Monthly Archives: November 2015

Strategic Narratives and the Syrian refugee crisis

By: Carlos Diaz Barriga

Are “strategic narratives” something everyday publics can control or shape? Do publics, in a sense, “matter” more to the idea that strategic narratives get international actors to change their behavior or “see the world” differently? Why?

Strategic narratives can be influenced or shaped by the everyday public. The biggest force and the driver behind a strategic narrative is, of course, nations and their government agendas, but public opinion can change its course.

Let’s use as an example the Syrian refugee crisis and whether or not countries should take them in. The strategic narrative each country has taken varies a lot when comparing them. There’s hardly an article from a United States’ news site that doesn’t mention their ongoing issues with migration from countries like Mexico, or nations in Asia, when talking about if they should admit Syrian refugees and in what manner. This differs a lot when you look at how Germany has positioned itself in the media when it come to Syrian refugees. They’ve strategically used the situation to sell an image of an open and welcoming country.

Now, at the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis, the New York Times reported in September that Obama was under pressure to join European nations to accept more than 10,000 refugees into the United States. Part of that pressure came from the public, who thought the United States should be more welcoming to refugees. The audience was most likely being influenced by the strategic narrative that Germany positioned in the media, that nations should help each other and that this crisis was a humanitarian issue, not a political one.

Cut to November, where the horrible tragedy that fell down in Paris completely changed the American public opinion of the Syrian refugee crisis. Now, Obama is being pressured to limit the number of refugees allowed and having strict monitoring measures when they enter. Currently, most Americans oppose accepting refugees. Obama is now fighting with the House, with both Democrats and Republicans mixing the refugee issue with possible ISIS attacks. Obama, for his part, is brining in the narrative that Germany used, to position the issue as a humanitarian one, calling those that oppose the refugees as being “scared of widows and orphans.”

Miskimmon, O’Loughlin and Roselle argue that “narratives set the stage for understanding specific US foreign policies and actions.” This certainly seems to be the ongoing case with the refugee crisis.

The “Great Power” Narrative

What sorts of domestic “strategic narratives” do you think constrain the current administration in terms of foreign policy options and indeed, what the President can say about US foreign policy moving forward?

To understand how the Obama administration has used and manipulated strategic narratives, we first have to provide a clear definition of what strategic narratives are. For Miskimmon, O’Loughlin, and Roselle, “the point of strategic narratives is to influence the behavior of others.” They explain that “strategic narratives are a tool for political actors to extend their influence, manage expectations, and change the discursive environment in which they operate.” Strategic narratives develop at the crossroads of a state’s hard and soft power. Both of these spheres of influence define the state. The past implementation of, the present adherence to or separation from, and the future reinterpretation of these dual means set the framework for a state’s strategic narrative. States have set ideas of each others’ strategic narratives, just as citizens have general understanding of their state’s strategic narrative. States then fit into a larger system narrative. All of these elements come together to define international relations, through the lens of communication. While non-state actors also have their own strategic narratives, which are becoming increasingly significant, our global network is still built around state-based discourse. Therefore, it is essential for states to project their strategic narratives, both through words and actions, as a message of its intentions to both its domestic and foreign audience. Articulating this message, depending on the audience, is also essential for rallying support among your citizens and your allies.

In the case of the Obama, I think the greatest constraint on his ability to further the administration’s foreign policy objectives has been how rigidly set the U.S.’ strategic narrative is as a “great power,” particularly regarding our involvement in the Middle East. This narrative stems from the global polarity driven by the Cold War, with the U.S. establishing an “Us vs. Them” mentality, where we were the good guys in opposition to the Soviets and the scourge of communism. This was an easy narrative for the U.S. to pursue, as it provided citizens and allies with a clear choice and a clear goal. This “great power” narrative was reaffirmed with the fall of the Soviet Union, but the narrative was not transferred readily. It wasn’t until U.S. involvement in the Middle East – in particular, when Bush declared “War on Terrorism” and led military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq – that the narrative reemerged with as much support and vigor. A duality had made itself clear and the Cold War rhetoric was transferred from communism to Islamic extremism.

