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Weaponized Narratives Go to War

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In recent years, American national security agencies and commentators have begun using a new buzz term: narrative warfare. China is particularly adept at employing narrative warfare.

There is an old proverb that says the truth is the best advertising, propoganda and public relations tool. Fact-supported truth is a powerful narrative.

Unfortunately, the truth can be hidden, ignored, obscured or -- in the 21st century -- inundated. Narrative warfare embraces more than PR and propaganda campaigns. Narrative warfare employs "weaponized narratives" spun from "highly selective truth," outright lies, false accusations, distorted and altered quotations, emotional appeals, sensational outrage, fear mongering, blame-shifting, intimidating threats, victim posturing, virtue signaling and fabricated imagery.

Indeed, these disruptive and often destructive techniques -- with the possible exception of fabricated imagery -- have been in the human political and psychological warfare tool kit since the human species arose.

However, modern mass media and digital communications can quickly and pervasively spread the weaponized narrative, often without challenge. Narrative warfare advocates argue that a powerful psychological weapon is capable of many things, including influencing national and international opinion.

Weaponized narratives inevitably link dynamically to ongoing conflicts, including irregular or unconventional warfare campaigns, conventional war fighting and diplomatic operations.

The weaponized narrative combination of speed and pervasiveness can create psychological vulnerabilities in an adversary's population. In a long war or extended diplomatic confrontation, fear and doubt seeded by an adversary's weaponized narratives may erode its opponent's will to continue to the struggle.

Some analysts argue that democracies are more vulnerable to weaponized narrative attacks than authoritarian states that strictly control or deny freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Nations have always used narratives to support their diplomatic operations. Not all of them are "weaponized," but a powerful, moving story gives a diplomatic initiative additional energy. Often these narratives incorporate nation or ethnic historical and cultural themes. Since they support a diplomatic initiative, they are always political.

In February, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies published a short paper entitled "Seven Chinas: A Policy Framework." The paper briefly examined "seven identities" that the Chinese government uses to "shape and justify policy."

Each identity is a narrative.

China 1: Self-sufficient civilization (We generate our own values)

China 2: Most humiliated nation (Our senior civilization, conquered and despised)

China 3: Leader of the developing world (Late developing China leads developing nations)

China 4: Champion of plurality (We are ending Western/American hegemony)

China 5: Sovereign survivor (We survived the collapse of Communism because we are unique)

China 6: Last man standing (The West is declining while our wealth is increasing)

China 7: Herald of the high frontier (China and shares the global trade and communications commons)

Narratives 2 and 3 aided China's penetration of resource-rich sub-Saharan African countries. Narrative 2 stirred leverageable sympathy; former colonies shared China's humiliation at the hands of foreign powers.

Narratives 1 and 5 have advanced domestic policies as well as foreign diplomatic initiatives. At one time the Chinese empire was arguably self-sufficient in terms of natural and human resources. Confucianism is a Chinese value system. The Chinese have reason to be proud. Chinese organization -- a type of self-sufficiency -- helped the Peoples Republic avoid a Soviet Union-type collapse. Its survival, however, required the adoption of a market economy with Western characteristics.

Narratives 2, 4, 6 and 7, however, have supported China's slow invasion and attempted annexation of the South China Sea. Its actions are in clear violation of international law, especially the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, China contends the area was once sovereign Chinese territory; China lost it during an era of weakness. Current rules are artifacts of Western hegemony which is now in decline (Narratives 4 and 6). China, the rising Great Power, will protect global trade routes.

In the South China Sea China's narrative weapons have augmented its military and economic clout. It's proved to be a powerful combination.

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