Most countries around the world are now going through a reconstruction process, as the pandemic left marks everywhere. However, in some places, especially in the Global South, states were already trying to become more stable, to rebuild themselves and emerge more resilient. This article discusses the importance of strategic communication in these endeavours, and its effects upon the 3Rs: reform, reconstruction and radicalization. It tackles the question of whether countries from the Global South could incorporate in their efforts some elements of the Western stratcom toolbox.
Finding the common ground
Since its birth, the European Union has gone through plenty and diverse challenges. These can be grouped in at least two categories. The first category includes the challenges which stem from the EU’s essence, or are imbedded in the very nature of the European project, such as creating a European identity while bringing together different cultures, traditions and languages, integrating new members and the withdrawal of old ones (i.e., Brexit), dealing with different living standards, national interests, histories and mentalities, geographic characteristics and security concerns. Ensuring that, at the end of the day, everyone is (or at least feels) better off has never been easy in the expanding European family.
The second category refers to external challenges through which the EU has had to navigate and find its way through, such as the financial crisis of 2008, the refugee crisis, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Besides these, other sweeping trends such as climate change, aging population, digital revolution, and internal and external disinformation campaigns, come with dangers and need adaptation and resilience.
The problems which the EU faced in the previous years, both intrinsic and extrinsic, could be compared, to some extent and keeping the sense of proportions, to the ones faced by the Global South countries in their efforts of reconstruction, reform and nation building. The West should not give lessons to the countries in the Global South. However, it can share from its own experience and the lessons it learnt along the way, from its successes and its mistakes, in a manner which is not patronising or paternalistic, but informative. Given that a common mantra of past years has been a Europe in crisis and, despite this narrative, Europe has still been able to move forward, why not make use of this experience in dealing with crisis and communicating solutions?
The architects of the African Union designed it on the template of the EU institutions. The two are spatially different, and probably also decades apart, and therefore a comparison between the two has obvious limits. However, tools and lessons which come from the challenges the EU faced along the way may prove useful. Not only may they be useful for a regional club of countries struggling to unite and find common interests, such as the African Union, but many countries from the Global South are comprised by a great variety of cultures, languages and religions and are in the pursuit of constructing a national identity and bringing about regional peace and stability.
Stratcom and the 3 Rs: Reform, Reconstruction and Radicalization
Strategic communication is an essential part in ensuring that countries’ efforts to reform and rebuild themselves bear results. After a crisis, be it provoked by civil war, conflict with other countries, natural disasters, or political changes, countries have to go through a rebuilding and stabilisation process. Each case is unique, as each state has different characteristics, and therefore each recipe for recovery may need periodic refinements, but the ingredients are more or less the same: establishing the right institutions, restoring effective governance, protecting human rights, stabilizing the economy, and improving social cohesion and reconciliation.
No matter what mix of ingredients and what path towards reconstruction a state chooses, strategic communication must be implemented for several reasons. First of all, it can be used to ensure that the state-society relations are rebuilt, so citizens trust that the government is working in their favour and is responsive to their opinions. Governments that put together a successful strategy cannot pursue it without having citizens’ support, and therefore we need to see an alignment of that strategy with communication. Second, in the process of nation-building, the relations between citizens need to be restored, and officials can increase social cohesion and resilience by promoting an authentic national narrative, as well as fostering a safe space for citizens to interact and create a sense of community. Third, a state can use strategic communication tools in order to reconnect and engage with the international community, attract partners and investors, and therefore aid the economic recovery process. Another point is that, if radicalization is taking place, many reforms and efforts might just not stick, as another narrative pushed by marginal/terrorist groups might prevail. States can use stratcom not only in their counter-terrorism policies, but also in the prevention phases of radicalization, by engaging in a dialogue with vulnerable communities, providing support and an alternative set of values, always in consultation with local stakeholders and making full use of local knowledge and sensitivities.
Potential lessons from the Western stratcom experience
A first example or lesson from the EU would be the challenge of finding a common project and common goals following major events, such as the financial crisis, Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. In each case, the EU Member States were affected differently from an economic, political and social angle. They also had different needs and expectations. Therefore, it has been a difficult task to negotiate and find solutions for all parties involved, to frame the issues so as to arrive at the best possible outcome. For example, after the financial crisis, richer states had to “bail out” the ones that were in a worse position. More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be one of the most complex challenges until now, triggering a medical and economic crisis, combined with social changes and tensions. However, the response from the EU has also been a historical one: the largest stimulus package ever financed has been approved, standing as an instrument designed to boost the post-pandemic recovery and pave the way towards a greener, more digital and more resilient Europe.
