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.

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