Effective strategic narratives? Italian public opinion and military operations in Iraq, Libya, and Lebanon

Oddly enough, in the new Italian White Paper there are no references to the concept of strategic narratives. On the contrary, many official documents and statements by decision makers have recently emphasized the role played by strategic narratives to enhance the perceived legitimacy of military operations.

Venus in Arms has already addressed the concept of “strategic narratives”, defined by Freedman as: “compelling storylines which can explain events convincingly and from which inferences can be drawn”

Today, we are pleased to present the new paper by Fabrizio Coticchia: “Effective strategic narratives? Italian public opinion and military operations in Iraq, Libya, and Lebanon” (here, gated). The paper has been published in the first issue of the new Italian Political Science Review/Rivista Italiana di Scienza PoliticaIPSR/RISP (now published by Cambridge University Press) provides three fully English-language issues per year. Here additional info on the Journal.

Here below the abstract of the paper:

Public attitudes are greatly shaped by the cohesiveness of the strategic narratives crafted by policy-makers in framing the national involvement in war. The literature has recently devoted growing attention toward the features that define successful strategic narratives, such as a consistent set of objectives, convincing cause–effect chains, as well as credible promises of success. This paper provides an original framework for ‘effective strategic narratives’ for the case of Italy. The military operations undertaken by Italian armed forces in Iraq, Lebanon, and Libya represent the cases through which the framework is assessed. Drawing on content and discourse analysis of political debates and data provided by public opinion surveys, this paper explores the nature of the strategic narratives and their effectiveness.

The author has already addressed the issue of narratives, public opinion and Italian military operations, locking at the case of Afghanistan (here)

The current paper presents two main implications.

First, strategic narratives should not be realistic, but rather compelling. A certain ambiguity of the storyline could be sometimes inevitable due to the gap between long-established values (such as peace or humanitarianism, which are very difficult to modify) and a risky military environment, where those beliefs may appears as extraneous. In these cases, an integrated communication strategy, aimed at preparing the public opinion and avoiding counter-productive rosy pictures, could be crucial to avoid a collapse of approval towards the intervention.

Second, as already tested by literature, casualty aversion per se does not determine the fall of public support. However, mounting insecurity on the ground requires greater flexibility of the narrative to adapt and transform. In this case, a negative narrative dominance (i.e., a more persuasive counter-narrative) could play a fundamental role in hindering the plot’s effectiveness.

ViA will provide additional posts in the near future regarding strategic narratives and other security issues (e.g., the F35). Stay tuned.


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“Strategic Narratives, Public Opinion, and War”

Venus in arms has already addressed the interesting topic of narratives and counter-narratives in previous posts (here on Afghanistan, here on the F-35).

Today we recommend a brand new book on narratives, just published for Routledge “Strategic Narratives, Public Opinion and War. Winning domestic support for the Afghan War” edited by Beatrice de Graaf, George Dimitriu and Jens Ringsmose.

The manuscript aims at providing a detailed and comprehensive analysis on strategic narratives, adopting a comparative perspective to examine the case of the military operation in Afghanistan. The preface is by the former Secretary General of NATO Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Several scholars have contributed to the book. Here you’ll find all the contents of and the authors (among many others: Lawrence Freedman, David Betz, Alister Miskimmon, Ben O’Loughlin, Laura Roselle, Tim Groeling and Matthew A. Baum)

Also the case of Italy has been analyzed, thanks to Venus in Arms‘s Fabrizio Coticchia and his chapter (with Carolina De Simone): “The winter of our consent? Framing Italy’s ‘peace mission’ in Afghanistan”. 

