identity management when faced with the prospect of intervention or defeat. The identity narratives of the U.S. and USSR stemming from their understanding of a bipolar Cold War system then unipolar post-Cold War system compelled them to narrativize their war efforts in particular ways. It is not that Betz and Freedman are unaware of these dynamics. Betz writes of strategic narrative as “multilayered and interlocking” and Freedman’s overview draws attention to broader system narratives and to the narratives states hold about their own identities. However, once their analysis begins, war narratives are treated in isolation from these other narrative layers and types. Ultimately, the project of studying strategic narratives of war by focusing only on the battlefield, on military communications, and on public opinion is a project that will fail on its own terms while offering little to expand our wider understanding of international relations, security studies, or communication studies. This chapter first discusses strategic narratives broadly, highlighting important conceptual issues. In the second section, we turn to international system narratives about Great Powers, arguing that Great Powers are constrained by and because of narratives about what characteristics, interests, and roles they should have in the international system. In addition, Great Powers are constrained by their own identity narratives, especially within a domestic political context. Great Power narratives, however, can also serve as a resource, as we outline. In the third section we turn more specifically to strategic narrative construction about war, demonstrating that one cannot understand the conduct of war without understanding how narratives pass through media ecologies. We illustrate the importance and complicated nature of strategic narratives about Great Powers during war by highlighting cases of U.S. alliance maintenance
related to the Afghan War and international decisions taken on Libya in 2011. We conclude by raising the question of whether this new media ecology has fundamentally changed the way Great Powers can function in war.