Miskimmon, O’Loughlin, and Roselle examine and contrast Bush’s National Security Strategies of 2002 and of 2006 as having stemmed from this narrative, but also refocused as it did not play out as imagined. The major shift they note is from the 2002 strategy’s mention of the U.S. as an unrivaled military power and its largely unilateral approach to targeting enemy powers in the region. Four years later, in the midst of wavering support, both at home and abroad, his strategy highlights the importance of the power of democracies and collectivism under shared values. In just under 3 years, the Obama administration then picked up where the Bush administration left off. Vowing for greater dialogue and less hard power, Obama reset the U.S.’ strategic narrative in the Middle East. Over the course of his 8 years, Obama has worked to adhere to the new narrative he entered office pursuing, from the removal of ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Iran Deal, but has also furthered this ongoing “great power” narrative, particularly with U.S. military involvement in Syria.

With just over a year left in his administration, the strategic narrative seems pretty well set for Obama to veer too far from the course of action in which it appears to dictate. Maybe in reexamining this FDR quote, which Obama sought to build his narrative on at the beginning of his appointment, can he better frame his foreign policy approach:

“The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man, or one party, or one Nation… It cannot be a peace of large nations – or of small nations. It must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.”

Miskimmon A., O’Loughlin, B, & Roselle L. (2014). Strategic narratives: Communication power and the new world order. Routledge.

The US and its conflicting strategic narratives in internet governance

Carlos Diaz Barriga

Do you think there are conflicting aspects of the “strategic narratives” that the US promotes around its internet governance policies? If so, why?

The United States government positions itself as a fighter for freedom and firmly opposed to censorship. However, their policies on surveillance of internet users in the US says otherwise.

The strategic narrative the US has created for themselves is “the country that puts free speech above everything.” They’re very critical on the way China limits its use of the internet for their citizens. They claim it’s censorship to not allow social networks like Facebook and Twitter over there.

At the same time, the US has very strict policies in how they monitor that “free speech” and heavy measures on that speech they deem dangerous. For years, the National Security Agency (NSA) has collected American’s private data in bulk without any consent. It was only until Edward Snowden became a whistleblower that the citizens became aware of the US government acting like Big Brother, a very different narrative than the one they had been cultivating in the media for years.

This is not to say the US and China are comparable in internet governance aspects. China is still extremely limiting in the way their citizens can use the internet and how people from all over the world can communicate with them online. China is a firm believer that a nation’s sovereignty also covers cyberspace and works to control network technology.

One can make the argument that the NSA spying is a “necessary evil” in order to combat terrorism. However, not many people agree: polls show the majority of Americans are against this type of surveillance.

Communism: A Manipulative Narrative

2) What sorts of domestic “strategic narratives” do you think constrain the current administration in terms of foreign policy options and indeed, what the President can say about US foreign policy moving forward?

In regards to foreign policy and relations there are few messages that have been more dogmatically asserted by the United States government in the past century than their anti-communist stance. The stigma of communism was vehemently injected into the U.S. population because its economic paradigm is so non-conducive to capitalism; self-sustainability vs. trade, public-ownership vs. private property, collectivism vs. individualism. And with this opinion, the strategic narrative imparted by the United States instilled a palpable fear into the minds of U.S. citizens, which was in turn, exacerbated by the “Red Scare,” McCarthyism, and the Cold War.

“Strategic narratives are 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 ... The point of strategic narratives is to influence the behavior of others.” [1]

Thus, this internal sentiment by U.S. citizens against communist countries helped propagate support for embargoes, violent actions and even war on communist countries; from the Soviet Union to North Korea to Vietnam to China to the communist regime currently in the U.S. foreign relations headlines, Cuba.

The strategic narrative the United States has propagated about Cuba since the revolution in 1959 has been both notorious and effective. Because of anti-communist sentiments an embargo has been held over Cuba since 1961, halting trade (including oil), travel (by U.S. citizens) and financial transactions (a major economic thorn that deterred foreign investment and international banking).

