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
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?