Does the Arab Spring show how strategic narratives work?

Nobody has come close to explaining how strategic narratives work in international relations, despite the term being banded about. Monroe Price wrote a great article in the Huffington Post yesterday that moves the debate forward. As I have already written, strategic narratives are state-led projections of a sequence of events and identities, a tool through which political leaders try to give meaning to past, present and future in a way that justifies what they want to do. Getting others at home or abroad to accept or align with your narrative is a way to influence their behaviour. But like soft power, we have not yet demonstrated how strategic narratives work. We are documenting how great powers project narratives about the direction of the international system and their identities within that. We see the investments in public diplomacy and norm-promotion. We have not yet demonstrated that these projections have altered the behaviour of other states or publics. Does the Arab Spring show these narratives at work?

Many leaders in the West and protestors taking part in the Arab Spring promoted a narrative about the spread of freedom, often conflating this with the hope and vigour of youth and emancipatory potential of social media. Of course this narrative may be bogus, as Jean-Marie Guéhenno argues in yesterday’s New York Times. However, the key point Price makes is that narratives set expectations, regardless of their veracity. Narratives defined what NOME leaders were expected to do: step aside! We can see the power of narratives by seeing what happens to those who defy them. Mubarak and Saif Gaddafi both gave speeches where they were expected to align with the narrative. The narrative set the context and expectation for how they should behave. But they did the opposite of what was expected. Price writes:

From a perspective of "strategic narratives," Mubarak and young Gaddafi were speaking as players in an episode, set by key actors, international and domestic, who had the expectation that their wishes as to the playing out of the drama would be fulfilled. Their speeches did not match the sufficiently accepted script, in the case of Mubarak, or the incomplete outlines of one, as in the case of young Gaddafi.

Who has successfully promoted an overarching narrative? Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy? Where did the ‘Arab Spring’ narrative come from? How does an overarching narrative play out in each country? What room does it leave for individual governments and public to create their own destinies? In the next year, building up to a debate at the International Studies Association (ISA) convention in San Diego in April, we will be exploring this.