|ONCE UPON A TIME|
IN THE WEST
|We must act with total resolve to achieve our aims, for the sake of humanity and for the sake of the future safety of our region and the world … We are doing what is right … Barbarity cannot be allowed to defeat justice.|
— Prime Minister Tony Blair, March 26, 1999
All stories — including the stories world leaders tell in international politics — follow certain narrative patterns. As the international relations specialist Hayward Alker argued in his 1987 essay ‘Fairy Tales, Tragedies and World Histories’, no matter how objective or scientific these stories aim to be, they invariably include elements normally associated with folktales and legends; modern‑day equivalents of princesses, dragons and heroes; kidnappings, rescues and rewards. The stories people tell about their communities tend to conform to one of three types: fairy tales, tragedies or, all too rarely, comedies.
The study of classic Western plot sequences and characters can be dated at least back to Aristotle. His analysis of the art of poetry and its division into epic, tragedy and comedy is the foundation of subsequent literary criticism and theory. In the field of international relations and world politics, however, the study of storytelling is a more recent occupation. Alker was among the first to focus on plot structures or story grammars. Since the late 1980s, Michael Shapiro, David Campbell, Michael Billig, Robert Ivie and others have also studied foreign‑policy texts: the activities of making strange and drawing symbolic boundaries, imagining community and producing (national) identity, creating ‘others’ and providing ‘us’ with a purpose. More recently, Erik Ringmar has used literary theory to analyze the rhetoric of leaders in office and opposition forces during wars.
It’s unlikely, although not impossible, that political leaders deliberately choose specific plots but, more or less intuitively, they still operate within the tradition of Western foreign policy storytelling. Simple tales are still the most common, with the emphasis on identity politics, territorial discourses, state‑centrism and coherent plots. They may be inadequate or dangerously simplistic ways to map complex problems but remain compelling all the same. Alker accounts for their power by describing basic story grammars as especially meaningful and easy to remember, as forms which appeal at a deep level to our conscious and unconscious experience. Hayden White in The Content of the Form (1987) talks about narrative appeal more generally: how our desire that real events conform to the coherence of fiction makes us impose order on our descriptions of the world. Moral meaning is possible only through narrative, and specific kinds of stories provide specific kinds of moral meaning. Katharine Young, too, in Taleworlds and Storyrealms (1987), emphasizes the ability of stories to interpret events which are merely consecutive as consequential, and therefore meaningful, to both the narrator and the audience. A better or ‘correct’ categorization of conflicts may not solve everything, but as long as stories structure our lives, we would do well to examine the different forms those stories can take. [ ... ]