As illustrated in the website of the book:

This volume explores the way governments endeavoured to build and maintain public support for the war in Afghanistan, combining new insights on the effects of strategic narratives with an exhaustive series of case studies.  In contemporary wars, with public opinion impacting heavily on outcomes, strategic narratives provide a grid for interpreting the why, what and how of the conflict. This book asks how public support for the deployment of military troops to Afghanistan was garnered, sustained or lost in thirteen contributing nations. Public attitudes in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe towards the use of military force were greatly shaped by the cohesiveness and content of the strategic narratives employed by national policy-makers. Assessing the ability of countries to craft a successful strategic narrative, the book addresses the following key areas: 1) how governments employ strategic narratives to gain public support; 2) how strategic narratives develop during the course of the conflict; 3) how these narratives are disseminated, framed and perceived through various media outlets; 4) how domestic audiences respond to strategic narratives; 5) how this interplay is conditioned by both events on the ground, in Afghanistan, and by structural elements of the domestic political systems. This book will be of much interest to students of international intervention, foreign policy, political communication, international security, strategic studies and IR in general.

Finally, here below some reviews of the manuscript:

‘This volume is a must-read to understand 21st century conflict. In today’s supercharged world of social networks, instantaneous communications, and suddenly constructed narratives, national leaders must bring their publics along. The long, difficult, and still unfinished NATO campaign in Afghanistan offers many lessons — both good and bad – for how to approach to aspect of creating security in a highly complex world.’ — Admiral James Stavridis, Supreme Allied Commander at NATO 2009-13 and Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, USA

‘How states explain their participation in conflict is not a passive reflection of a policy position, but actively shapes the scope of the conflict itself, and frames how actions are understood by the enemy, one’s own side, and other audiences. So strategic narrative matters. This admirable book, focused primarily on strategic narrative and domestic audiences, serves as a guide for policymakers and students of contemporary conflict.’ —Emile Simpson, Harvard University, USA

‘How do Western governments persuade their publics of the necessity for fighting “wars of choice”? This fascinating volume explores the importance and effectiveness of different national strategic narratives for the war in Afghanistan and, in so doing, explains why some Western states were more successful than others in sustaining public support for this long and costly war.’ — Theo Farrell, King’s College London, UK

Some events will be organized soon (also in Italy) to present the book. So, stay tuned.

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Top 5 by Venus in Arms – week 42 (ISA version)

This week we present a different version of the “Top 5”. Indeed, here below you’ll find our Top 5 of the most interesting and promising panels  at the next ISA’s 56th Annual Convention. As we’ve already illustrated in a previous post, Venus in Arms will be the 2015 Annual Convention in New Orleans (February 18-21), presenting papers on public opinion and (counter)narratives, Italian operations in Libya, Haiti and Somalia.

We will provide a detailed account of the Conference (“Global IR and Regional Worlds. A New Agenda for International Studies”) at the end of the next week. So far, here the list of “our favorite panels” (in chronological order):

1) “Parties, Coalitions, And Foreign Policy“.Wednesday, February 18, 10:30 AM – 12:15 PM. This panel addresses the influence and impact of indivdiual political parties as well as coalition government on foreign policy. The Discussant of the panel will be Juliet Kaarbo.

2) “Economic Austerity And Military Power“. Wednesday, February 18, 1:45 PM – 3:30 PM (yes, as it always happens, two interesting panels at the same hour).  How do states implement military spending cuts? When do states demilitarize and when do states engage in strategic reform in response to cuts? What are the effects of these mandated cuts on military effectiveness, strategy, and power? The panel on military spending cuts takes both contemporary and historical approaches to shed light on these questions.

3)”Foreign Fighters: A Decade Of Scholarship“. Wednesday, February 18, 1:45 PM – 3:30 PM. This roundtable will host several scholars who have written extensively on the topic. The Chair of the panel will be David Malet

4) “Game Of Thrones And World Politics: Empirical Investigations“.Wednesday, February 18, 4:00 PM – 5:45 PM. The panel examines the relationship between the Game of Thrones books and/or HBO hit series and “first-order” global political phenomena. The aim is to focus specifically on empirical investigations of the circulation of pop culture ideas in actual foreign policy / global processes. the Chairs are Dan Drezner and Charlie Carpenter. Here a fantastic presentation of the panel.

