One area of research in Foreign Policy Analysis is the study of war. In contemporary wars strategic narratives provide a grid for interpreting the why, what and how of the conflict in persuading story lines to win over various audiences – both in the area of operations and at home. The point of departure for scholars utilizing the concept of strategic narrative is that people make sense of war by means of stories through which shared sense is achieved. A strategic narrative presents a construct in the form of a story to create a shared meaning of the past, present and future and to interpret a presented obstacle and a desired end-point. Political elites can utilize narratives strategically to tie together otherwise disjointed events and structure the responses of others to developing events by providing an interpretative structure through which the war can be understood.
The concept of narrative fits neatly within the increased focus of scholars to study the non-physical aspects of war in order to try to explain why “big nations lose small wars.” One of the central arguments in the debate is that, in contemporary wars that no longer end with a victory parade through the enemy’s capital, it is increasingly important to explain what success will look like to the local population, opponents, the international audience and the public at home, and to convince them of the official storyline. A key development in the debate was Lawrence Freedman’s introduction of narrative into strategic discourse in 2006. A vast body of literature on strategic narratives has been published since. We’ve created a reading list of books and journal articles so that you can read some of the latest ideas on the subject.
‘Fighting the War at Home: Strategic Narratives, Elite Responsiveness, and the Dutch Mission in Afghanistan, 2006–2010’ published in Foreign Policy Analysis. George Dimitriu and Beatrice de Graaf demonstrate that political elites can shape public opinion with regard to the use of force by strategic narratives. They suggest that narrative dominance (the combination of narratives and counternarratives) accounts for the waxing and waning of public support in the Netherlands for the Afghan mission. They explain the political consequences of dominating counternarratives and the ensuing drop of public consent by introducing the notion of “elite responsiveness”.
‘The War That Wasn’t There? Italy’s “Peace Mission” in Afghanistan, Strategic Narratives and Public Opinion’ published in Foreign Policy Analysis. Fabrizio Coticchia and Carolina De Simone assert that existing cultural perceptions of frames on strategic affairs are crucial to incorporate in the manufacturing of strategic narratives.
‘Public Contestation and Policy Resistance: Canada’s Oversized Military Commitment to Afghanistan’ published in Foreign Policy Analysis. Justin Massie shows that ineffective strategic narratives and strategic subcultures explain Canadian public opposition to Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan. Second, elite consensus, and hence an unmobilized public opinion, best accounts for Ottawa’s policy unresponsiveness.
The Transformation of Strategic Affairs by Lawrence Freedman discusses the complexity of fighting irregular wars and the imperative role of compelling narratives in order to explain events convincingly to different audiences.
In War from the Ground up Emile Simpson argues that strategy doesn’t merely need to orchestrate military actions, but also construct the interpretive structure which gives them meaning and links them to the end of policy. The key is to match military actions and words so as to influence target audiences to a given strategic narrative.
In ‘Strategic Narratives, Public Opinion and War: Winning domestic support for the Afghan War’, Beatrice De Graaf, George Dimitriu and Jens Ringsmose (eds.) explore the way governments endeavoured to build and maintain public support for the war in Afghanistan, combining new theories on the origin and effects of strategic narratives with a collection of thirteen case studies on the effects of strategic narratives on the public opinion of the contributing countries on the Afghan War.
In Strategy, a History Lawrence Freedman traces the origin of strategy as a special kind of narrative. Since the 1960s and 1970s the idea has come into vogue that wars couldn’t be controlled by means of a central plan. Convergence has since grown around the idea that best strategic practice may consist of forming compelling strategic narratives of how to turn a developing situation into desirable outcome. Freedman notes that strategy is increasingly conceptualised as an interpretative framework and a constructed story in the future tense to give meaning to events.
‘The virtual dimension of contemporary insurgency and counterinsurgency’ published in Small Wars & Insurgencies. David Betz explains that the West is faltering in the ‘War of Ideas’ as their messages lack narrative coherence while their opponents and belligerents manufacture strategic narratives which are more compelling and better at structuring the responses of audiences to the development of events.
‘Shaping public attitudes towards the deployment of military power: NATO, Afghanistan and the use of strategic narratives’ published in European Security. Jens Ringsmose and Berit Kaja Børgesen argue that public support for a given military mission can be shaped by political leaders by means of strategic narratives. Their research suggest that strong strategic narratives increase the likelihood of popular support, while weak story lines are likely to result in a souring public opinion environment.
In Strategic narrative: A new means to understand soft power, Alister Miskimmon, Ben O’Loughlin and Laura Roselle provide an intellectual exercise along the complexities of international politics today, especially in regard to how influence works in the new media environment. They believe that the study of media and war would benefit from more attention being paid to strategic narratives, which they understand as a communicative tool for political actors to construct a shared meaning and to shape the perceptions, beliefs and behaviour of the public.
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