Geopolitics is often conceived of as a realm of pure realpolitik, where ideology takes a back seat to the ruthless and unsentimental pursuit of strategic interests. But all politics involves storytelling, and geopolitics is no exception. Nation-states deploy narratives to legitimize themselves on the world stage, to shore up domestic support and to unite their allies around a common cause. But, says Faisal Devji, a professor of history at the University of Oxford, geopolitical storytelling is about more than just political strategy.
“They may tell one story externally or to a domestic audience and reserve another story for themselves,” he tells New Lines magazine’s Faisal Al Yafai. “But in the end you need some kind of narrative in order to make political decisions possible at all.”
In other words, these stories are not just propaganda, and a narrative is not necessarily a lie. Whether true or false or somewhere in between, they provide the blueprint with which to understand the world, to answer fundamental questions like ‘Who are we?’ and ‘What are we fighting for?’
“We’re really quite wedded to narratives, and our political decisions really have no meaning without them.”
“It’s a story that needs to be convincing to the very people who are telling it,” Devji says. “We’re really quite wedded to narratives, and our political decisions really have no meaning without them.”
That loss of meaning, he adds, was the problem America ran into at the end of the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union spent decades defining themselves by their fight against one another until the latter’s collapse in the ‘90s left the U.S. with both uncontested global hegemony and a severe identity crisis.“The very thing that you wanted to happen happens, and you no longer know what to do.”
Today, this kind of storytelling is everywhere. It’s the story of China overcoming its “Century of Humiliation” or India’s account of its rise as a great power.
But the most pronounced case of the importance of a compelling story may be the war in Ukraine. The information war between Russia and Ukraine has been fought with no less intensity than what occurs on the battlefield. Russia has portrayed the war as a continuation of the Soviet fight against Nazism, while Ukraine sees it as the endpoint of a centuries-long struggle against Russian oppression, after which it can take its rightful place among its democratic peers in the West. But while that story has powerful resonances in Europe, it means very little to post-colonial nations in the rest of the world.
“The Global South needed to be appealed to by using a narrative that was more meaningful to them,” Devji says. “So decolonization has been ramped up as part of the narrative, to argue that Ukraine is at the receiving end of a colonial invasion from its former colonial master and that countries which have had this kind of experience in the past need to realize this and identify with it. And how can you not identify with that?”
Produced by Joshua Martin