5) “The Un-Informed Public? Foreign Policy And Public Opinion“. Friday, February 20, 4:00 PM – 5:45 PM. This panel brings together papers that explore the influence and impact of public opinion on the formulation and conduct of foreign policy. ViA will be at the panel as a Discussant.

We will be also at the “IR Blogging Awards and Reception, Sponsored by Sage and Duck of Minerva

You’ll find additional details on the whole program me here


See you in New Orleans

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Italian public opinion and counter-narratives

As already described in a previous post, Venus in Arms will be at the next ASMI Conference (London, 21-22 November 2014). The Annual Conference of The Association for the Study of Modern Italy (ASMI) will be organized at the Italian Cultural Institute in London.

Here you’ll find the final programme of the event.

The title of the conference is: The Italian Crisis: Twenty years onIndeed, in 1994, the Association for the Student of Modern Italy organised a conference around the theme of the ‘Italian crisis’. As reported in the official website of the conference: “Silvio Berlusconi had just been elected as Prime Minister and the country was in dire economic straits. The political system was in tatters after the tangentopoli scandals. The crisis was analysed from a political, cultural, historical and social viewpoints in a conference which was extremely well attended and led to fascinating discussions after every paper. This year the call for papers was looking for original work on the history, culture, economics and politics of the last twenty years in Italy, as well as papers which take a comparative and transnational approach to the Italian crisis“.

Venus in Arms will present the paper: “An alternative view: Counter-narratives, Italian public opinion and security issues”. This is the abstract:

Recent studies have persuasively illustrated how the strategic narratives crafted by policy-makers shape public attitudes regarding military operations. Strategic narratives are conceived as crucial tools in order to convince the public in case of international conflicts. Consistent and compelling narratives enhance the perceived legitimacy of military operations. However, exogenous elements such as the presence of alternative counter-narratives play a considerable role in hindering a wider acceptance of the message. The goal of the paper is to investigate the main contents and the effectiveness of counter-narratives developed by political parties,“pacifist groups” and associations in order to contrast the “plot” designed by Italian governments to gain the support of public opinion towards relevant security issues (operation in Libya, F35, weapons sent to Iraq). What have been the key-elements of the counter-narratives? Why have some counter-narratives been more effective than others? Drawing on discourse analysis and interviews, the paper aims to answer these questions, examining how and to what extent the counter-narratives have successfully contested the official strategic narratives.

We promise a detailed account of the conference. See you there.

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The War That Wasn’t There? Italy’s “Peace Mission” in Afghanistan, Strategic Narratives and Public Opinion



By Fabrizio Coticchia

The military operation in Afghanistan is the most important mission undertaken by the Italian armed forces since the end of WWII. The public opinion supported the intervention until mid-2009. Then, the percentage of approval for the mission dropped considerably. In a paper that “Foreign Policy Analysis” has just released in early view (here gated) I’ve examined different perspectives in order to understand the drop of consensus that occurred in the Italian case.

The aim of the paper (co-authored with Carolina de Simone) is to investigate the features and evolution of the main strategic narratives adopted by political leaders to interpret the Italian military involvement in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2011. The research stems from the perspective suggested by Ringsmose and Børgesen on the key role of strategic narratives in the understanding of the variations in public opinion support towards military operations. The questions this study seeks to answer are: how have politicians crafted strategic narratives on the Afghan mission? How have these storylines influenced public opinion during the conflict?

