Q and A with a Story Guru: Amy Zalman: Strategic Narrative Is Emergent Strand of International-Relations Research

I am beyond intrigued with the niche of storytelling/narrative that Dr. Amy Zalman practices — strategic narrative. Her firm “advance[s] the practice of narrative to solve complex problems among people, cultures and organizations.” I felt it would be helpful to kick off this Q&A with Dr. Zalman’s explanation of strategic narrative. The Q&A will run over the next five days.

Bio: Amy Zalman has worked to support more culturally astute approaches to national security problems for nearly a decade. She currently heads new markets strategy at a private sector government consulting firm, where her research supports new analytic approaches and applications of technology, to address global and transnational challenges.

Her current research develops a framework by which countries and organizations can measure their “soft power” — their ability to use resources, discourses and interactions with others to generate desired outcomes. She recently spoke on the topic at the Heritage Foundation think tank and is working on a book on the topic.

Amy is also an authority on how the U.S. can better understand and engage foreign publics, and regularly provides insight to policymakers and other stakeholder audiences. She has briefed U.S. Congress on “winning hearts and minds” in the context of a battle against violent extremism, and on the future of cultural education in the U.S. military. Other recent audiences include the U.S. Marine Corps Public Affairs Leadership Conference, Ankara based NATO Center of Excellence-Defense Against Terrorism (COE-DAT), the NATO International School of Azerbaijan, the EastWest Institute Worldwide Security Conference, the Office of the Secretary of Defense Highlands Forum, and National Defense University.

She has served on the faculties of New York University, Cornell University and the New School University. She received her Ph.D. in Arabic literature and cultural studies from the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Poetry from Cornell. Her publications include poetry, literary translation and scholarly essays, in addition to commentaries in the national security space. She is a proficient Arabic and Hebrew speaker.

Amy can be located through her website, Strategic Narrative, which is dedicated to applications of narrative to solve complex problems, and on LinkedIn.

Q&A with Amy Zalman, Question 1:

Q: What future trends or directions to do foresee for story/storytelling/ narrative? What’s next for the discipline? What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?

A: There is an emergent strand of international relations research focused on the concept of “strategic narrative.” Lawrence Freedman, a professor at King’s College London, used the term in a 2006 paper called “The Transformation of Strategic Affairs.” For Freedman, “compelling story lines which can explain events convincingly and from which inferences can be drawn” may be increasingly important aspects of military conflict, where combatants may seek to undermine each others narratives, rather than only seeking to eliminate each others’ assets.

Other scholars, including Andreas Antoniades, Alister Miskimmon and Ben O’Loughlin, among others, have extended this work; in 2010 they co-authored a work called “Great Power Politics and Strategic Narratives” that offered an amplified vision of how great powers ply their values in the international system through narrative. Yet, I think there is a great deal more work to be done that would link concepts such as authorship, voice, character, plot, and time to power as it is expressed in the international arena.

I am extremely interested in the practical uses of understanding these intersections better as a route to understanding the symbolic aspects of a successful foreign policy. I’m also pleased I’ll have the chance to meet some of these scholars at this spring’s International Studies Association conference, where I’ll present some early thoughts on the Saudi Arabian response to the Arab Spring. My intention was to outline the Saudi narrative. But what I found when I went looking would be better described as an official effort to prevent domestic or international publics from interpreting events as they were being interpreted in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt as a coherent story. It was anti-narrative.

American leadership is in the global press every day trying to tell our story, listen to others’ stories, connect the American story to that of the rest of the world. We are constantly in storytelling mode! In contrast, Saudi officials speak rarely in the global press, and they said almost nothing last year during the Arab Spring. But Saudi Arabia also has a different founding narrative of itself that is closely identified with Islamic orthodoxy. Does a state whose identity is tied to a universal religion have a different relationship to storytelling than one whose founding myth is one not of transcendent truth, but on being a frontier-seeking, future looking society? Is there a typology of the storytelling state? And if so, how do we trace the effects of that identity in current events?