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.