The level of support towards the operation in Afghanistan collapsed after the mid of 2009. A first supposition related to this drop deals with the correlation between mounting casualties and the fall of public approval. The issue of casualty intolerance has been repeatedly used in the literature to explain the loss of popularity of military operations. Other possible interpretations are related to the traditional approaches in public opinion literature that focus on the impact of the “fatigue” towards a protracted conflict, the scarce policy success of the mission or the dramatic changes of aims and conditions of the intervention. Then the paper compares the above-mentioned views with the “strategic narrative assumption”. According to such perspective, the type of (ineffective) narrative adopted by the Italian governmental actors plays a prominent role in understanding of the decline of support in 2009. Has the disproportionate gap between the storyline, based on the traditional values of peace and multilateralism, and the war-torn reality on the ground, affected the level of public approval? Or have the ways through which narratives were built in 2009 played a more important role?

The preliminary findings of this study confirm the relevance of strategic narratives to interpret the attitudes of public opinion. No significant correspondence between casualties and support emerge, while the results reveal that the ineffective and inconsistent way in which a well-established and shared strategic narrative (centred on peace and multilateralism) has been modified is the key variable for understanding the collapse of public approval. The strategic narrative crafted by governmental actors after 2008, which aimed at explaining the change of approach on the ground, has proven unsuccessful. This failure can be weighed against the main features of a “strong narrative”, such as those identified by Ringsmose and Børgesen: the strategic narrative of the Italian government showed lack of clarity, incoherence, inconsistency, and inability to prepare the public for dramatic events.

The paper, which relies extensively on empirical data such as polls and interviews, illustrates that cultural variables were crucial in order to understand Italian military operations abroad. A shared strategic culture based on the frames of multilateralism and peace remains embedded in Italian public opinion. Without a coherent and appropriate (alternative) strategic narrative, the attempt to shift from traditional conceptual references, even when the context of the intervention requires adopting new frameworks, is doomed to fail. This is exactly what happened in the case of ISAF.

Here below the abstract:

Factors as culture, values, and symbols are crucial to understand the evolution of the Italian foreign and defense policy. However, scholars’ attention to such variables in the study of Italian defense policies still leaves many gaps. Since the end of the Cold War, Italian troops have been constantly engaged in military operations abroad spreading a “peacekeeper image” of Italy in the international arena. The goal of this work is to investigate the features and the evolution of the main strategic narratives adopted by political leaders to interpret the Italian military involvement in Afghanistan. How have politicians crafted strategic narratives on the Afghan mission? How have these story lines influenced public opinion during the conflict? Has the disproportionate gap between the storyline, based on the traditional values of peace and multilateralism, and the war-torn reality on the ground, affected the level of public approval? Or have the ways in which narratives were built in 2009 played a more significant role? In order to answer these questions, this paper relies on polls, content analysis of parliamentary debates, and public discourse analysis (2001–2011).

If you are interested in strategic narratives look also at here, here, here, and (in Italian) here.


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Top 5 by Venus in Arms – week 2

Looking back at the dramatic siege of Sarajevo after 20 years. Our advice is to read (again and again) probably the greatest paper ever written on the Bosnian war: “The Clandestine Political Economy of War and Peace in Bosnia” by Peter Andreas (here, gated). As stated by the author, the 1992–1995 war cannot be explained without taking into account the “critical role of smuggling practices and quasi-private criminal combatants”.

Current conflicts: Russia and Ukraine. Kyle Dropp and other scholars provide an interesting perspective on public opinion and military interventions. According to their post on The Monkey Cage, the less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene!

A lot of debate on elections in Afghanistan. We suggest two different broader views on the war. Steve Sternlieb emphasizes how inadequate revenue is threatening Afghanistan’s stability. While  Antony Cordesman warns against lack of strategic plans for the country.

The Atlantic” focuses on religion and violence, highlighting the interesting results of a recent report by the Pew Research Center. Surprisingly enough, some of the least religiously diverse countries also experience some of the most religious violence (here the post by Emma Green)

Final recommendation. “The Guardian” reveals new Russian plans of annexation! Is Venice in trouble? (Mmm, maybe the gigantic cruise ships are more dangerous than Putin for the “Serenissima”)


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