Do Stories Help or Hinder Our Understanding of Foreign Affairs?

The Pentagon’s new “strategic guidance” document attempts to outline the global security environment — a mind-bogglingly difficult task for a 16-page document. So inevitably, the paper relies on some fairly simple “narratives,” or stories, to help summarize complex problems into a simple cause and effect chain. Thus, the document can be broken down into “China’s power is rising,” “Iranian nuclear ambitions are a threat,” “our military focus must change,” and so on. 

While such summaries are useful and necessary, it got me thinking about the use of narrative to understand foreign policy. Neat and understandable analysis is a necessary part of making effective policy. However, simple stories can be beguiling, and if “good narrative” comes at the expense of depth or intellectual inquiry, the result is flawed foreign policy.

Understandings of “narrative” vary, but the basic concept is that peoples’ understanding of the world can be broken down into the stories they tell. Stories and narrative are the cognitive means by which people understand events — the mental progressions along which we define ourselves, our beliefs, and our policies.

This is a necessary “short-hand” technique for understanding the world. It helps a wider audience appreciate global issues and understand how to handle them. However, relying on narratives does have some drawbacks.

An excellent speech by Tyler Cowen from 2009 explores this issue, and raises three reasons why relying too heavily on narrative can be dangerous. 

Firstly, narratives tend to be too simple. They fall into archetypes — such as “good vs. evil,” or “a battle.” The problem is, the world is rarely that simple, and this can have dangerous consequences.

For example, after 9/11 the Bush administration created a very simple story: the War on Terror. It spoke of “bad guys” in the Middle East and “good guys” in the U.S. military who would stop them.

Yet, the complexities of regional power dynamics, or modern perceptions of the U.S. in the Islamic world, or the basic discussion of whether intervention was even a good idea were lost in this narrative. It was a good, understandable story, but arguably bad policy. 

Another problem with relying on stories is that you can tell only so many. People will often use one particular narrative to justify a position and will then be unable to deviate from that view. 

For instance, you may argue that U.S. cooperation with Saudi Arabia must change because of that country’s harsh interpretation of Shariah law. Issues of oil reliance, or regional balance of power, or the like, cannot break this narrative in the viewer’s mind. 

Yet, the reality of the modern world is that it is multi-polar, interconnected, often morally ambiguous. States which execute “bad” laws are often simultaneously global trade partners, or fellow voters on a mutually beneficial UN resolution. There are usually a series of contradictory stories in any foreign policy issue, and this should urge caution about falling onto any single explanation. 

Finally, narrative can be too convincing. In short, good stories can manipulate us. Anyone who has listened to an impassioned speech — even if it is completely incorrect — will attest to the power of a good story to convince. 

Such manipulation has led to some of the worst crimes in human history - such as anti-Semitic narratives about global wealth during the Holocaust. Clearly, if a narrative justifies an extreme position, we have to think very carefully about the stories we are using. GOP candidates calling for an invasion of Iran — which most other pundits declare a terrible foreign policy idea — certainly spring to mind. 

The conclusion? Narratives are a natural and necessary human mechanism for understanding the world, but they cannot be relied upon too heavily. Foreign policy is complex, and may require the practitioner to engage in deeper analysis, or to weigh up contradictory viewpoints simultaneously. Often, it will require a compromise that “ruins” any simple story. 

Yet, it is perhaps better to be inconsistent than close minded; or even worse, wrong. 

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