Photo by Sean Gallup

Every story tells a picture

Convenient clichés make for poor foreign policy

Artillery Row

Few of us are Russia experts. With Vladimir Putin’s tanks rolling into Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, I can’t have been the only one hurriedly trying to read up on the Moscow regime to try and get my head around what was going on.

Yet someone seeking to build a picture from what’s available in the Western media would be forgiven for coming away confused by the increasingly breathless clash of narrative and counter-narrative.

On the one hand, there are those who believe that Russia is a paper tiger, what one analyst memorably called “an ageing, corrupt gas station with nuclear weapons”. Don’t be fooled by the map, they say, its economy is no larger than Spain’s!

Human beings like clean narratives populated by simple, easy-to-grasp archetypes

All that is true, so far as it goes. But it is at best a partial picture. Others point out that since the invasion of Crimea in 2014, Moscow has amassed one of the largest foreign currency reserves in the world, and structured its economy in a way that would allow it to weather Western sanctions (in the event the West, with key states vulnerable to the global gas markets, summoned the will to make them stick).

Then there’s the brutal fact that when it comes to war, the overall size of your economy is less significant than how much of it you spend on defence, and how effectively you spend it.

Yet this vision of Putin as a steely, far-sighted strategist also feels too tidy for the facts. Having arrayed almost 200,000 troops at Ukraine’s borders, the Russian president doesn’t quite look as if he knows what to do with them.

Offering recognition of the breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk does fit the Russian playbook that gave the world Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. But compared to pushing an increasingly well-armed and mostly-intact Ukraine decisively towards NATO, they’re a paltry prize.

The problem is that human beings like stories: clean narratives populated by simple, easy-to-grasp archetypes. A strong Russia led by an immoral but cunning leader is a tidy story; so too is a post-Soviet basket case run by a gang of inept, nostalgic criminals.

Real life seldom works itself out into a satisfying narrative — it’s often messy and contradictory. Yet in the post-Cold War era, with America as the only global power, too many in the West seem to prefer telling themselves stories about the world, rather than actually seeing it.

Take Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Is he a “young despot out of his depth”? Or is he a man steering a deeply conservative country through a programme of substantial economic and social reform, which one outlet describes as having the ultimate goal of making his kingdom “more modern, liberal and business and tourism friendly”?

It is as foolish to base foreign policy on a noble lie as on a knavish one

In fact, both portraits can sit comfortably side by side. But to much western thought, “progress” is an indivisible package. A monarch tightening his political grip on a country whilst delivering social and economic liberalisation (much as did the old Shah of Iran) doesn’t fit so easily into a goodies-and-baddies frame.

As a result, people rightly outraged by the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi demand that Western governments anathemise Riyadh, even if the actual outcome of such a policy would be a more dangerous, more reactionary Saudi Arabia.

It’s a similar story in neighbouring Qatar. The initial poor treatment of some workers there during preparations for the upcoming World Cup became a story across much western media. Less often mentioned are the sweeping reforms instituted in the wake of it, which have seen the International Trade Union Congress claim that Qatar now has “the best labour laws in the Gulf”, becoming a model that others in the region are already emulating.

Nor is this tendency confined to Neville Chamberlain’s “far away countries, and peoples, of whom we know nothing”. Just look at the absurd hopes and fears we project onto US presidents.

Barack Obama won the Nobel peace prize for not being George W Bush, then continued to prosecute his predecessor’s wars. Donald Trump’s election was met with universal horror, but it was he who brokered a real peace between Israel and many of its neighbours. Then Joe Biden buried the idea that “the grown ups are back in charge”, as much fawning European coverage framed it, in the rubble of Kabul, and one-upped Trump by seizing the treasury of poverty-stricken Afghanistan.

Partisans on the left and right can and do endlessly pick holes in the fantasies of the other side. But this is beside the point: it is as foolish to base a nation’s foreign policy on a noble lie as a knavish one.

If we want to steer a safe course, through what is shaping up to be a more dangerous century than most people imagined, then we need to kick the story habit. That goes for our leaders and our media.

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