Recently, the ‘war stories’ of the leaders of the major Western powers — the United States, Britain and France — have adhered to two major plots: the heroic epic or the sad tragedy. The heroic script defines and explains conflicts in which the Western powers have wished to play an active role: the Persian Gulf (1990—1), Kosovo (1999) and the current war against terrorism. The tragic plot has been employed when they have ruled out forceful outside intervention, like in Bosnia (1992—5) and Rwanda (1994). Both scripts are highly problematic conflict resolution approaches: they point to black-and-white, aggressive denouements. An alternative is the comic plot: a story traditionally used in ordinary disagreements among friends, problems with ‘small foes’ and disputes with important rivals. Adopting a comic framework for most of the conflicts in the world would give the Western leaders more room to negotiate, to try out new ideas and to back down on unsuccessful strategies.
This article examines the rhetorical action of the Western major powers in defining two important international confrontations, the 1990-91 war against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf and the 1992-95 conflict among the Serbs, Croats and Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The leaders of the United States, Great Britain and France constructed the efforts of the anti-Iraq coalition as a `just war with a new world order as its goal' but represented the Bosnian strife as a `cruel and meaningless slaughter that outside forces can do very little about', and thereby selected appropriate policies for dealing with the situations. In their statements in the Gulf, the Iraqi president was made the ultimate enemy, dangerous and evil, who had to be crushed in order to make the world safe again. As to Bosnia, the evanescent enemies left the Western powers bewildered and unwilling to dictate any solutions. Besides framing the conflicts as heroic battles or tragic feuds, the Western leaders employed various metaphors to make the distant events and their policies seem significant and coherent. The apparently harmless and light-hearted comparisons with children's stories, card games, business deals, and sports competitions induced forceful action in the Gulf; by contrast, paralleling the situation with sad dramas, horrible nightmares, violent natural catastrophes, and treacherous morasses made decisive interference impossible in Bosnia. The Gulf metaphors made clear to all the folly of leaving the princess in the lurch, not playing a winning hand, passing up the chance for a great investment, or canceling the Cup Final. In Bosnia, the metaphors made it unthinkable to dash onto the stage to defend the scapegoat, act on the visions of a frightening dream, stand in the way of the whirlwind, or try to cross the quicksand.
Our conceptual systems are metaphorical in nature: We understand complex issues by comparing them with relatively straightforward and familiar ones. Renowned experts of nonviolent problem solving, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Luthuli, and Martin Luther King, Jr., have structured difficult conflicts in terms of roads, gardens, building projects, and riddles. The conflict rhetoric of leaders of the major Western powers-the United States, Britain, and France-is most often studied in violent contexts, vis-à-vis epic battles and tragic catastrophes. However, when dealing with mundane disputes among fundamentally likeminded parties, disagreements with petty challengers and debates with major powers with different political systems, for example, US, British, and French leaders employ many of the metaphors that nonviolence activists do. Understanding and expanding this sphere of comic conflict resolution-where ingenuity and reflection instead of black-and-white juxtaposition are the normis essential in the search for a more peaceful, yet vibrant world.
In a world where convincing explanations take narrative form, IR theories, too, resort to the basic plot alternatives of tragedy, romance, comedy and irony/satire. While the tendency to view the human condition as tragic pertains especially to the so-called realist school, romantic IR storytellers dwell, for example, among liberals, Marxists and peace researchers. This paper focuses on the lesser analyzed plots of comedy and irony/satire, finding comic traces in normative, constructivist and critical IR research, and the ironic/satiric mood in poststructural studies. Using the criteria of nonviolence, flexibility, self-reflection and innovativeness, the paper evaluates the relative merits and downsides of the different plots, and takes a stand in favor of comic IR theories. The paper argues that comic theories are best equipped to come up with novel solutions to grave world political problems. Mildly hopeful comedies steer clear of tragic despair, exuberant romantic optimism and satiric cynicism. International relationsboth in theory and practiceoften seem chaotic enough: events are difficult to explain afterwards, let alone to predict beforehand, and contradictory interpretations abound. As individual happenings, international relations, as any other human activity, would be incomprehensible. As part of a story though, we can bring some order and meaning into the chaos, and as various stories we can at least compare the competing explanatory bids. Stories turn mere motion into purposeful action, physical movement into something symbolically communicable. In narratives about international relations, state actors often have clear roles and moves are usually made for a reason. What might appear as random bustle is transformed into clear-cut endeavours with beginnings and endings. This paper studies different plot structures used in framing international relations in scholarly discourses. First, attention is given to the role of the narrative in general and the basic plot alternatives. Then, choices explicitly made and discussed in IR researchnamely, references
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