Strategic narratives, our defence white papers and their audiences
16 Aug 2013|

The idea of strategic narratives is stirring again (and here). The idea was reinvigorated a few years back by Mr Y, a US Army Colonel and a USN Captain, who proposed a new American national security strategy but wrote it and titled it as a strategic narrative. The Mr Y authorship alluded to Mr X— George Kennan in disguise—who wrote the famous article that led to the American containment national security grand strategy of the Cold War. Like George, the two Mr Ys used a strategic narrative construct to grab the attention and interest of the American public.

An ex-British Army officer Emile Simpson has further examined the concept in a recent highly regarded book that examines the nature of modern war, using Afghanistan and Konfrontasi examples. Emile has added an interesting twist in stressing influencing others outside of the group, organisation or country encompassed by the strategic narrative. Strategic narratives should now focus not just on the insiders but also on the wider world of friends, partners, neutrals, undecided groups, adversaries and maybe even those who just don’t care yet. In our complex, globalised, interdependent world, many more audiences should be included in our strategic calculations.

The idea of a strategic narrative is then to provide a vision that’s carefully tailored to shape and influence the thinking of these multiple, ‘strategic’ audiences. These audiences—whether local or offshore—can assist or hinder us in our endeavours. A strategic narrative can gain their support by providing persuasive and compelling arguments; we seek to convince them to believe our carefully crafted story. This is all part of building our soft power; making an external environment of supportive actors that hold favourable views. The idea might be appealing, but it needs further unpacking to see whether the notion is practical in the Australian setting.

First, strategic narratives are written in a manner able to be clearly understood by all. By contrast, official documents like Defence White Papers are often impenetrable tomes written by specialists for specialists. The 2013 White Paper might be an example: it has much good stuff but it’s masked by broken logic flows, repetition, arcane terminology and officialese. Perhaps this reflects its rushed development for, as Mark Twain observed, ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead’.

Second, a strategic narrative tells a story that explains how we got to this point, what the vision for the future is and how we’ll get there. Importantly though, it tells this story in a way that frames issues and policies in a consistent conceptual framework. The narrative provides an interpretive structure which people can use to make sense of historical facts, current problems and emerging issues. In this a strategic narrative has a strong sense of time and of our deliberate progress through it; we’re metaphorically surfing the big, deep swells towards a glorious future.

Third, as this metaphor suggests and as Emile Simpson brings out really well, a strategic narrative has both a strong logic chain that appeals to our rational side and an emotional component. Including this emotional ‘hook’ engages us and brings life, meaning and legitimacy to an otherwise abstract logic chain. This is quite unlike our traditional, dry official documents.

Development of such an Australian strategic narrative could be problematic. Mainly because there’s no strategy, and without this there’s no story. The recent Defence White Papers have adopted a risk management approach rather than a strategic one. Risk management leads down to a focus on means—what we should buy—rather than how what we have will be used. The continuing development of the Defence Capability Plan—that laundry list of more than 100 projects—hardly exerts an irresistible pull. In this approach there’s really no glorious future, and no emotional heartstrings to tug.

People can only subscribe to our vision of the future if they’re given one, and the Defence White Papers really haven’t done that—nor have they been asked to. While our risk management approach has some real virtues, a downside is that it provides no compelling, persuasive story about either the defence of Australia or the Defence organisation. There’s no interpretive structure that convincingly explains past events and provides a framework in which to understand emerging issues. And there’s no causal chain that allows people both inside and outside the Defence organisation to see how what they do will make a difference.

There may be some who might find thinking about strategic narratives a bit hard to get their minds around, as it’s different from our traditional ways of doing things. Indeed some may think that today’s white paper construct is good precisely because no one reads them! But before dismissing the idea, let’s also think about the potential gains in enlisting the support of those wide local and global audiences that a strategic narrative could perhaps bring on board.

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW, and has been an associate professor of national security strategy at the US National Defense University. Image courtesy of Flickr user Dwayne Bent.