Everyone has a story to tell.
The story may or may not represent truth.
But strategic narration of an event can have a lasting impact on the mind of the person, shaping her/his attitude and outlook.
In the context of nations, telling stories is about setting a narrative, which is crucial to its existence, its flourishing, its capacities to finding allies and dealing with enemies.
It is defensive as well as offensive.
Powerful nations have mastered this art of narrative building.
Those nations who aspire to become global powers must do so.
This, in short, is a message that reverberates through The Ultimate Goal, a seminal book by Vikram Sood, former chief of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW).
From a former spymaster, Sood has metamorphosed into an accomplished writer of a kind.
His previous book, The Unending Game was a master narration of the nuances of espionage.
The second book makes a leap forward in highlighting the intricacies and importance of narratives.
Whereas the first book is a must read for those trying to understand how spy games are played between nations, the Ultimate Goal is a treatise for all those involved in and aspire to be powerful nations on a global scale.
‘Real power comes not from the barrel of a gun, but from those who control the narrative,’ Sood asserts.
The importance of narratives has been least studied at a time and age when the rampant use of social media creates its very own self propagating truth.
Sood fills in a critical gap in understanding the use of narratives.
Powerful nations use narratives to advance their agenda.
He deconstructs ‘the narrative’ and explains how a country’s ability to construct, sustain and control narratives, at home and abroad, enhances its strength and position.
‘Building narratives and sustaining them is part of the effort to control storylines, which in turn help control the world — the ultimate goal of the ambitious and powerful.’
A ‘narrative’ may not necessarily be based on truth, but it does need to be plausible, have a meaning and create a desired perception.
Intelligence agencies invariably play a critical role in this, an often-indispensable tool of statecraft.
During most of the 20th century, intelligence agencies helped shape narratives to advance their countries’ agendas through literature, history, drama, art, music and cinema.
Today, social media has become crucial tool in manipulating, countering or disrupting narratives, with its ability to spread fake news and provoke instant reactions.
The book makes a gripping start with an interesting anecdote that depicts murky Cold War politics and the intelligence games played by the then superpowers, the United States and the USSR, including the mysterious assassination of American President John F Kennedy in 1963, the military industrial complex and the US interventions in far flung theatres.
It then seamlessly travels into different regions of the world, talking about conflicts, global power politics and terrorism, all intertwined into the paradigm of setting narratives.
It succeeds in unmasking, bit by bit, the process of narrative building, its main drivers, tools and vehicles used by the then superpowers to shape and influence collective thinking for political outcomes favourable to them.
‘Propaganda always wins if you allow it,’ points out Sood.
Soon after 9/11, the US media began to carry sensational stories about the Iraqi weapons programme.
What followed thereafter is a military campaign that devastated Iraq, and in a way, provided the space for the birth of Islamic State.
More importantly, the shift of attention and troops to Iraq in 2003 changed the tide in Afghanistan and has led to the re-emergence of the Taliban since 2005.
Sood provides one of the scathing critiques of American strategic objectives in Afghanistan and West Asia.
He calls these a ‘failure’ which had led to rampant radicalisation in the region.
‘The real but undeclared truth was that the US was in the region to preserve its way of life and global dominance that is inherently based on an unlimited availability of cheap oil. Helping the region redeem itself in accordance with the American ideals was simply an excuse.’
It is evident that as the US attempts desperately to extricate itself out, it is leaving behind a highly destablised region, which will inevitably become the launching pad for terrorism 3.0.
Neatly interwoven into 12 chapters, the book probes how China is dealing with criticism over the deadly coronavirus — now ravaging the world — which emanated from its soil.
The former spymaster explains how it is trying to damage control a narrative that interferes with its geopolitical and economic goals and points out that the coronavirus crisis deepened the fault lines between China and the US under Donald Trump.
‘Narratives are not the truth; rather, they nudge you to understand the truth in a particular way, Sood adds.
China has succeeded in distancing itself from the ‘Wuhan virus’, the city where it originated, to maintaining the name as ‘Coronavirus’.
‘Narrative to be successfully sold requires a receptive audience,’ Sood adds. ‘It is like terror and insurgency.’
‘External assistance alone cannot create an insurgency simply by supplying funds and arms. There must be a local grievance — national, religious or ethnic, real or imaginary, created over time through propaganda — which is then exploited by the external entity to create an insurgent movement.’
Sood perhaps could have further elaborated on this aspect by analysing the use of narratives and branding used by international terrorist groups, particularly al-Qaeda, Islamic State and the Taliban. This could be extremely relevant in countering terrorism and insurgencies in the South Asian context.
In Afghanistan, the battle of narratives has played to the advantage of the Taliban.
The negative narratives emanating from that country, particularly as portrayed by the international media, has worked to the Taliban’s advantage and influenced international public opinion adversely.
But negative stories sell faster and the media — with its competition for higher TRPs and links to business houses with a profit motive — are seldom into objective reporting or reporting both sides of the story.
All this adds to the political economy of conflict and a lack of strategic communication strategy on the part of governments which this book could have further explored.
While much focus has been put on building narratives, not much has been explored in terms of counter narratives.
In the literature and strategies of countering violent extremism, counter narratives are critical in terms of neutralising the messaging from extremist groups.
Counter-narrative is messaging that offers an alternative view to extremist recruitment and propaganda.
These are considered crucial in countering the virulent ideology that aids extremists groups in recruitment, branding and execution of violent acts.
Putting out your message first is more important rather than merely countering them.
This is one of the key contributions of this book.
This finds resonance in the ‘The India Story’, where Sood points out how India’s narrative was created by the West, thereby creating a distorted image of the country.
To rise as a global power of consequence, India need needs to put out its own story.
As a civilisational power, ‘the first step would be to accept and propagate the notion that the country has a civilisational heritage that is much larger and older than its present history.’
Sood states that in crafting India’s new narrative, ‘It is important to make India’s past an inspiration for its future.’
Yet, he clearly states that ‘honouring the past by remembering it does not mean a return to obscurantism, exclusivism or fundamentalism. It is simply a conscious act of taking pride in one’s heritage… it binds diverse people together and transcends religion, language, caste and region.’
‘It means having one’s own narrative for the past, present and future.’
This would require a visionary and inclusive political leadership that can build on a narrative that includes and binds the diverse people in one common thread.
This book which is pathbreaking in the realm of narrative building will be useful not only to intelligence agencies worldwide, but will also attract a much bigger audience including policy makers, strategic planners, the military, the media, the film industry, psychologists and the corporate sector.
‘Narratives are for self-justification,’ Sood writes, ‘they are designed by the narrator not only to tell his version his way, but also to tell your version his way.’
None would have known this better.
Sood had been in the business of spy craft for decades.
In this book, he ably deconstructs and makes it easier for others to understand, learn and act.
Policy makers, strategic planners and practitioners need to pay heed to the utility of the narratives as brought out in this important and timely book to get on the global stage.
This article also appeared at Rediff.com