How do we make sense of the world? How does storytelling help shape, order and give direction to our lives? These questions have a significance for all actors – whether the individual, the nation-state, a regional or transnational body – and how one understands what one’s role is in the world and what one’s objectives are in shaping the social structure that one is a part of. In this way, the use of storytelling has important implications whether on the personal front or for world politics. So, in the case of the Cold War, policymakers continually articulated the fight against an ‘existential threat’ to ‘our way of life’ and that there had to be a long-term and patient strategy in place to ‘win’.
As per this temporal point we are all part of historical structures and processes that promote the idea of longevity and consistency. Nonetheless what can sometimes be hidden from view are factors that allow for shock and sudden change. This is often the case when we look at crises such as wars, pandemics, environmental crises or economic ones. It also impacts when a significant public figure dies too soon or there is an implosion of political significance. As per this common refrain: where were you when John F Kennedy was shot? Where were you when Martin Luther King was murdered? Where were you when John Lennon was shot? Where were you when the Berlin Wall came down? Where were you when 9/11 happened? Depending on one’s social and cultural context (and possibly age!) these questions may elicit a strong emotional response and powerful meaning making tool that shows the fragility of life and impermanence. In the political realm, this brings to mind the apocryphal Vladimir Lenin quote “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” A seeming sense of permanence may be a comforting thought but not one that exists in practice as there are always internal challenges and contradictions existing within a system.
In the case of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Washington’s story of ‘freedom’ prevailing over ‘totalitarianism’ was a key Cold War construct. Coming to more recent times, Washington’s narrative of a ‘global war on terror’ created a post 9/11 world in which ‘civilisation’ would take on and ultimately defeat ‘barbarism’. Both of these political narratives have represented the United States’ as ‘a beacon of light’. With this in mind, my recently published book US Policy Towards Afghanistan, 1979-2014: ‘A Force For Good’ (London and New York: Routledge) focuses on how the United States constructed Afghanistan as a pivotal country – both in the last stages of the Cold War and in the post 9/11 world – in its ‘fight for freedom’. This construct of an ‘evil’ other provided Washington with meaning and purpose whilst further opening the space for foreign intervention. It also showed that in the long march of history there is an element of contingency. As the US had previously ignored Afghanistan and yet with the Soviet invasion of 1979 and later on the Twin Tower attacks of 2001 there was an immediate sense that this country was central to Washington’s national security objectives.
So how did a small landlocked country in south-west Asia become so central to our image of international security in the contemporary world? For America the element of power politics or fighting the phenomenon of terrorism was a part of the equation but it needed Washington to define and represent Afghanistan in a way that made sense to its audience. In this way, the narrative of ‘freedom fighters’ fighting against the ‘totalitarian’ Soviet Union in the latter stage of the Cold War was a sacrosanct objective. Moreover, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Washington managed to effectively articulate that the ‘world had changed’ and this provided a new meaning to what Afghanistan represented. Thus, instead of it being a forgotten country it was now the epicentre of ‘danger’ and this meant the US had to stabilise Afghanistan in order to prevent it from becoming a ‘safe haven’ in which transnational terrorist groups could operate from and plan attacks on the US and its allies.
As we consider our own lives or issues impacting on (international) society we must always remember that there are stories being told about what is important and why. In order to effectively change a social or political issue the use of (collective) storytelling is a key part of our repertoire in convincing our audience of why a particular goal is significant to who we are and what we want. So, using reason and appealing to facts is important but actors know that telling a good story is also part of how change happens in the world.
Article by Prof. Dr. Anthony Teitler, Professor of International Relations and Head of Bachelor programs International Relations, GGL, CCE, and PPE.