28 avril 2017

PhD thesis on strategic narratives and exit strategies in post-intervention transitions

Last October Raphaël Zaffran defended his PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science, entitled “Walk the Talk, or Walk Away: Strategic Narratives and Exit Strategies in Post-Intervention Transitions”, at the Graduate Institute. Professor Keith Krause presided the committee, which included Professor Stephanie Hofmann, Thesis Director, and Professor Alister Miskimmon, from Royal Holloway, University of London, UK. His research addresses the little investigated and little theorised concept of “exit strategy” in the context of armed interventions, with the puzzle as to why military intervening actors decide to stay after the initial purpose of an intervention has changed. Through examining post-intervention transitions and states’ varying degrees of involvement in multilateral follow-on missions, the dissertation contributes to the conceptualisation and operationalisation of exit strategies. In addition, through its explanation of elite strategic narrative interaction, the dissertation’s findings highlight the importance of political communication in foreign policy, contributing to scholarship on the role of strategic narratives in war.

What made you choose your research topic?

I have been long intrigued by the concept of exit strategy in the context of armed interventions and how it has been loosely and inconsistently used in military, policy, media and academic circles. These different actors are all supposed to play important roles during the conduct of military interventions, be it in terms of planning the intervention and linking military objectives to political ones; reporting on it and keeping military and policy planners accountable, as well as finding patterns or explaining anomalies across different interventions. I posited that if indeed these various actors do not hold a common definition of the term, one should expect that they would have difficulty looking in the same direction when it comes to putting an end to a given military involvement. When I conducted interviews with military officials, political leaders as well as security and media experts, this definitional gap appeared quite strongly. One of this study’s research objectives was therefore to “unpack” the notion of exit strategy. This led to the observation that those exit strategies that are supposed to pave the way for the end of an intervening actor’s military involvement are often confused with discourses of exit strategies. The latter tend to revolve mostly around narratives of victory designed to signal specific intentions to domestic and international audiences. This made me increasingly interested in the role of political communication, and specifically of narratives, in intervention endgames. I decided to investigate the endgames of US military interventions that took place in the 1990s and that all presented humanitarian and multilateral dimensions, yet without presenting strong national security interests for the US (i.e. Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia). I was curious to see whether the lens of strategic narratives could be useful in understanding military endgames and exit strategies beyond the sole 21st century era of digital communications and the new media, on which most of previous literature had focused.

What are your major findings?

The varying degree of US involvement in post-intervention multilateral follow-on missions was the main phenomenon under investigation in this thesis. The study presents evidence on why the United States has taken a leading involvement in some missions but not others. My findings contribute to the conceptualisation of exit strategies, which had been previously studied from a wide range of angles, yet often lacking a systematic theoretical framework. The thesis then shows that strategic narratives proved crucial in shaping multilateral arrangements following military interventions and in influencing the varying degree of US involvement. The case studies that I conducted illustrate how strategic narratives mattered for US exit strategies in the 1990s, indeed prior to the new media and the boom of digital communications. My argument contributes to the little researched horizontal influence of strategic narratives, that is, across intervening actors. Throughout the empirics used to test my argument, I show that the varying degree of US involvement following intervention can largely be explained through strategic narrative interaction. Specifically, the thesis pinpoints the importance of the combination between varying patterns of US strategic narratives and how congruent they are at the multilateral level (here, the UN or NATO). This suggests that in the context of military interventions, strategic narratives are not only one-directional (state to public) but also involve a feedback loop (US to UN/NATO and UN/NATO to US).

These findings seem to hold high policy relevance. Could you please expand a little upon how they may apply to current international affairs?

In my concluding chapter I reflect upon the implications of my argument and findings, as well as on what the 1990s can tell us about US involvement in 21st century military endgames. Considering the argument’s implications for post-2000 cases such as Afghanistan and Libya not only highlights the salience of strategic narratives in post-intervention transitions but also reveals that the advent of new media and digital communications has reinforced the multi-dimensional nature of strategic narratives. I thus show that narrating strategically to one specific audience is too restrictive. It is rather the interactions between the narratives of a wide range of stakeholders that determine post-intervention arrangements, including burden-sharing, roles and responsibilities. A first lesson learned that emerged is that exit strategies should be based on the idea that intervening actors’ post-intervention involvement is primarily aimed at providing the host state with a window of stability, not a long-standing protectorate-type presence. The latter has too often generated over-dependence on an external state or coalition. Furthermore, the eventual departure of intervening actors may generate destabilising power vacuums, which endanger the host state’s political sustainability. This was seen in the case of Haiti, but also later in Afghanistan and in Iraq with the rise of ISIS following US withdrawal. Important policy recommendations are also derived regarding strategic narratives. The first pertains to the idea that strategic narratives are often misused, as narrators sometimes lose sight of what their strategic narrative is supposed to achieve and for whom. When post-conflict strategic narratives fail to include the locals, it risks jeopardising the completion of the mission’s objectives because of local resentment and lack of local participation. The former is illustrated with the case of Afghanistan and Taliban opposition, while the latter may be illustrated with the Aristide government’s lack of involvement and ownership in Haiti’s state-building process. Policymakers need to engage further with strategic communication scholars in order to remain up-to-date in terms of innovative tools and approaches that may be used to articulate political goals. Both sides must make it a priority to provide the citizenry with evidence-based narratives, rejecting old-fashioned psychological strategies whose manipulative dimensions have done more harm than good. Ultimately, in the age of digital communications and “fake news”, instant information and non-state actors, the battle of narratives is likely to catalyse new threats and potential new wars.

How will you remember your doctoral experience?

Undertaking the International Relations/Political Science doctoral programme at the Graduate Institute was incredibly rewarding, both personally and professionally. Above all, I was lucky to have a very supportive thesis supervisor who pushed me to develop my own ideas and provided me with priceless guidance on how to link my doctoral studies with my professional goals. I also had the chance to work for the Research Division of the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), conducting applied research on security sector governance and reform. Later on I started working for the Graduate Institute’s Executive Education department, managing an executive training programme for professionals from Central Asia and the Caucasus, as part of the Executive Master in Development Policies and Practices (DPP programme). I will therefore remember my doctoral years as having been very formative, as both my doctoral studies and the opportunities with which I was provided prepared me well for what would come next for me professionally, be it in academia or in the policy world.

What are you doing now? Is there some continuity between your PhD research and your current activities?

Since completing my PhD, I have been Head of Customised Programmes at the Graduate Institute’s Executive Education department. As such, I am charge of the development and management of tailor-made training and capacity-building projects for public- and private-sector organisations, as well as foreign governments. In terms of continuity with my own research, I have had the opportunity to teach in executive training programmes where my expertise was relevant, including a course on international security, fragility and development. I also contribute regular pro-bono analyses on international security issues and Central Asian politics to Open Briefing, a UK-based civil society intelligence agency. This has allowed me to maintain an interesting balance between academic/training activities and analytical work.

Full citation of the PhD thesis: Zaffran, Raphaël. “Walk the Talk, or Walk Away: Strategic Narratives and Exit Strategies in Post-Intervention Transitions”. PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, 2016.