The predominant concern of many studies so far is with understanding and explaining why a foreign policy fiasco has occurred and how to avoid them. They take the assessment of a foreign policy episode as a ‘fiasco’ for granted. They do not problematize such judgments but take them as starting points for their explanations of foreign policy failures and for the conclusions to be drawn from these explanations. Explicitly or implicitly, therefore, the analysis of foreign policy fiascos tends to follow the foundationalist and positivist tradition that has long been dominant in policy evaluation studies. According to this perspective, policy failures are objective facts that can be independently identified and verified. Thus, policies count as a failure if they fall short of certain objective criteria or benchmarks for success. In the narrowest sense, the classic model of policy evaluation starts out from a policy’s official objectives and considers the policy a failure if it does not meet these objectives. In a slightly broader sense, rationalist understandings of policy failure may also bring in the costs of a policy, the damage caused by it as well as the policy’s unintended and adverse consequences.
This objectivist approach to studying policy failures, however, fails to acknowledge that ‘failure’ is not an inherent attribute of policy, but rather a judgment about policy. Policy outcomes do not speak for themselves, but only come to be seen as successful or unsuccessful because of the meaning imbued to them in political discourse. This critique is the main point of departure for a constructivist and interpretivist strand in policy evaluation studies, which conceives of policy fiascos as an ‘essentially contested’ concept. Since there are no fixed or commonly accepted criteria for the success or failure of a policy, such judgments are always likely to be subjective and open to dispute. This holds no less for efforts at evaluating policies against the benchmark of officially stated objectives, which will often be vague, diverse and conflicting and which may have been formulated more for their strategic or symbolic functions than as a realistic guide to policy making.
Foreign policies that are seen as successful by some may thus well be dismissed as fiascos by others. Such opposite judgments can come, for example, from differences in the timeframes or geographical and social boundaries of assessing the impacts of a policy as well as from cultural biases or diverging evaluations of available alternatives. They may also be driven by uneven levels of expectation or aspiration. Most notably, however, the designation of (foreign) policy as success or failure is inescapably intertwined with politics. Policy evaluations will thus be influenced by the values, identity and interests of the evaluator and may reflect underlying power relations in the political arena or in society at large. In particular, labelling a policy or decision a ‘fiasco’ is an intensely political act. It makes for a powerful semantic tool in political discourse to discredit opponents and seek political advantage. At the same time, accusations of policy failure are likely to provoke political conflict over the interpretation of a policy.
Along these lines, we follow the constructivist critique of objectivist approaches to policy evaluation and conceptualizes foreign policy fiascos not as facts to be discovered and explained, but rather as social constructs which are constituted in political discourse. While the discursive construction of fiascos will always be subject to contestation, the characterization of a foreign policy decision as a fiasco depends on the extent of intersubjective agreement in this regard, in particular among powerful political and social actors. Similarly, the difference between mere ‘failures’ or ‘mistakes’ and ‘fiascos’ in foreign policy has less to do with any objective measure of the scale of a failure or mistake, but more with their politicization in the public sphere. Political discourse, in this sense, can be seen as a struggle between competing claims which either attribute the ‘fiasco’ label to foreign policy decisions or reject such a label.
We thus understand foreign policy fiascos as significant foreign policies or foreign policy decisions which have been highly politicized in political discourse and which are widely seen by socially and politically relevant actors to involve blameworthy failures and mistakes of the responsible decision-makers. While we subscribe to a constructivist and interpretivist understanding of foreign policy fiascos, we reject purely relativistic accounts according to which foreign policy success or failure is completely ‘in the eye of the beholder’. Rather, we start out from the assumption that not all foreign policy decisions are equally likely to be constructed as ‘fiascos’ in political discourse, but that some claims to this effect are more convincing and powerful than others. Specifically, we suggest that foreign policy fiascos are constructed through narratives and that these narratives are more compelling if they can draw on arguments and characterizations that are widely seen in a certain context as plausible criteria and ingredients of foreign policy failures.
The role of narratives
While narratives can be simply understood as ‘someone telling someone else that something happened’ they nevertheless do political work as they play an important role in the constitution of norms, identities and ideologies and are fundamental to the construction of not only the individual and past historical world but also the current political world. There are two overlapping perspectives for why narratives are important for politics: A cognitive perspective based on the insights from narrative psychology and a cultural perspective inspired by research into historical narratives.
The cognitive perspective emphasizes that narratives are a fundamental part of human cognition. Narratives here are considered to be part of human mental activity and give meaning to experiences. Similar to metaphors or analogies, already adopted into the realm of politics and IR, narratives illustrate a cognitive process of making sense of the world through narration as humans general consider their life as a more or less coherent story.
