Crafting Narratives and the 2020 Elections

| October 2019
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The Project on U.S. Global Engagement has released its report, The Search for a New Narrative: Recasting American Involvement in the International System. The report lays out different and competitive narratives for the role the U.S. should be playing in the world, but notes that, for the first time since 1952, there is no one dominant narrative. As we move into the elections, the choice is framed not simply between candidates but between perspectives. As the report concludes:

U.S. policy emerges from coalitions, so charting the emergence of competing narratives becomes important for understanding the balances that will drive policymaking and the limits to any policy proposal. Given that several of the narratives charted above co-exist within both major political parties, and are reflected in sectional and regional divisions within the United States, it is unlikely that one narrative will emerge as the dominant one in the near future. Americans may largely concur with the statement: “Our country’s commitment to taking a leading role in shaping security and economic affairs around the world after World War II led to safer and more prosperous lives for Americans.” But they may disagree over whether that conclusion still applies in the mid-21st century, what a “leading role” entails and what constitutes “shaping,” and the degree of involvement “around the world” from region to region.

This is something that is beginning to manifest itself on the campaign trail. Uri Friedman made the following observation in a recent piece in The Atlantic:

The 2020 presidential election could prove pivotal, because the Democratic candidates appear torn between great-power competition and a more Obamian conception of international interdependence. During their most recent debate, Tim Ryan argued that Trump is “onto something” with China and spoke of the need to “out-compete them,” while John Hickenlooper advocated “building bridges” to China to address climate change.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has noted that a foreign policy narrative, to be successful, must speak to three main constituencies: the humanitarians, the utilitarians, and those seeking protection. As we move into the campaign, candidates will need to articulate a narrative that speaks to values, demonstrates benefits and reinforces safety.

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