Theoretical Implications of Strategic Communication Part 2: Where’s the Politics?

March 13, 2011

I did my graduate work in Strategic Studies and this has left its mark on the way that I think even when I’m dealing with topics a long way from military conflict.    Strategy is an area where structure and agency come together, it deals with the intersection between judgement, choice and organization.  Over time though I’ve come to suspect that strategists have some blind spots in their view of the world – particularly from a liberal democratic perspective .  Any field of activity that has as patron saints an ancient Chinese warlord and a Prussian general is not best placed to deal with pluralism.   This particularly comes into focus when we start to think about strategy at national level and strategic communication as an all embracing activity.

The British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1975) drew a distinction between ‘enterprise associations’ and ‘civil associations’ – the difference being that the former had a purpose but the latter didn’t.  To put it crudely an enterprise association is a company while a country is a civil association that doesn’t have a specific agreed purpose.   Oakeshott was attacking political approaches (communism, socialism, fascism) that he saw as treating the political community as if it was an enterprise association.  The consequence of this is to suppress difference within the polity.

It’s interesting that if you look at German political and military thought in the late 19th and early 20th century this dynamic is quite explicit.  With democratization the ruling elites sought to maintain their position by emphasizing the primacy of foreign policy.  Carl Schmitt’s (1932 [2007]) definition of politics in terms of friends and enemies has the effect of justifying the suppression of difference inside the state.  Ludendorff’s (1937) writing on total war are even more explicit, Germany faces an existential threat and as such must completely reorganize society to support the military effort.  From a Clausewitzian point of view this is an effort to  squeeze politics out of war, to subordinate politics to war .  Clausewitz gave politics the dominant role because politics provides a broader viewpoint and because politics has to balance competing priorities.   Oddly, this effort to replace politics with  (military) strategy brings me back to Schmitt because one argument that he makes in The Concept of the Political always sticks in my mind: liberalism seeks to reduce politics to ethics and economics.*  This is the same point that EH Carr (1946) makes about the assumption of the harmony of interests made by Anglo-American statesmen in the interwar period or Bruno Latour’s (2002) comment that before you can resolve a conflict you have to recognize that one exists.

What conclusions can we draw from this discussion?  I think that national level strategic communication faces two major challenges.  The first of these is that democratic states are fundamentally plural and that this always has the effect of undermining the effort to project a coherent message.  It’s not just that there’s lots of differences that could be incorporated into a message like ‘the united colours of Benetton’  (what Roland Robertson (1992) would call ‘the standardization of difference’ ) but that people are different in non-standardized ways ie some people really do hate foreigners and aren’t afraid to say so.  In the contemporary communication environment there’s a good chance that this will be picked up and transmitted to the rest of the world.  As civil associations states work differently from enterprise associations.  Secondly, managing domestic difference and the differences with foreigners is a political task.  Politics is about deciding what to do and dealing with the consequences.   A workable strategic communication strategy has to be rooted in the recognition that trade offs have to be made and managed this is not just a matter of coordination, synchronization and deconfliction.   Some people argued that the failure of the US and other western countries to instantaneously and unreservedly back the protesters in the Middle East was failure of public diplomacy.  This is unfair – the US wasn’t going to be come out and say it because it they weren’t sure what they thought- if it is  a failure it’s a political failure.   In this sense strategic communications is the continuation of politics but how do you deal with this in a connected, pluralist society with a complex government structure?

I’m not sure that I know the answer but in Part 3: I’ll offer some thoughts.

*If Schmitt argues that liberalism reduces politics to ethics and economics we can add technology to his list: if we all have internet access then we will get to the harmony of interests more quickly so that we don’t need to make any choices or manage any tricky relationships.

Carr, E.H. (1946) The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan.

Latour, B. (2002) War of the Worlds: What About Peace? 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ludendorff, E. (1937) Der Totale Krieg. München: Ludendorffa verlag g.m.b.h.

Oakeshott, M. (1975) On Human Conduct. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Robertson, R. (1992) Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture. London: Sage.

Schmitt, C. (1932 [2007]) The Concept of the Political. Expanded edition. University of Chicago Press.


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