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Losing Narratives

Not everyone understands narratives as weapons. Not everyone sees the task and purpose of live influence and information operations. And that is generally okay, up until the point it is not. Which is now.

Take the UK for example, posturing and bounding around like the bullish remnant of empire it really is.

Having diminished its reputational standing and compromised its economic structural integrity - through a combination of zealous ideology and inbred incompetence - it has now entered into a phase of narrative projection in order to try and force a better hand to be dealt to it.

"The truth of Britain, if you pull back the curtain, is simply that the wizard is on life support and Oz is falling to pieces."

The UK's first target is the European Union, using its own designed concept of "vaccine nationalism" to erode domestic support for the European Union as the British government's own inadequate trade deal crawls into a ditch to die in agony, and to create tensions around Northern Ireland - painting itself as the "good guy" in a clear attempt to get back into the graces of President Biden.

Having failed to induce their desired "EU intransigence" narrative during the Brexit transition period, the British have now flipped the switch on more unsavoury tactics. The British government is now desperately fighting its own population, Europe, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and itself, deploying a variety of narrative strategies and influence operations in tandem in the hope that one sticks or the the tsunami of conflicting truths creates submission by other means.

Europe is struggling with this for a number of reasons, the primary being that the trade bloc does not have the statecraft or federal authority required to successfully exist in a world of narrative strategies, while also needing to maintain a common united front. The member states, if they wish to preserve the project, are going to have to move towards united STRATCOM and military. It is inevitable.

Not content, however, with gaslighting and deflecting blame for poor governmental performance, the UK has also decided to rattle its rusty sabre at China (and by proxy its operational partner Russia). Having been laughed off over its near meaningless threats surrounding Hong Kong, the next British move is to attempt to join the Asia-Pacific trade alliance while China restricts passport validity on the old colony. Domestically in the UK this is being pushed as a beneficial trade deal - despite being useless to both the import and export markets - but the reality is a softer-power angle of an attempted attack on Beijing. The visible hope the British have set out is that the US will also join, which points directly back to the attempts to curry favour with a Brexit-displeased Biden administration over the Irish border. All the while, they use this to distract from growing trade friction on the doorstep and weave a transfer of blame to the EU for not immediately rewriting the trade deal the British ham-fistedly negotiated and signed off without real scrutiny only weeks ago.

Overall, the British narrative strategy is the same it always has been: projection of power which died long ago, ignition of domestic nationalism in a crisis, and the access-by-arrogance which is carved into the psychology of ruling elites by the privilege they come from. It relies upon the foreign image of Britain as dour and dull - a caricature now almost completely eroded, though the British don't seem to understand this yet; upon the flawed or nature of others such as the EU creating unwitting subservience through inaction; and upon the complicity of the UK population - through partnership for profit or plain ignorance. At every opportunity they are chancing, little more than predatory daytraders in public office.

The truth of Britain, if you pull back the curtain, is simply that the wizard is on life support and Oz is falling to pieces.

"There is nothing which can effectively be done about China. It's too big and it's too late and it will just keep coming - the very practical lessons learned by soldiers in Viet Nam and Korea about tsunami waves of unrelenting opposing forces can be applied at scale."

China and Russia are playing a very different narrative game, reliant not on domestic populations but, rather, on external arrogance and intemperance - in particular that of non-state actors and affiliations without sufficient authority or authority to enter the arena safely, such as the EU.

China doesn't have a problem with the rest of the world, and this is meant two ways. Firstly the rest of the world is not a problem to Beijing as long as it isn't aiming at China, and secondly the rest of the world isn't a problem because there is nothing which can effectively be done about China. It's too big and it's too late and it will just keep coming - the very practical lessons learned by soldiers in Viet Nam and Korea about tsunami waves of unrelenting opposing forces can be applied at scale. It's not even particularly about expansionism or attack, but more about preserving its own culture, defences, and system of order as the world tumbles towards climate induced resource shortages. In those circumstances, individualism is unlikely to survive and the West must wrestle with this.

