Strategic narratives in the Sino-American COVID-19 “blame game”

In a recent article, Linus Hagström and Karl Gustafsson analyze the Sino-American narrative struggle over the meaning of COVID-19. They argue that the limited success of Chinese and U.S. efforts to gain support for their strategic narratives about the pandemic illustrates the limitations of strategic narratives as both concept and political practice.

“Strategic narratives” has become a popular concept in International Relations research and foreign policy practice alike. Scholars and practitioners have increasingly accepted that narratives matter and can affect world politics by attracting or even fooling global audiences into acquiring a particular understanding of reality. Many states currently spend huge resources on projecting their own stories to the world. Hence, much like discussions on “disinformation,” “propaganda,” “information warfare,” “sharp power,” and “fake news,” current commentary often seems to assume that international actors are able to control narratives and use them strategically.

One issue over which much ink has recently been spilled is the COVID-19 pandemic. After the pandemic hit the world in the spring of 2020, it did not take long until scholars and pundits began to comment on how the world’s two most powerful states—the United States and China—were seeking to construct and propagate strategic narratives about events as they were unfolding. They suggested that the narrative power struggle over the meaning of the pandemic could have implications for the future of world order and the ostensibly ongoing power shift from the United States to China. Some suggested that China’s strategic narratives were superior to that of the United States, and that this could even be a harbinger of China’s emergence as a global leader.

In our article, we examined the construction, dissemination and reception of Sino-American strategic narratives about the pandemic, as well as whether or how they invoked more deeply institutionalized, pre-existing master narratives and with what effects. We also explored to what extent and how those narratives were referenced and reproduced by decision makers in Australia, India, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom—five regional states seen as vital to the future of the current U.S.-led world order.

We found that both China and the United States sought to use narratives strategically. The United States projected two main strategic narratives: (1) COVID-19 originated in China, the country tried its best to hide the outbreak and refused to cooperate with investigations, and China duped the WHO, which is pro-China; and (2) the United States has taken a proactive approach to COVID-19 that is better than anywhere else in the world and the Trump administration has been highly successful.

China also promoted two main narratives: (1) China is the champion of the international system because its domestic crisis management is resolute and effective, and because internationally it is based on multilateralism and assisting other countries by providing medical aid; and (2) the United States engages in politicization and stigmatization, such as the Wuhan lab conspiracy theory, which is more dangerous than COVID-19 itself, and it wasted the time that Chinese sacrifice had given it.

However, we found that all of these narrative were largely unsuccessful. While elements of the U.S. narratives were referenced and reproduced in Australia and to some extent in the United Kingdom, the number of such references was very limited. Indian, South Korean, and Turkish statements praised cooperation with the United States, but did not reproduce U.S. narrative content. Similarly, key elements of the Chinese narratives appeared in statements from all five states, but China was only explicitly mentioned when cooperation with the country was praised. China did not figure at all when support for multilateralism, international cooperation and the WHO was discussed, or when stigmatization of Asians was criticized. Officials in Australia, India, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom primarily emphasized their own efforts and successes in fighting COVID-19, seeking to present themselves in a positive light. Instead of supporting either the United States or China, they had their own agendas and agency.

Based on our findings, we argue that there is reason for caution about the usefulness of strategic narratives as a policy tool. In addition, we argue that the analysis and use of strategic narratives cannot just take narratives about specific issues, such as COVID-19, into account, but must also pay attention to more deeply institutionalized, pre-existing master narratives. Not all Chinese narrative elements originated in China, and some of them—especially the emphasis on multilateralism and international cooperation—were quite general.

Hence, to the extent that Chinese narratives gained some international traction, they did not do so by spreading falsehoods, but rather by appealing to master narratives that are widely shared throughout the world. This demonstrates the limitations strategic narratives, as China’s narrative entrepreneurship around COVID-19 both appealed to and seemed constrained by pre-existing master narratives integral to the current U.S.-led world order.

Our findings suggest that the most significant narrative power resides not with particular states, but with influential master narratives. Therefore, when exploring the possibilities for changing global narrative power dynamics, we should analyze not only the diffusion and reception of strategic narratives, or even just changing master narratives, but also how key actors situate themselves in relation to existing master narratives. With the Biden administration more intent than the previous Trump administration on upholding and strengthening the current U.S.-led liberal world order with its emphasis on multilateralism and international cooperation, it may become more difficult for China, or any other state, to take control of or use these global master narratives for their own strategic purposes.

Linus Hagström is a Professor of Political Science at the Swedish Defence University. Karl Gustafsson is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Stockholm University. He tweets at @KarlGustafsson5. They are the authors of the article “The limitations of strategic narratives: The Sino-American struggle over the meaning of COVID-19,” Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming, which can be accessed here.

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