Is a National Strategic Narrative an Idea Whose Time Has Passed?

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A narrative is a story. A national strategic narrative must be a story that all Americans can understand and identify with in their own lives. America’s national story has always see-sawed between exceptionalism and universalism. We think that we are an exceptional nation, but a core part of that exceptionalism is a commitment to universal values – to the equality of all human beings not just within the borders of the United States, but around the world. We should thus embrace the rise of other nations when that rise is powered by expanded prosperity, opportunity, and dignity for their peoples. In such a world we do not need to see ourselves as the automatic leader of any bloc of nations. We should be prepared instead to earn our influence through our ability to compete with other nations, the evident prosperity and wellbeing of our people, and our ability to engage not just with states but with societies in all their richness and complexity. We do not want to be the sole superpower that billions of people around the world have learned to hate from fear of our military might. We seek instead to be the nation other nations listen to, rely on and emulate out of respect and admiration.

Thus ends the introduction to A National Strategic Narrative [PDF], a strategy white paper from the Pentagon attempting to establish a new paradigm for the US in the world.

The article, written by two career military officers, is quite insightful, and accepts the grim reality that attends the loss of dominant superpower status for the US. The article also defines a “new normal”: “the decline of rural economies, joblessness, the dramatic increase in urbanization, an increasing demand for energy, migration of populations and shifting demographics, the rise of grey and black markets, the phenomenon of extremism and anti-modernism, the effects of global climate change, the spread of pandemics and lack of access to adequate health services, and an increasing dependency on cyber networks.”

The article suggests some key changes in the American narrative: “It is time to move beyond a strategy of containment to a strategy of sustainment (sustainability); from an emphasis on power and control to an emphasis on strength and influence; from a defensive posture of exclusion, to a proactive posture of
engagement.”

But paying close attention to these changes reveals something about how the Pentagon view the future of the world. Sustainability is only important if scarcity trumps abundance in resource and commodity markets. Strength and influence trump power and control when what used to be controllable and subject to focused national power descends into a chaos. Exclusion only applies when we need to keep the few from the many, but engagement makes sense when we need to interact with only a few from out of the many.

The Pentagon is crafting a story about the future in which the US that prosper simply by being strong, stable, and predictable. But this can only be true if Pentagon also believes the rest of the world will not be. If Europe, the UK, China, and Russia, were also strong, stable, and predictable, then the US would not be advantaged, and demographic and geographic factors would conspire to disadvantage it.

But buried also in this is the assumption that the national identity of Americans will also be an important part of the individual identity of Americans. But what if it isn’t? Economic systems throughout the world are increasingly homogenous. Business in China is conducted similarly enough to business in Paris or Austin that people from any one can conduct business in the others with little difficulty beyond exchange rates and jet lag.

So what if Americans over the next few decades see no distinction between moving from NY to CA for a job and moving from NY to Munich, or Shanghai? What if the “increasing dependency on cyber networks”, including social networking, telepresence, and automated language translation, collapses the psychological distance between people in different countries, thereby diminishing the significance of geographical distance? If you socialize, learn, and play through media and technology, moving to a different capitalist country with freedom of religion, speech, movement, and a consumer culture powered by globalism isn’t all that significant.

In short, what if a “National Strategic Narrative” is a story Americans no longer care to hear, preferring instead to believe a “Networked Narrative” that gives them the ability to bypass geographical and political boundaries to earn a living and build personal relationships?

 

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15 Responses to Is a National Strategic Narrative an Idea Whose Time Has Passed?

  1. CubaLibre says:

    The one immense barrier to this kind of global capitalist utopia will always be language, and all its attendant cultural hangers-on. Moving to Shanghai for AT&T is “no big deal” except I have to learn how to eat everything with chopsticks. In a consumer culture where cultural/personality quirks are magnified to branding opportunities this could provide a larger disincentive than one would think to relocation. “I’m no chopstick-user…”

  2. Dan Dravot says:

    But this can only be true if Pentagon also believes the rest of the world will not be. If Europe, the UK, China, and Russia, were also strong, stable, and predictable, then the US would not be advantaged,

    True if strength, stability, and predictableness (?!) are binary. But they’re not. There’s degrees of all them things. And even if we’re about equal on them, there are other variables as well.