China has aligned itself with Russia, with cyber offensives operating quietly alongside one another and narrative strategies ticking along for all to see and nobody to really notice. Take the joint announcement that disinformation and foreign interference would be subject to action if it persisted some months ago. They meant it. China was firing warning shots at the British influence operations in Hong Kong bearing SCL style hallmarks, and Russia was grinning broadly at American and British state and non-state forces, which leads us neatly to Russia more directly.

"Having a lot of people talking about influence operations does not mean they have any expertise in influence operations, and this makes life so much easier for people who do. You don't have a dog and bark yourself, as the saying goes."

If you were to listen to pundits and the circuit of non-state actors, you'd believe that Putin was in grave danger and his vision of Russia was somehow being toppled by a YouTube video and Navalny's return (and imprisonment). If you were to listen to that, you'd largely be missing the narrative and the point.

All Russia has done is turned 2016 on its head and asked narrow-focused people, who are still irritated about it, to walk up a trail of breadcrumbs and help amplify some narrative messaging.

While American and European allegations of foreign interference were muddy and long-winded, an international campaign to topple the Russian government and encourage citizens to real-world action is clearly visible on open social media. No detached assets operating clandestinely through troll farms, no spies, just open attack.

While in America and across Europe peaceful protest was met with teargas and the police routinely shoot to kill depending on skin colour, Russia has not used teargas but preventative arrest tactics and professionalised public order deployments, and videos have spread showing officers carefully reading through paperwork while executing high profile arrests.

While western show trials and justice systems have been put on display as flawed, discriminatory - punishing black communities while setting middle-class white shooters free on bail - and open to abuse of pardons and clemency systems, Russia publicly showed Navalny sentenced to time in prison for a breach of a previous suspended sentence.

These are simple narratives and easy to spot. Clear and unambiguous. And yet, because of intemperance and ignorance, the same people engaged in an open and inarguable attempt to interfere in Russia's domestic governance have amplified this narrative strategy, ensuring it is seen by countless millions worldwide. Whether these are true or manufactured narratives doesn't matter, because the job has been done at zero cost - Russia just had to wait for the inevitable retaliation of a western superiority mindset to make what it says credible. Like stealing candy from a baby, really.

This underlines neatly (and permanently) that having a lot of people talking about influence operations does not mean they have any experience in influence operations, and this makes life so much easier for people who do. You don't have a dog and bark yourself, as the saying goes.

"Narrative isn't a toy, you see. Yet it's played with all too often by people who don't understand it. Narrative is a weapon in the hybrid warfare arsenal and has tendency of backfiring if not handled with care."

America is working through a somewhat difficult reset and has not yet fully realised it is dealing with societal gangrene rather than the usual - and very temporary - damage of the Republican to Democrat change cycle. Subsequently, the US narrative is currently one of domestic redefinition and re-establishing its reliability as a credible and stable force in the West.

This is the doldrums of America's voyage but, as long as it deploys a Monument approach to dealing with hybrid societal threats, it remains capable of getting back on course. The will to do this is, however, a different matter and early indications are not a source of hope.

The problem faced by the West in general isn't one of conventional statecraft or the recovery from successful hybrid offensives of the last few years. It is actually the proliferation of non-state actors who've developed eco-systems to support niche activity without the weight of experience behind it. Subsequently, these forces blunder around like a lost brigade, fighting campaigns based on flawed understanding and handing the field unwittingly to hardened veterans of information warfare.

At best these groups are exploits waiting to be accessed, in particular where they rely on their ability to find open source materials in a world where everything is pliable. Just as the British are a route to seeing the dead magic of the Emerald City, the information warriors of the last five years provide a window onto a near future of cyclic misjudgments and repetition of mistakes, producing a self-compounding loss of control.

Narrative isn't a toy, you see. Yet it's played with all too often by people who don't understand it. Narrative is a weapon in the hybrid warfare arsenal and has tendency of backfiring if not handled with care.

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