It’s All About the Narrative, Stupid

September 5, 2013

A former boss of mine used to say everything we do “must be undergirded by strategic communication.” This strategic element is often called our “narrative” and represents not only our story, but also our side of the larger story.  As such, it has to be consistent with our fundamental values and synchronized with our actions.  However, we must also remember that to be successful in this conversation, our message has to also be understood by audiences from other cultures.  Unfortunately, the message we send is not always the narrative we intended, and we end up with a moment straight out of Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here, is a failure to communicate.”  One recent example of this appeared in an article last week published in India’s Telegraph about U.S. “rotational presence.”  The first two paragraphs capture the essence:

A top US Air Force general has said Washington is preparing to station military aircraft in India as part of its “Asia pivot” policy, and the city it is looking at to base its assets in is Kerala capital Thiruvananthapuram.

An Indian defence ministry source said: “We have never discussed any such proposal.”

The article goes on to explain how and why the two viewpoints were so off, but since the bulk of true communication takes place in the mind of the listener (not the speaker), it is yet another reminder of why we should choose our words very carefully.  To be heard and understood, the messaging must be clear, coherent, and consistent.

The term may have been removed from some offices in the Pentagon and elsewhere, but the concept remains: there is a quantifiable and precise benefit achieved through skillful and willful strategic communication. Of course, action has to follow to reinforce the narrative, lest it wither and die on the vine of obsolescence.  In the case of the stated pivot/rebalance to Asia, to the world’s media, the preponderance of our action and focus remains firmly fixed (and fixated) on the Middle East.  The withering is advanced by some accounts.  We must remember, however, that the effect may not be immediately visible; thus, the narrative needs to be clearly articulated from its origin and then sustained throughout the course of its existence with the mandatory coupling of thoughts to words, and words to action, in our strategic messaging.

So even despite perceived missteps such as those illustrated in the article cited above, there is value to perpetuating the notion of a pivot/rebalance—what some might call akin to placarding the fences and walls in Hometown, U.S.A., with Barnum & Bailey posters announcing the circus is coming to town. Even if it takes the circus a while to actually show up and start putting up the tents, other feeder-fish industries (in this example, the media, defense contracting firms, foreign investment brokerages, utilities providers, even travel agencies) start setting up shop well in advance, anticipating the ensuing windfall.  The smaller carnivals and fairs adjust their calendars to find other locations, biding their time in hopes the Big Show flops.

Encirclement, containment, forward presence, forward partnering, rotational presence: these conceptual themes all depend on how you construct the narrative and how pro- (vice re-)active you are with the messaging.

For the record, ‘encirclement’ might not be the best choice of terms, mostly because we could not achieve it right now if we tried: you do not ‘encircle’ the world’s second largest economy, which is spending money like a sailor on liberty after six months at sea; you also do not remove 1.4 billion consumers from the global market place without at least some of the shopkeepers breaking the picket line. You do, however, find creative ways to forge new partnerships and strengthen existing ones so you don’t always have to be the one running straits, enforcing freedom of navigation, showing sustained commitment to equal access to the commons, etc.  And you do frame the messaging such that those goals reverberate repeatedly.  If, during the course of those partnering evolutions, certain regional hegemonic aspirations feel (and actually get) clipped, then you let the folks who live and work in the neighborhood be the ones who respond. Actions most definitely speak louder than words, so it is even more important to ensure there is absolute synchronicity between thought, word, and deed. Always.

Some may question WHY the pivot/rebalance announcement was made.  Perhaps Asia wasn’t the primary audience.  Perhaps the audience was domestic, and it was done for political reasons. But that does not negate the fact that there may have also been a realization that (1) we were not going to achieve our stated objectives in the Middle East (what were they again?); (2) this enabled a “those grapes are probably sour, anyway” escape narrative; and (3) F-22s, F-35s, Ford-class CVNs, next generation X-band radars, SM3 Block MCVIII (and counting), space-based lasers, and every other current and future major weapons procurement dream do not sell well when the mission is going door-to-door trying to win hearts and minds, or spelunking where even Alexander knew he had gone too far.

Some prefer a more indirect approach and have likened our current implementation of foreign policy as being reduced to “whispers and nudges.”  I do not see this as a problem per se, because sometimes quiet—but still firm (aka, ‘the big stick’ complement to speaking softly)—conversations in back rooms, on supposedly secure phone lines, or at events where press microphones are ideally not still recording, accomplish more (and leave less finger- and footprints) than the more overt TLAM cruising down al Hamra street into Arnous Square in Damascus.  In many instances, even when beginning with the indirect approach, it will inevitably become necessary to nail those whispers to the wall, make them public, and increase the decibels and signal strength.

What can never happen, however, are comments or situations as relayed in a recent WSJ article.  The gist: Arab officials said they informed the White House they were “worried that the U.S. is pulling back from their region, and that they can’t wait for Washington to be more aggressive in trying to dictate events.”  Perhaps more damning was the next part by a senior Arab official—“I don’t think that Washington is really in the conversation” on Egypt in a significant way.

