Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

A new “strategic framework” for U.S. Public Diplomacy has at long last been released. Oddly, it is a slide show rather than a paper, but perhaps that’s because it is to be the basis for a briefing today. My colleague Phil Seib has already expressed disappointment in the new proposal:

It is so lacking in imagination, so narrow in its scope, and so insufficient in its appraisal of the tasks facing U.S. public diplomats that it is impossible to understand why its preparation took so many months.

One particular way in which this is true is the plan’s conception of narrative.

The number one objective in the strategy is to “shape the narrative.” Its authors reckon that we are not dealing effectively with new media, that inaccurate information shapes our story before we have a chance to do the shaping ourselves, and that too little information is available to audiences around the world. Accordingly it specifies the following tactics (paraphrasing):

  • Rapidly respond to inaccurate information and shape stories through engagement with international media
  • Expand platforms for shaping dialogue, communicating our perspectives and countering misinformation
  • Use new modes of communication

The slides say these goals are the first phase of developing a more detailed plan, which will be taken up by working groups. Fair enough.  But the framework will guide the way the working groups think about the problem, and the guidance seems to be based in an outdated message influence model of strategic communication that fails to take account of the rugged landscape on which U.S. public diplomacy operates.

First, the framework clearly conceives the narrative problem as one of inaccurate information. But this misses the point; narratives are not about facts, they are about how facts are framed and interpreted. Extremists work tirelessly to tie U.S. actions in the Middle East to a master narrative of the crusades. The facts of the crusades are not really in dispute. Western/Christian powers aimed to seize lands from the Arab/Muslim people–especially Jerusalem–and in doing so served their economic and political interests.

Many facts of present day U.S. actions in the Middle East resonate with this account. We provide military and economic support to Israel, which is determined to keep Jerusalem out of the hands of the Arabs. We have recently invaded an Arab country and maintain a large number of troops in the region for the purposes of protecting our interests. Our leader said in 2001 that we were on a crusade. Our soldiers have bible references inscribed on their weapons. I have first-hand reports that active duty military personnel are wearing this patch on their uniforms in Iraq, and maybe Afghanistan too. None of these facts are inaccurate.

The U.S. offers a couple of counter-narratives against the crusader portrayal. One is that we are involved in a fight between Good (represented by us) and Evil (represented by violent extremists). But one can imagine crusaders saying something similar, and the extremists simply argue that these roles are reversed.

We also say we are trying to bring democracy and freedom to the lands where we are fighting (something reiterated in the new framework). But extremist ideologues like Abu Yahiya al-Libi, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and Abu Bakr Basyir argue forcefully that democracy is a form of polytheism that is part of the crusader plot to weaken the foundations of Islam.  Thus they turn our “gift of democracy” narrative against us.

Second, “shaping the narrative” is the wrong concept to use in the new strategic framework. It imagines that we can take an existing narrative and gradually use messages to alter its form. But in the case of the crusader narrative this is more akin to shaping a balloon. We press in one place and the balloon expands in another place to compensate. When we let go of the spot where pressure is being applied the balloon snaps back to its original shape. This happens because, as we have argued, the communication system has taken on a great deal of inertia such that new messages are readily assimilated to the existing structure.

A better goal would be to try to disrupt the existing narrative system–to pop the balloon–so a new narrative could be formed where our messages could get some purchase. With respect to the crusader narrative, a significant disruption would be some kind of breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would demonstrate that we are no longer complicit in the long-term project of the crusades. Needless to say, that is a tough nut to crack. But such is the nature of the challenge, and this or something like it is the only realistic way of changing the narrative.

Finally, the strategic framework seems to rely heavily on the idea of mastering the means of transmitting messages. It calls for better application of the tools of marketing, better utilization of new media platforms and social networking technologies, and better coordinated communication efforts. None of these are bad ideas in themselves. But they imply that the main problem is that we are not good enough at sending messages through newly available channels. If we could only do this better we would be more successful at shaping narratives. Yet in the absence of a more fundamental change in our communication strategy it is unlikely to do much good. Indeed it could make things worse if we more efficiently deliver messages that can be assimilated to the crusader narrative.

The narrative gap in the new stragegic framework lies in its assumptions that the problems are inaccurate information, lack of  shaping efforts, and inadequate use of media channels. In reailty the problems are that existing facts resonate better in the target audience with a crusader narrative than the alternatives we are offering, that the communication system is locked in a pattern of iterpretation that favors the extremists, and that just doing a better job of sending messages will do nothing to change things.