However, along with the easing of “time” in regards to the 54-year-old embargo, Obama has recently been pressed to lessen restrictions on Cuba by other Latin American countries who have established stronger ties with Cuba. These disapproving sentiments were made specifically clear at the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama, just months after Obama took steps to give his December 17, 2014 speech about reestablishing relations with Cuba.

In this speech, Obama said that he was “under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans,” and that he was convinced that “through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves.”

This, along with reopening the Cuban Embassy in D.C., the U.S. Embassy in Havana, and removing Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, the new U.S. narrative about Cuba has made a huge ‘90-miles of open ocean’ leap in strategy toward improving relations with Cuba, and subsequently, Latin American countries where trade and collaboration have been tense due to a plethora of factors; from the U.S. declaring Venezuela to be a “national threat” to the U.S. and Bolivia kicking out each other’s ambassadors in 2008.

The new U.S. Cuba narrative has indeed spawned controversy, but, on a brighter note, it’s also initiated its aim to influence the behavior of others.

Cuban activist and blogger, Yoani Sanchez wrote, “The official propaganda will run out of epithets. This has already been happening since the December 17 announcement of the reestablishment of relations between Washington and Havana took all of us by surprise. That equation, repeated so many times, of not permitting an internal dissidence or the existence of other parties because Uncle Sam was waiting for a sign of weakness to pounce on the island, is increasingly unsustainable … ‘Are they the enemy, or aren’t they?’ ask all those who, with the simple logic of reality, experienced a childhood and youth marked by constant paranoia toward that country on the other side of the Straits of Florida.” [2]

This is just one example of the effectiveness well strategized narratives can have on the mindset of individuals, domestic and international, and how the repercussions just might get the ball rolling to turn things in the strategists favor.

1. Miskimmon, Alister, Ben Loughlin, and Laura Roselle. Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013.

2. Sanchez, Yoani. “The Meaning of a U.S. Embassy in Havana.” The Atlantic. August 15, 2015. Accessed November 12, 2015.

Connectivity and Internet Literacy Are Not Linear

2) A thought-provoking (and related question): Should there be some form of internet technology and governance literacy? Given how central the internet is as a platform for politics, cultural, and social life – does the Internet require a different kind of citizenship responsibility?

The topic of internet literacy has been on my mind since I observed the repercussions … or more like the unbeknownst effects of internet illiteracy on the rural Paraguayan community I lived in while serving in the Peace Corps. Undoubtedly, however, internet illiteracy exists in the most connected countries as well, since connectivity and internet literacy do not have a linear correlation.

There are millions of people in developed and developing countries that have internet access, but whose “cyber capabilities” are at a novice level. I also want to point out that in contrast to school subjects, like reading, math and geography, internet literacy is such a new field in the context of human development that age does not equal experience. We can’t say, for example, “His cyber capabilities are at an eighth-grade level,” especially when the average eighth-grader in the United State would most likely have more cyber skill than the average 50-year-old.

So, while cyber capabilities aren’t related to age in the traditional sense, they are related to the cultural induction of cyber technologies in other aspects of life; banking, bill paying, registering for classes, shopping, socializing, etc., as a push to learn.

For example, a large portion of the middle-class families in my Paraguayan community had internet capable smart phones. However, their literacy was extremely weak. Why? The community hadn’t yet absorbed the internet as the leap-frogging technology it is capable of being in business, financial institutions, the government, or, most importantly, education. Thus, there were very few requirements put on Paraguayans to incorporate internet skills into their lives – specifically outside of the country’s urban centers.

Cyber capabilities are also related to language (*with the majority of websites being in English), affordability and the speed of an internet connection. And while these factors fall under the internet governance umbrella, if there is no cultural push to incorporate the internet, cyber know-how will definitely be stunted.

And being that the incorporation of the internet into a culture today is the most dire and disruptive technology in steps toward development and progress, it would be silly not to educate the illiterate … and yet online literacy still seems to be an ‘if you build it, it will come’ afterthought.

*According to a few unsubstantiated websites, and with “less than five percent of current world languages” being used online, wrote the Washington Post.