That impression, coupled with words like “hypocrisy”, as David Arquilla points out, simply underscore how poorly we are communicating the WHY of our actions across the globe, and how we seem so unable to match words and imagery to deeds.  At times, we need to own the conversation.  But at the very least, we need to always be in the conversation—listening, talking some, listening some more, and using evocative and lasting imagery in a complementary fashion.  And throughout, we must always be assessing to ensure our message is reaching the desired audiences and having the desired effects.

The pivot/rebalance declaration is now two years old; yet, partners, allies, adversaries, and enemies alike are all seriously questioning our motives in the Middle East.  Europe reads it as withdrawal (not just the 2014 race for the doors in Afghanistan, but also in a larger sense from them); al Qaeda maybe does likewise, but they’ve got more pressing matters right now; the Taliban watches the clock; the Chinese launch an aircraft carrier; Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines, among others, lobby particularly hard with huge new port facilities and leasing agreements all patterned on the Field of Dreams mantra: if you build it, the Americans will come.  One statement, multiple messages.  And it does not help that despite the pivot/rebalance, we still have the Secretary of State attempting his best Hercules impression in his efforts to bring Israel and Palestine to the signing table.  When will Foggy Bottom start rebalancing?  What about the agencies and departments focused on the ”north-south” rebalance within the Americas?

And, finally, what about the hometown/domestic audience?  “Red line” statements and comments like “ready to go” tend not to be helpful to the larger communication effort, when, as a new Reuters/Ipsos poll shows, only 9% of respondents feel the U.S. should intervene militarily in Syria.  Perhaps even more distressing is the apathy—potentially more destructive, particularly when trying to remember that ever-important third leg of the Clausewitzian Triangle—illustrated by the large share of people who answered that the U.S. should intervene if Assad uses chemical weapons, apparently unaware this line has already been crossed.  Not having foreign audiences understand the message with perfect clarity is understandable, almost always attributable and dismissed via the “lost in translation” hand wave.  So what is the excuse when the domestic audience isn’t on the same page (or in the same book)?

We need to communicate the WHY—why is a pivot/rebalance important?  Why is intervening in country X warranted (because it is in the vital national interests of the United States), but doing so in country Y is not?  Why was what took place in Egypt (most recently) not a coup?  Why does it not matter whether it was or was not?  Why was the use of chemical weapons that may have killed and injured hundreds important, but 100,000 dead and 1,000,000 refugees and internally displaced persons, not?  Why was the streets of Benghazi running red with blood worthy of an international mandate, but not Damascus?  I do not claim that these are simple questions to answer; rather, I argue the absolute necessity of these conversations taking place, that the narrative needs to be clear and concise and consistent, and that it needs to lead to follow-on conversations about the WHAT (the objectives, the actions) associated with each WHY decision.

That same previous boss of mine also used to say that strategic communication is the ultimate team sport—it does no good whatsoever to have a perfect strategic communication plan that is ultimately contradicted by other U.S. Government agencies.  Unfortunately, such is often the case. Leaders at all levels of government—all levels of society, as industry, non-governmental organizations, the media, and academe all have vital parts to play—need to maintain early, persistent, and creative involvement in the communication of our messages.   They must be crafted in a sensible, collaborative, collegial way and done in an appropriate voice. Further, our messages and themes must be designed to support—hopefully in many cases, lead—the pursuit of the U.S. Government’s overall strategic objectives.  Finally, at their core, the messages need to establish the fundamental and inextricable link of these objectives to the declarative and prioritized vital national interests that shape every strategic choice we make.  We are a nation that excels at marketing, messaging, and communication on massive scales from coast to coast, from Madison Avenue to Hollywood.  Why, then, do we find it so utterly unachievable to leverage America’s abundant communications resources to ensure clear and consistent messaging across the “whole of society” and coordinate this communications strategy with broader policies, plans, and actions?

The information environment is a contested “global commons,” an open, 24/7 marketplace of ideas. Our strategic narrative is our means of competing for market share in this environment, and this competition is a contact sport using ideas, words, and deeds.  We need to continue to focus on synchronizing this trinity, ensuring action mirrors thought across and among all elements of national power. This needs to be considered and performed at the front end of planning, not conducted as an afterthought. The way we tell our story needs to be viewed as a vital extension of national policy, not as a couple of reactive talking points for sound bites thrown together in response to another series of “why aren’t you doing anything about the _____ (fill in the blank with the human tragedy du jour)” queries. The narrative matters deeply, and it must be shared and communicated clearly, coherently, and consistently.  Qatra qatra darya mesha.


CDR Elton C. Parker III is currently serving as the Special Assistant to the President and Military Assistant to the Provost of National Defense University.  A career naval aviator, his most recent tour was as Speechwriter and Special Assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.  The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the views, opinions, or positions of the National Defense University, The U.S. Navy, or the Department of Defense. 

Photo Credit: The U.S. Army