From a cultural perspective narratives are a culturally embedded phenomenon which is part of every society. Myths and stories of the past and thereby information about our forefathers are an essential, not necessarily intentional, part of all forms of community, nation or state building where the constitution of a common identity is sought. Groups, be they local or regional communities, nation states or (international) organizations, narrate and re-narrate events of the past in order to establish shared values and norms and constitute and shared cultural identity.
Taking these two perspectives together, one can argue that individuals as well as communities make sense of themselves and of the social world around them through narratives which constitute their identities. As indicated above the analysis of narratives is of relevance particularly for political science and IR as it is relevant to our understanding of political reality and therefor essential for explaining or understanding political behaviour on all levels of political life in a community such as the family, the state or the international community. By placing oneself or a community (not necessarily consciously) in a particular narrative and thereby constituting identity narratives guide action.
A narrative approach to ‘failures’
Apart from the reasons for why narratives are important for politics, literary studies and Narratology point out that narratives are made up of three important elements including setting, characterization and emplotment which offer a framework for the analysis of narratives of foreign policy ‘failure’. We hold that all these narrative elements are needed in order to tell a story of failure to the general public.
With regard to the setting the idea is that similar to a stage play or a film the background or location in front of which the story unfolds is of importance for the narrative as a whole. In the case of narratives of failure in foreign policy, the setting, for example the diplomatic realm of the UN Security Council, has important implications for what is considered to be suitable behavior on the international stage. The representation of the setting indicates the set of norms and values the reader considers to be appropriate for the situation. Furthermore, narratives on foreign policy fiascos involve settings which allow for the possibility of alternatives and different behavior. Narratives in which agents are left with no alternative but to act the ways they did are generally not told as a fiasco.
The second essential part of narratives is the characterization of the agents involved in a story both on an individual and a collective level. We are all highly interested in what an agent in a story is like. In narratives of ‘failure’ this can include the characterization of individual decision makers such as head of government and the departmental ministers responsible for foreign policy, most notably the foreign minister. Specifically, the narrative construction of foreign policy fiascos can be driven by characterizations of decision-makers which cast doubt on their competence, credibility and sincerity. Examples include allegations of inexperience, weakness, dishonesty or arrogance as well as the imputation of personal or domestic political motives for foreign policy decisions. Furthermore, on the collective level the characterization can also focus on deficient process characteristics of policy making found in institutions such as the relevant government departments. Prime examples of such deficiencies include undue haste, excessive informality, biased information processing, ineffective checks and balances and lack of broader consultation.
Thirdly, the event and the emplotment are essential for a narrative: in a narrative something has to happen. In particular the causal dimension in relation to events and action is of importance here. What has commonly been termed ‘causal emplotment’ elaborates the relationship between the elements of a story mentioned above. It is through the emplotment of events and the actions of characters in front of a setting that they gain a narrative meaning. Emplotment allow us to weight and explain events rather than just list them, to turn a set of propositions into an intelligible sequence about which we can form an opinion. The notion of causal emplotment illustrates how events hang together. In the case of a fiasco narrative, the emplotment starts out with the labeling of an event or action as a fiasco, mistake, disaster or similar concept which highlights the significance of the policy in question and the severity of the damage done. The event or policy which is constituted as a fiasco and its consequences are described as highly negative. The fiasco is emplotted into a chain of events which have resulted in an event considered undesirable. In particular, ‘fiasco’ narratives may put foreign policy decisions in the context of doing harm to a country’s national interests, of not being effective in addressing the foreign policy problem at hand or of being inappropriate in view of international or domestic norms and expectations. What is more, the emplotment of narratives of foreign policy fiascos involves the explanation of why a failure has occurred and importantly who is to blame for it. Firstly, narratives of foreign policy fiascos depend on establishing a causal link between the actions or non-actions of one or more agents and the policies or consequences which are described as undesirable. Secondly, the narrative needs the allocation of responsibility and blame as a crucial ingredient to any social construction of policy fiascos on which the audience can form an opinion.
In order to further develop narrative analyses of foreign policy fiascos and to examine their empirical and methodological usefulness, one may identify at least three avenues for future research. First, the empirical scope of analysis needs to be expanded from a single case study to a broader comparative case study design. Most notably, such a comparative endeavor holds the promise of identifying common discursive elements of narratives of foreign policy fiascos. Second, future research should be mindful of the relationship between ‘fiasco’ narratives and counter-narratives. Counter-narratives contest the construction of foreign policy as a ‘fiasco’ and represent the legitimation discourse of foreign policy decision makers. Research should attend more specifically to the conditions under which they succeed or fail in avoiding the construction of foreign policy decisions as ‘fiascos’ in political discourse. Third, it would be fruitful to investigate cases of attempted but ultimately ‘unsuccessful’ narrative constructions of foreign policy fiascos. In particular, the inclusion of ‘near misses’ and ‘non-fiascos’ would promise insights into the discursive and contextual conditions under which fiasco narratives will likely be most compelling.