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Americans and Russians see the world differently, and that’s hurting Syrians

Do Kerry and Putin operate in parallel universes? Sputnik Photo Agency/Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that he sometimes feels like he’s living in a “parallel universe” compared to his Russian counterpart when it comes to Syria.

This parallel universe can be explained by analyzing the strategic narratives of the United States and Russia since the end of the Cold War.

My forthcoming research shows that there was an opportunity lost in the 1990s and early 2000s. Instead of focusing on how to interact without the constraints of the Cold War, both the U.S. and Russia went to war – the U.S. in Iraq and Russia in Chechnya – and focused attention on their own Great Power strategic narratives.

I’d argue these strategic narratives are the basis of the “parallel universes” Kerry identified. These differing world views make it difficult for the two states to find common interests and move toward diplomatic solutions in Syria.

Strategic narratives

So what exactly is a strategic narrative and how does it affect foreign policy?

Alister Miskimmon and Ben O’Loughlin of Royal Holloway, University of London, and I define strategic narratives as “a means for political actors to construct a shared meaning of the past, present and future of international politics to shape the behavior of domestic and international actors.” In other words, these are the stories politicians tell their people about how international politics works and to explain their state’s role in the world.

Because the U.S. and Russian narratives differ, Kerry’s “parallel universe” quote makes a lot of sense. People really can come to believe different stories about how the world works.

The stories we tell

My coauthors and I identify three different types of strategic narratives: system, identity and issue.

System narratives describe the structure of the international system by defining the actors, designating how the system works and identifying which actors challenge it. During the Cold War, for example, the U.S. and the USSR shared a system narrative that described the world as a competitive bipolar system in which the two states sought influence and power.

Identity narratives include the story of the state and its values and goals. During the Cold War, and continuing after the collapse of the USSR, the United States has maintained an identity narrative that emphasizes U.S. power in the world and a commitment to liberal values such as democracy and human rights.

The Russian identity narrative, which emphasized Communist leadership, was shaken to the core with the demise of the USSR. Political leaders have struggled to develop something new. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russian nationalism seems to be the new identity narrative, as Putin has said: “We don’t have and there can’t be any other unifying idea, apart from patriotism.”

Issue narratives focus on legitimizing specific actions or policies of the state. These may support or undermine system or identity narratives. Building a broadly based coalition for war, for example, supports a different narrative about the international system than does a unilateral and preemptive use of force.

A boy walks past damaged buildings in Aleppo, Syria. Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

Wars and strategic narratives

My work traces the lasting repercussions of war on strategic narratives in both the United States and Russia.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a moment for possible post-Cold War narrative realignment. George H.W. Bush, for example, set out a new system narrative of international cooperation which important leaders in the former USSR like Boris Yeltsin seemed to share.

But U.S. and Russian conflicts in Iraq and Chechnya, framed by the narratives each country projected about these wars, clashed with system narratives that called for collaboration and cooperation.

Two wars in Iraq

During the first Iraq War in 1991-1992, President George H.W. Bush described a new world order characterized by greater international cooperation and shared interests. The U.S. built an extensive coalition. When agreed upon goals were accomplished, the mission was ended.

But this narrative was short-lived because alliances, interdependence and cooperation were not at the heart of the George W. Bush administration’s perception of the post-Cold War world. After 9/11, Bush set out a choice for other states in the world: Either you are with the United States (and civilization and good) or you are against the United States (and with barbarians and evil).

In March 2003, the United States military forces returned to Iraq. The United Nations refused to support a military intervention in Iraq, and so the United States led a “coalition of the willing.” Bush declared major combat over, or “mission accomplished,” on May 1, 2003.

Violence continued, however, with a growing armed insurgency against American-led occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. The limited objectives of the first Iraq War had been replaced by the much broader objective of democratizing the country.

The Bush doctrine emphasized unilateralism in certain cases and preemptive war, which had effects far beyond justification for the use of military force in Iraq. This narrative shaped policy choices and conflicted with a system narrative that emphasized coalition-building and cooperation.

When President Obama came to office in 2009, he tried to shift course, emphasizing cautious assessments about the use of force to solve problems and more collaboration with allies even as the U.S. identity narrative continued to emphasize U.S. leadership, democracy promotion and the protection of human rights. This complicates the U.S. great power narrative and makes it difficult to decide whether and how to intervene in cases like Libya or Syria.

Two wars in Chechnya

Between 1991 and 2016, Russia was also rewriting its strategic narratives.

The first Chechen War, which began in 1994 under President Boris Yeltsin, was not popular with the Russian public. Yeltsin emphasized the need to combat lawlessness. But as the war dragged on, independent media made much of the war’s destruction.

This played out as Russian identity narratives were contested. Was a post-Soviet Russia to be Western and internationalist, or assertive and nationalist? In 1996, only 29 percent of polled Russians said that Russia should have a great and powerful army by any means possible. Some of the strongest criticism of intervention in Chechnya came from within the Russian military, and especially from Russian veterans of the Afghan conflict.

Under Putin, the narrative describing Russia as a “normal” country in Europe would shift to focus on the great power status of the Russian Federation. Putin blamed the first Chechen War on “weak leaders.” Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who covered the Chechen War and was murdered in Moscow in 2006, wrote: “Chechnya provides the yeast for the growth of the great-power mentality, the basis of Putin’s state morality.”

Crimea. Pavel Rebrov/Reuters

Putin was highly critical of media coverage of the first Chechen War and reasserted governmental control over the media. The leadership’s television strategy was to control information, describe their opponents as terrorists and emphasize military success to bolster a great power identity narrative. Hostage-taking and rebel bombings, including in Moscow, supported the story the government was telling. The government claimed that security would be restored and law and order reasserted.

Today Putin uses this same narrative to justify the annexation of Crimea and bombing in Syria.

Toward cooperation

The stories U.S. and Russian leaders told to justify the second wars in Iraq and Chechnya undermined their ability to create a new narrative that emphasizes international cooperation and shared interests.

This heightens tensions surrounding international issues and attempts by both sides to gain the upper hand. We’ve seen this play out in Iran, during the Arab Spring and in Ukraine.

Of course, attempts at U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria have also faltered. The U.S. and its allies are considering sanctions against Russia for the humanitarian disaster in Aleppo, while Putin says sanctions are designed “to contain Russia.”

These parallel universes have been constructed over time and honed through war. They won’t be easy to bring together because any move toward peace in Syria will ultimately require common ground that fits with the stories Russia and the U.S. want to tell about themselves.

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