International Negotiations & The Importance of Narrative

By Thomas Veenstra, Treasurer 2020-2021

Distinguished delegates,

As an ardent follower of international politics, one never fails to note the power of narrative. Picture an example of such a narrative in your mind: Donald Trump, and the swamp that ought to be drained by him; Winston Churchill, and his inspiring call do defend his island home on the beaches, the sea and in the air; or Mark Rutte, with his reassurances that we could shit for ten years, and thus attempt to stop hoarding behaviour. All three men, who all gave different speeches, but all used a type of narrative to whip up a broader populace, and convey a message.

I have included the example of Rutte, even though it may seem non-sensical at first sight, to show that narrative hides in many facets of our lives, and does not only come from great men, or conveys an equally convincing and well-argued message. “Get Brexit Done” sounds comforting, but almost a year after this campaign, negotiations are still ongoing with no satisfactory end in sight. Moreover, its jargon bars us from even thinking about non-Brexit alternatives. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” and its modern grandchild “I can’t breathe” mobilise and force us to rethink our past perspectives on the “American Dream” and on Eurocentrism. Narrative is a double edged-sword.

What makes a good narrative? A good narrative, or a story explaining our world knows, infatuates, and engages its audience. It attracts, distracts, and comforts its recipients. It does so through both verbal and non-verbal means. A raised fist implies anger, severity, and sincerity. Yet, a raised fist may not be a particularly suitable narrative device at a romantic candle-light dinner with your partner. Picture Trump using his brazen and divisive language and tone whilst lying in bed, watching Fox News. Surely, he will not be as convincing to Melania as he is to the crowd at one of his rallies. A good narrative contains a message, its tone and audience fit the message, and the atmosphere in which the narrative is provided. Such a message conveys a point of view in an eloquent and convincing way. The message swells into a problem, a loud injustice, or an ever-present challenge to overcome or maintain. The problem encapsulates its audience until it yearns for an answer, a solution, a way out of an unwanted situation. Finally, a good narrative includes a way of resolution and provides an answer to the problem it poses.

It is no surprise that narrative is dangerous. It may sway the population toward an imprudent alternative, distract us from logical reasoning, or deliberately polarise between “us” and “them”. In my own opinion, the way to counter this deleterious impact is to understand what narratives are, uncover their implications and discursive tricks, and use them in our own life. One counteracts deleterious narrative with inspiring and inclusive narrative. As polarisation, loss of community, and mass media impact our daily lives, we have the responsibility as a generation to come up with an answer. We have a responsibility to at least challenge the narrative.

So how do we go about ameliorating the threats and impacts that deleterious narrative poses? How do we counter all the flat earthers, climate change deniers, war hawks, and Wall Street asset managers, whose single-sided stories of the world woo some but marginalise many? I must admit that I do not have a comprehensive answer, but I can offer a start. We can start with educating ourselves into narrative, and sway others to our standpoint. Model United Nations serves as an excellent departure point of our journey.

It was at the TEIMUN Society, simulations during my bachelor’s programme, and conferences like GrunnMUN or HAMMUN where I learned to value the importance of narrative, recognise it, and combine it with my International Relations studies. Issues of contention in our world are seemingly transformed into a clear-cut solution with no room for contention, or those who are discontent who subsequently become labelled as heathens, immoral, or crybabies. I knew, of course, that speeches and their narratives bend the truth, convince, and activate. Yet the “how” of these narratives was still a mystery to me, the fine art of convincing.

Let me tell my story of GrunnMUN 2019. I was part of the Russian delegation to the Security Council of the United Nations, and we were seized on the matter of the South China Sea, and the implications of China’s far-reaching claims on the local countries, and related geopolitical concerns of shipping routes. It was a pretty clear-cut case, as an UNCLOS tribunal had ruled that China had no legal basis to its “historical claims”. Yet, at the end of the day, China could look back on a satisfied and productive day, as it had effectively gained the support of the UNSC, and in particular Vietnam and the Philippines, in developing a so-called “shared resource area for those developing productive capacity in the region”. In contrast, the delegations of both France and the United Kingdom had been vocal and had convinced many of the delegations during the early day by taking up the role as defenders of those who are threatened by the Chinese claims. This was their narrative, and many had found it convincing.

Yet, the Chinese delegate had hatched a plan during lunch, reformulating its historic claims by including an (albeit rosy) historic element of China’s harmonious relationship with those countries, a history of exchange, and came with the alternative of the shared resource area. It then presented this plan, which was itself a better-worded alternative to |a Chinese domain, but other countries are allowed to fish in these waters”. To my amazement, the delegations of Vietnam and the Philippines found this narrative agreeable, and began to identify with this narrative. This switch undercut the narrative of opposition by the French and British delegations, who were then indirectly forced to move toward and engage with the Chinese narrative. Only minor concessions had been made, far les than what would have seemed normal before lunch.

I will spare you more of the details, for now. In essence, China’s narrative had both helped it, as well as harmed the narrative of it’s two greatest contenders, whilst reality had not changed during the day. It was only until later, after a TEIMUN Society session that had focussed on communication, that I realised this. There is more to tell about timing and audience, or other parts of a good narrative. We have a responsibility to know, act, and engage with narrative. I hope to have given a brief glimpse of narrative, and its never-ending importance. Still, this blogpost has come to an end.

Looking forward to remaining seized on the matter together,
Your Treasurer