The diversity of interests and cultures is, at least from one perspective, problematic, and risks leading to sub-optimal results and inhibiting efficient decision-making. From a geopolitical point of view, security concerns have always been perceived differently in the EU, with Eastern Europe being more concerned with the dangers coming from Russia and the protracted conflicts in Europe’s Eastern and Southern Neighbourhoods. Further integration in aspects such as defence and energy has always been particularly tricky, as oftentimes national interests prevail and no common decision can be reached.
However, the key to managing different points of view stands in successful negotiation. In 2017, the European Commission under Jean-Claude Junker’s presidency presented a White Paper on the Future of Europe, setting on the table five scenarios for all Member States to choose, from “nothing but the single market” to “doing much more together“.This has been considered an intelligent move, as it did not include only one specific reform proposal with strong integration, and did not leave room for populists to hide behind duplicity, for example arguing for more benefits brought by common action but rejecting more integration. The debate regarding the future of Europe is now back on EU’s agenda, with the Conference on the Future of Europe, taking place under Ursula von der Leyen’s presidency, including conferences, consultation and debates with EU’s civil society.
As the international system has been increasingly characterised by great power competition, the EU started taking a more geopolitical stance and communicating a greater strategy for itself. But, at least up until a few years ago, there have been major difficulties in communicating strategically and formulating clear intentions regarding big ideas. The bureaucratic Europe silenced the political Europe, and therefore the EU’s objectives were quite limited from a strategic and communication point of view, leaving the impression of lacking ambition. The “strategic autonomy” has now become a buzzword in Brussels, who started communicating more clearly its ambitions, refusing to be a pawn caught between the powerplay of great powers, and deciding it wants to shape its own future, based on its own needs and values. We can therefore see a refinement and essentialisation of the EU’s positioning, but also an alignment of its strategy with communication. For sure, there are some aspects to be considered by those who do not want to be the grass for political and economic elephants such as the US and China.
The EU’s recovery and resilience plan is as much about mitigating the economic and social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic as it is about building back better – supporting reforms and investments which will make Member States’ economies and societies more resilient and sustainable in the face of challenges posed by climate change and digital transition. The focus of EU’s attention and resource allocation is drawn now to the big issues and trends that will set the tone for the next decade.
Moreover, the Conference on the Future of Europe represents, together with the recent Porto Social Summit– where EU leaders, European institutions, social partners and civil society representatives met to discuss how to set the European social policy agenda for the next decade – a chance to update the existing social contract and make necessary social reforms, to make concrete common steps towards the implementation of the principle that no individuals are left behind. The political turmoil seen in recent years has been topped with the problems brought by the pandemic, which aggravated inequalities and spurred people’s unhappiness with the current system. The steps the EU is taking in order to have an open dialogue with citizens will ensure that changes and reforms will not be taken only at a high level, but will be actually underpinned by the necessities and opinions of the civil society.
Where to start?
Countries that are in a process of reconstruction and nation-building should adapt these lessons to their own situation, and use strategic communication so that reforms gain popular traction and bear fruits. A strategy is needed to steer a country in the right direction, but it cannot succeed alone. It has to be complemented by strategic communication.
Moreover, there needs to be an increased emphasis on message segmentation and targeting. Although there is only one master narrative, different groups and stakeholders have to be dealt with in a different manner, depending on their needs. The recent focus of EU’s communication efforts on social aspects, although long overdue, is to ensure that no groups are left without a voice and the populist/extremist surge is contained. Countries need to adapt their message depending on their audience, and make sure that they extend communication practices towards new audiences as well.
Strategic communication must also be better integrated with mass communication, meaning that officials should employ and coordinate various communication methods and channels in order to provide clear and consistent messages that reach a vast majority of people. In many places, the pandemic gave a boost to these communication practices, as vital information regarding new regulation and measures had to reach everyone. Leaders should take note and be more visible and communicative not only during a crisis, but in general.