As Alister Miskimmon and Ben O’Loughlin assert in their work, narratives are central to human relations. They shape the world and constrain behavior. They are a loose script of detailing on how we should interact with our environment. This can be applied on both micro and macro levels. At a micro level example, a single individual can create a self-narrative of victimhood, ascribing it as part of his/her identity. This lens of reality will presumably affect how s/he interacts with others, validating his or her choices. On a macro level, nation states are no different. Governments are keenly aware that creating a narrative is an essential tool in diplomacy and foreign policy as it can provide legitimacy and set expectations. As Miskimmon and O’Loughlin write, “Strategic narratives are means for political actors to create a shared of the past, present and future of international politics to shape the behavior of domestic and international actors.” Besides simply having control on the information flow with media systems and crafting content, it is also important to create a conducive atmosphere. Narratives are a means for actors to extend influence, manage expectations and change the operating environment (Miskimmon and O’Loughlin). An essential part of priming an environment for strategic goals is being able to provide a context for citizens to understand actions. This is achieved, as the authors state, by creating a collective memory and identity within a nation and a space for establishing norms and rules in which to operate. The relationship between strategic narratives and policy is cyclically reinforcing. A national narrative influences and justifies policy, but policy will also strengthen the public’s conception of the narrative.
After World War II, the U.S. created a strategic narrative of being a world leader of democracy and a “liberator” of other nations. Under this narrative, it is the U.S.’ duty to mediate conflicts, spread ideals of freedom and lead the way for other nations. This narrative has persisted and supported the country’s turn to interventionist foreign policies. The nation transitioned from an isolationist framework, that marked the period between World War I and World War II, to becoming involved in other nation’s affairs even if it was not a direct threat to national security. Barbara Conry from the Cato Institute wrote, “…referring to Vietnam, America’s most ambitious intervention since World War II, one of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s top aides conceded that ‘it takes some sophistication to see how Vietnam automatically involves [our vital interests].’” While Vietnam was a failed war, the historical narrative conveyed to the public was “great powers did not lose, did not turn their back on their allies and acted with honor. Leaders designed and supported Vietnamization…” (Miskimmon and O’Loughlin). This framing of historical events at the time supported the U.S.’ strategic narrative of being a world leader and liberator for democracy, making it palatable to the public, but ignored the mass protests from citizens who could see the disjointedness between the narrative and the policy.
The post World War II narrative also symbiotically supported the locked competition with the Soviet Union. The rivalry fostered motivation for interventionist policies and adjusted the U.S. narrative to include a specific responsibility to fight against the spread of communism. Because the threat (an ideologically opposite, powerful country) and policy aligned with the narrative, it was widely accepted. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, along with the change in media ecology, the U.S.’ security strategies slightly shifted to incorporate changes in the international arena and to keep the national narrative relevant. According to Miskimmon and O’Loughlin, President George W. Bush set out to focus on combatting non-state actors and rogue states and how the U.S. needed to be involved.
The U.S. strategic narrative of being the world’s leader and liberator continues today. President Obama’s speech discussing Russia’s actions in Ukraine to the UN General Assembly last September is a prime example. The President said,
“Big nations and small must meet our responsibility to observe and enforce international norms…America stands for something different. We believe that right makes might—that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones; that people should be able to choose their own future…We call upon others to join us on the right side of history—for while small gains can be won at the barrel of a gun, they will ultimately be turned back if enough voices support the freedom of nations and peoples to make their own decisions.”
One can easily recognize themes of the U.S. as a “protector” (on the side of good) of freedom/democracy with a responsibility to involve itself in a conflict even if it does not have direct effects on national security. The British paper, The Guardian published an article on Russian citizens’ reactions after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over the Ukraine. The expressed views of Muscovites illustrate a stark contrast to the U.S. narrative and perhaps the ability to recognize a strategic narrative when it is not an embedded in a group’s reality or consciousness.
“There is another side” to the disaster. ‘Who benefits from portraying Russia as the monster? The Americans do. They want to go to war with the whole world.’ the US has every capability to frame ‘either Russia or the rebels.'”