The current crisis regarding Ukraine provides an opportunity to discuss why the U.S. national security community must learn and adopt a working understanding of narrative in order to achieve our NSS (National Security Strategy) objectives. In fact, every NSS must become the meta narrative from which all strategy and planning originates. At the moment the U.S. is operating on the NSSIG (National Security Strategy Interim Guidance) from March 2021.
The U.S. NSSIG, as policy guidance, is a solid document. Should the final version remain true to the principles and intentions of the IG, the U.S. will have a sound foundation for advancing the objectives declared. However, policy guidance is not the sole answer to delivering security for the American people, nor for fulfilling our global security role(s). Sound words require sound strategy and, most importantly, a strategy that adversaries, allies and partners alike understand. Finally, we must act on that strategy, continually explaining the meaning of our actions as they pertain to evolving situations and circumstances. The only way to communicate meaning is through sound narrative principles.
The reasons for employing sound narrative principles when crafting the NSS are complex but here are a couple of basics:
- Narrative is far more than what most assume. At the most basic level it is how humans derive meaning about what they experience. Some call this a “worldview.” But “narrative” is the most descriptive term for the phenomena of the internalization of a foundational cultural system of understanding.
- For a narrator to effectively connect with different audiences, they must connect to the worldview (the foundational cultural narrative) of the target audience.
Ukraine, the U.S., and allied and partner nations all have their own foundational cultural narratives, as do Russia and China. Part of the U.S. foundational narrative is shared with our NATO allies.
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, who have recently committed to a somewhat ambiguous financial safety net for Putin and to a bilateral joint statement regarding NATO and Taiwan, are always proactive. They dominate the narrative space leaving the reactive U.S./allied challengers little room to maneuver. The U.S. and our allies and partners are far less active and, due to strict adherence to military and diplomatic speak, often fail to share meaning with most of the critical audiences.
In order to ensure that everyone accurately interprets our words and actions, it is communications via narrative principles that offer the only method capable of communicating meaning. It is essential that the same meaning be expressed very differently to different unique audiences. We in the West tend to use only one type of communications for all audiences. This leaves any audience not oriented to that unique language poorly informed or, worse, it can leave them with misconstrued understanding.
Using Ukraine as the example: If our NSS was written by weaving the content together as a narrative, everyone would already have had a far better understanding of our response to Putin’s aggression. There would be little chance that anyone would misunderstand prior to, during or post-crisis. Our public version of the NSS is written as much for domestic audiences as it is for foreign audiences. The problem is that the language and structure of the NSS is easy to misunderstand by domestic and foreign audiences not familiar with precise bureaucratic language.
Different departments such as the Defense Department, Department of State, the Intelligence Community and several other U.S. government entities use the NSS as the starting point for planning and strategy. Military planning especially requires “nesting” subordinate plans under higher planning and policy guidance. To avoid the constant debate about the meaning of that guidance, an NSS, narrative-centric document would provide far more unspoken guidance and less hand-wringing over what the unique language within DoD means. Since domestic audiences also depend on the NSS and Homeland Security uses very different language than DoD, meaning often becomes confused in the translation.
Again, using the case of Russian aggression against Ukraine and the verbose threats against NATO and other partners as an example, let’s consider a couple of key points. Narratives require narrators and, unlike current practice, that is not exclusively key leaders like the president, secretary of State, secretary of Defense, etc. Once the NSS has been established, success in the narrative arena depends not only on correct analysis and dissemination of that narrative, but by having narrators at every level, domestic and foreign, sustaining a narrator/narrative relationship.
The oft-bandied-about term “counter-narrative” is a useless tool, unless we have established and sustain an ongoing narrator/narrative relationship with all key audiences and we always are first to establish our narrative between the ears of our audiences. This can be done by DoS, DoD, other U.S. government entities or even other cooperative elements in support of our NSS objectives. Each speaks to a unique or several unique audiences, for which they must tailor the precise meaning of the NSS themselves, based on which specific audience with whom they regularly speak.
Regular ongoing narrator/narrative relationships globally ensure:
- that no one misunderstands our intentions or actions
- that we are always first to assign meaning to events
- that we have an ongoing prominent voice in all regions, nations, etc., instead of having to build those relationships during a crisis when we’re already at a disadvantage
Sterile press releases that only deliver facts are of very limited value, if any. This is because they don’t deliver the meaning of those facts. Our adversaries rarely make this mistake and nearly always deliver their “meaning” first. Once we are behind in delivering our meaning, it is exceptionally difficult to dislodge a false, adversarial narrative.
The topic of narrative and its role in the development of the NSS and its implementation over ensuing years is complex, to say the least. Still, we are long overdue to begin the process, especially in the absence of any real strategic communication architecture across the U.S. government. Narrative isn’t just valuable to strategic efforts but is the core of all influence, strategic, regional or tactical/local.
When or if the U.S. ever campaigns again with ethical influence, it cannot be done with either the current U.S. national security community, architecture or the training of those professions responsible. There is nothing on the U.S. agenda, domestic or foreign, that does not require ethical influence campaigning. This is as pertinent to local issues as it is to complex foreign issues like Ukraine. We must relearn and update the lessons of the Cold War regarding achievement by influence rather than by conflict.
Success in writing and executing the NSS via sound narrative principles would have meant a substantially different road leading up to the Ukrainian crisis.
- Russia and China would have had no misunderstanding about our response(s).
- We would have already established a narrator/narrative relationship with the relevant audiences.
- DoD would already have known the core of any campaign and developed strategy to achieve it.
- All global audiences would know precisely “why” we and other rules-based nations are taking action without having to perpetually re-educate them, while simultaneously also explaining that Russia is the aggressor with zero justification. Remember, if all you do in a race is try to catch up, you’ll never cross the finish line before the other competitor(s).
- When flashpoints occur, we would be the first and most trusted voice rather than trying to play catch-up with ineffective press releases and exclusively reactive posturing.
- Like any team sport, there is no “winning,” only playing defense. In fact, it’s the surest way to lose.
- Most importantly, narrative-centric influence campaigning is a critical element in preventing a misunderstanding during a crisis, from sparking actual conflict.
Finally, ethical influence is by far the most important weapon system on modern battlefields. Had the U.S. and our allies spent a quarter of what we spend on research and development for tech, tanks, ships and planes, we would have had far more success over the past four or five decades. We would have better relationships globally. In an era most say is dominated by so-called “Great Power Competition,” the global, rules-based system would not be so imperiled by dictators, autocrats and despots. The NSS looks at the big picture and how to get to our objectives. If no one, friend or foe, understands its meaning, nor the strategies built on it, we run a high risk of failing those goals.