    Also, Russia is very unlikely to be any of the above any time soon. I personally wouldn’t bet on China in the medium term, much less the long term: Historically, top-down economies don’t seem to have much staying power (don’t mistake Europe or Scandinavian “safety nets” for central planning). Of course, history never quite repeats itself, and China may make a fool of me yet.

    Europe has demographic weaknesses in the form of an aging population that the US does not share. The UK is a better bet; we’ll see.

    South Korea’s doing great but they’re tiny. I’m betting Indonesia will be another South Korea, but on a scale more like the US. They’re a big, big country. They’re one to watch. India? Who knows.

    and demographic and geographic factors would conspire to disadvantage it.

    Emphasis mine. Please share your reasoning there. All the nations you mention have unique geographic and demographic strengths and weaknesses. The USA has benefited from some unique geographic and demographic advantages, which still apply. We also have the advantage of being much more comfortable with immigration than most countries. Even our “xenophobes” would qualify as open-borders types in most other countries. Try getting naturalized in Japan, for example.

    It’s just not obvious to me that we’ve got anything to lose by relying on some of the very qualities that made us a superpower in the first place.

    Business in China is conducted similarly enough to business in Paris or Austin that people from any one can conduct business in the others with little difficulty beyond exchange rates and jet lag.

    If I were you, I’d double-check that with some people who’ve actually been there. Business is done very differently in different cultures, even just the developed ones.

    As for the “National Strategic Narrative” itself, that sounds to me like a load of steaming gibberish. What makes these dudes think they can have the slightest impact on what our nation thinks its strategic narrative is? Maybe a charismatic leader might have some effect on it, but the closest we’ve got to that is some yapper with a teleprompter who thinks our National Strategic Narrative is “We All Hate the Republicans”. Which, surely, a lot of people do, but he’s not persuading anybody who didn’t already.

    • Dan Dravot says:

      I mean, if you need somebody in DC to define a “National Strategic Narrative”, by definition it’s too late for one.

    • yossarian says:

      Dan, you are like a windbag.
      By which I mean that your comments are very long, but sometimes you make good points.

      Have you considered submitting your own articles?

    • Guy Fox says:

      ” What makes these dudes think they can have the slightest impact on what our nation thinks its strategic narrative is?”
      - Isn’t it a good thing whenever thinking people express themselves and provide more fodder for the debate? Isn’t it fantastic that you can praise, refute, condemn, ridicule or worship them? How else would you have them contribute their two cents? If everything is necessarily decided before any debate can happen, we’re just screwed.

    • towle says:

      “Emphasis mine. Please share your reasoning there. All the nations you mention have unique geographic and demographic strengths and weaknesses.”

      Speaking only on demography: it’s not about strengths and weaknesses so much as it is in-fighting. Obviously, some nations’ demographics will be more or less susceptible to strife than other nations’ demographics. In-fighting, however, only becomes a possibility if your people don’t perceive an imminent outside threat. And the less of a threat they perceive, the worse the in-fighting can get.

      It’s like Ender’s Game. Have you ever read Ender’s Game. USA vs Soviets Round 2, then aliens show up. Now everyone’s on the same side–at least until humanity defeats the aliens, at which point everyone starts killing each other again. In-fighting is a luxury, and Americans can afford a lot more of it than anyone else. By which I mean, Americans think they can afford it. And you know what happens when Americans think they can afford something.

      • towle says:

        Also note that a nation like Germany, which feels itself relatively secure at the moment, has a demographic in-fighting problem between the native Germans and its sizable population of Turks.

        (I apologize, by the way, if my response is unclear. I’m not really “with it” tonight.)

