Reimagining the strategic narrative

| January 5, 2020
International strategic thinking aims to balance national economic and security interests, and de-emphasise myriad subjective narratives about the world. But does this formula actually work if nations like the United States and China are prone to misapprehending each other’s motivations and actions?
Reality is that the human mind is more storyteller than factual analyst. It filters information to support narratives about the world and is less attuned to evidence than to the persuasiveness of characters who deliver it.These facts justify the view in international strategic thinking that objective and quantifiable interests should take precedence over subjective values and narratives in international affairs and saw institutionalised diplomacy entrenched to ensure that rational calculations dominated outcomes.Research in neuroscience and psychology demonstrates, however, that narratives are not so easily abandoned when thinking strategically. Narratives are physically embodied in patterns of neuronal, emotional and psychological activity. Attempting to confine international strategic thinking to security and economic interests is unlikely to stop subjective narratives from overthrowing strategic thinking.The US-led strategy of engagement with China is supposed to have been sustained in Washington by a narrative that Beijing’s entry into international markets would drive democratic political reform. In the same vein, Washington’s current view of China as a strategic competitor is underpinned by a narrative that China’s rise threatens America’s place at the top of the global order.The ‘China as threat’ narrative interprets the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) pervasive yet opaque influence in China as evidence of a coordinated system of control that threatens US interests.

A significant element in the policy community in Australia apparently buys the same story. Each explicit strategic appraisal of China is both constrained and propelled by an implicit mythology about itself (‘the United States as liberal champion’) or the other (‘China as nefarious threat’).

The narratives that underwrite US-led economic and security appraisals of China define the international arena as a contest between monolithic national actors. The only imaginable outcome of such a binary game is one nation prevailing over the other through coercion or control.

Neglecting the function of narrative in policy development in a security–economic nexus of interests deprives international strategic thinking of vital information required to envisage more sophisticated scenarios for shared security and prosperity.

The narrative underpinning the China-as-threat view inhibits analysis of evidence that the CCP is a decentralised and contested political system of relationships. It also precludes consideration of how international economic interdependence is an instrument of security — economic interdependence with China pluralises and constrains China’s interests and mitigates security risks.

The story that democratic political reform will inevitably follow economic liberalisation in China ignores how political and cultural processes complicate and drive social change. Understanding China’s economic and political transformation, including the security risks that it might pose to US interests, needs to take these processes into account.

The security policy tribe’s strategy is never quite in line with that held by the economic policy tribe. Neither strategy offers sufficient scope for comprehending the multidimensionality of the geopolitical terrain. Overlooking the narrative dimension in international strategic thought will lead to decisions that are at best inefficient, or at worst catastrophic — risking military conflict, financial crises and environmental degradation.

Current attempts by the United States to decouple from China in areas of basic science research and advanced technology might make sense if international relations can now be conceived as a winner-takes-all contest between monolithic national actors and China is framed as a mortal threat to US interests.

But does this story offer space for the United States and its allies like Australia to assess the risks of disruption to global supply chains, fragmentation of international cooperation on research, cross-border data flows or protection of IP?

The facts are that Chinese firms and organisations own close to a third of international patents in the field of artificial intelligence, account for over a fifth of the world’s R&D expenditure and author over a fifth of global peer-reviewed publications (a vast number of which are co-authored with US collaborators) — and these figures are set to rise for years to come.

Understanding the role of narratives in shaping international strategic thinking is thus essential to dealing with the issue of how to change international institutions in ways that promote continuing economic and political interaction and reduce the chance of conflict.

Adam Breuer and Alastair Johnston drew on the analysis of cultural evolution to trace the development of the ‘China as a revisionist power’ narrative in the US foreign policy community and throughout the English-language digital media.

They show that simple, categorical and zero-sum sub-narratives such as ‘China is a threat to the liberal order’ and memes such as ‘China challenges the rules-based order’ crowd out nuanced but less emotionally crowded strategic assessments of the China–US relationship.

Analysing a specific policy in terms of the genealogy of the story that drives it helps to expose how emotional and subjective factors — and not just explicit economic or security interests — shape international strategic thinking. Ultimately, this informs thinking about the types of collective narratives needed to underwrite shared security and prosperity within national and international institutions of governance.

‘The United States’ playing chess while China’s playing Go’ is a common adage to explain why both appear prone to misapprehending each other’s motivations and actions.

For policymakers today the problem is that existing frameworks for international strategic thinking do not offer space to imagine games with better outcomes for China, the United States and the rest of the world, or to consider whether these nations should be playing games at all.

This article was published by The East Asia Forum.