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  • Narrative and the Making of U.S. National Security by Ronald R. Krebs
  • David A. Welch
Narrative and the Making of U.S. National Security. By Ronald R. Krebs (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2015) 410 pp. $99.99 cloth $34.99 paper $28.00 e-book

Most students of international politics assume that states’ foreign and security policies are calculated expressions of rational self-interest. Those of a “realist” bent privilege national interest and systemic pressures and constraints, such as the international distribution of power; “liberals” privilege the interests of powerful domestic actors; Marxists privilege the interests of economic classes; a few privilege the interests of specific individuals, primarily national leaders. Almost everyone assumes that narratives do not matter—that they are outcomes or epiphenomena of policy, not causally significant permissive conditions or constraints.

Krebs disagrees. In this fascinating and erudite book, he argues that no foreign or security policy is possible that is inconsistent with a dominant social narrative about what is important and what is prudent. A dominant narrative is “a realized hegemonic project,” “a social fact, not [End Page 250] an object of active political challenge” (5).1 In “routine times,” debates about policy take place within the dominant narrative; in “unsettled times,” competing narratives vie for dominance. What predicts success, Krebs argues, is a function of three factors—structural context; the institutionally determined narrative authority of the contestants; and the rhetorical strategies that contestants adopt, which, broadly speaking, fall into either an “argument mode” or a “storytelling mode.” Argument works best in settled times; storytelling works best in unsettled times (42). Counterintuitively, Krebs claims that policy failure can reinforce a dominant narrative and policy success can open space for a new one—a pattern, he insists, that can be rendered intelligible by means of the “linguistic turn” that he advocates and seeks to demonstrate, but not by competing analytical approaches.

To buttress his claims, Krebs uses a combination of detailed case studies—successful and unsuccessful attempts by U.S. presidents (institutionally authoritative narrators) to advocate specific policies and/or change dominant narratives—and both qualitative and quantitative content analysis. The case studies include Franklin Roosevelt’s attempts to convince the American people to embrace a more interventionist role in the early stages of World War II, and Ronald Reagan’s attempts to legitimate his efforts to undermine the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Krebs uses quantitative content analysis of presidential statements and speeches to assess the rhetorical mode, and qualitative content analysis of editorials in The New York Times (generally liberal editorially) and The Chicago Tribune (generally conservative) to gauge the durability of what he calls “the Cold War consensus.” He uses less-detailed discussions of key events—such as the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, and the attack of 9/11—to flesh out the analysis of key inflection points, and counterfactual argument to reinforce his assessments of the role that rhetorical strategies played in both successes and failures. Given the sheer number of moving parts in Krebs’ orrery, such methodological eclecticism is both appropriate and welcome.

Readers will judge for themselves whether, at the end of the day, Krebs has made a compelling case. I agree that narrative context is important and that presidential rhetoric can make a difference—though whether major or marginal is difficult to decide. What might give readers most pause is Krebs’ energetic attempts to discount the explanatory power of psychology (for example, 55, 93). Language is, after all, software; psychology, being hardware, is more basic. Cognitive and motivational psychology provide ample resources for making sense of people’s receptivity to competing narratives, which are, in fact, merely “schemata” by another [End Page 251] name.2 Cognitive and motivational psychology also immediately render intelligible such phenomena as an escalating commitment to a losing course of action, which, contrary to Krebs’ account, is neither counterintuitive nor poorly understood.3 Social psychology provides the resources for “scaling up” individual psychology. My general impression was that Krebs treats psychology as an enemy when it is, in fact, an ally. But perhaps I would have been more receptive to Krebs’ counter-hegemonic analysis in these unsettled intellectual times had he employed...


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