      • Nik says:

        Ender’s game has nothing to do with US v USSR. The reason “certain countries” are more susceptible to infighting is because they allow outdated beliefs to be tolerated.
        Infighting has two versions. 1) Civil war. 2 sides disagree on how things should be run and start killing each other. 2) Democracy. Majority wins. No one dies. Americans (USA) can afford discord because we aren’t killing each other. “The worse the fighting can get.” What great enemy does the USA face? How much rebellion is there?
        @Guy Fox
        Things don’t need to be decided before debate/discussion, but not everyone’s 2 cents is worth 2 cents. There are smart people and there are dumb people. We suffer the idiots so the intelligent aren’t censored. It doesn’t mean stupid ideas should be entertained.

        @Dan,
        National Strategic Narrative isn’t something invented by the government. Their view is keep USA #1. Media portrays that goal as a narrative. I’m confused as to what you mean by too late. Too late for US citizens to understand the importance of national dominance? To late for Citizens to reject the notion of government doing nasty things? Americans keep putting off the obvious. Planet, limited resources, exponential human growth. Death, murder, war, famine, it all has to happen. We keep putting it off, its disgusting, but there’s only so much room.

  3. boeotarch says:

    “Control,” or the illusion of control, was only possible when everything valuable was split between us or the Russians and everything else was a postcolonial disaster area. The precarious balance with the Soviets, and the general lack of anything interesting to fight over, limited how many stupid mistakes we could reasonably make for most of the 20th century. Now we have no clear rival and, consequently, we can dick around without any obvious fears. The problem is that the third world is now pretty much caught up with the second world and the first world has been taking a bit of a slide. Long-term strategists are worried that our ridiculously wasteful military budget is being held sacrosanct while our relatively puny foreign affairs budget is getting slashed. There’s no reason to “control” India/China/Russia/Brazil/Turkey/Nigeria/Indonesia/etc when we can much more easily, and much more cheaply, just make sure those countries become more like ours and are ruled by our friends.

    Tl;dr- we never had “control” to begin with, all this paper is calling for is for us to drop our narcissistic pretense of world power and accept a much smarter and more effective way of dealing with things.

    • Nik says:

      TLDR usually goes at the top of a post.
      There aren’t any clear rivals? Why are our troops deployed? This planet can only support so many of us. Nations are just tribes. Europe, US, Canada, we’re able to keep ourselves fed for now. The human population continues to expand, and at some point the herd will need to be thinned. Violence is natural.
      People in the government are smart (I’m not talking DMV here, I’m talking Keith B. Alexander). And they’re patriots. This country is more important than any other to them and they see the long term game. Global warming, increased population, angry countries, we may think in terms of, “Moving to the UK, China, Germany, etc, is no biggy. Who cares about nationalism?” But that’s extremely short term relatively. They’re planning for after we’re dead. National Strategic Narrative may be forgotten/unimportant to us, but its very real, and will very much matter.
      Nationalism exists because deep down, we know that eventually its gonna be us or them.

      • boeotarch says:

        Every country has an army, but only America has such large numbers of overseas troops, and it’s precisely because during the Cold War, our tribe grew from just us, the French and the British to include anybody who was potentially useful against the Russians. We have half a million men in Germany to this day because our troop deployments are still fundamentally Cold-War era. And in addition to our presence in Europe, we’re propping up both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and Iraq and Afghanistan, and Japan, and South Korea and Taiwan. That’s a pretty diverse tribe.

        • Nik says:

          It is diverse, but it doesn’t contradict my point. The strong band together to exploit the weak. Point in case, we’re proping up governments in oil producing nations so that we can continue to have access to oil. South Korea and Taiwan are basically military bases. Easier to get troops to Afghanistan if we have a layover in Taiwan.
          Also, I’m not clear on how we’re proping up Japan.

  4. Pastabagel says:

    As supporting evidence that the Pentagon believes the future will be less Leave It To Beaver and more Road Warrior: “The World Bank has warned that rising food prices, driven partly by rising fuel costs, are pushing millions of people into extreme poverty.”

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