Strategy and the Strategic Narrative in the Age of COVID-19


Image credit: Britannica


by Howard Coombs
CGAI Fellow
January 2021


Table of Contents

Strategy and the Strategic Narrative in the Age of COVID-19

The pandemic has presented many challenges in public and private life that have been partially or wholly overcome through various adaptations. It would be difficult to discover any aspect of Canadian affairs that has not been in some way affected by the exigencies of COVID-19. Norwegian peace and conflict studies researcher Gunhild Gjørv, in “Coronavirus, Invisible Threats and Preparing for Resilience” (NATO Review, May 2020), indicates that while it may seem alarmist to frame COVID-19 as a security threat, it does form part of a “continuum of insecurity” that must be addressed, as it enhances and initiates existing weakness and vulnerabilities in society. Gjørv focuses on increasing societal resilience, creating a knowledgeable citizenry better prepared to deal with “major shock”, through awareness created by education and information. She suggests that an informed populace can, through their understanding, reinforce the political and military connections between various organizations and thus increase societal resilience. Throughout this discussion, one should remain aware that this soft power is effective only if matched with the elements of hard power required to protect and defend Canadian citizens and their interests. Despite that premise, this article concentrates on increasing national soft power, through bolstering Canadian society.

Why focus upon increasing societal resiliency? Pressures upon intricate societal systems can be myriad. Many disintegrating influences can reduce the efficiency of complex governmental, fiscal, social and ecological structures. These influences include natural causes, like drought, fires, floods and seismic or volcanic activity; intentional threats, including grey-zone conflict, hybrid activities or war; or a combination of natural and man-made effects, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. These shocks can result in large stresses on social systems – some, like population migration, climate change and ecological breakdown, are examples that have historically foreshadowed the collapse of civilizations. One can argue that in this context, this pandemic’s cross-domain impact extends to the communication of national strategy that informs the Canadian public and mitigates insecurities.

Accordingly, this idea creates the need for a well-constructed strategic narrative to deepen Canadian societal resiliency. British researcher Emile Simpson explains the idea of the strategic narrative in War from the Ground Up: Twenty-First-Century Combat as Politics (2013). He writes that the “Strategic narrative expresses strategy as a story, to explain one’s actions.”  It serves several purposes, from aligning one’s own forces through the creation of common understanding and shared purpose, to convincing opponents and others of one’s policy goals or ends. Additionally, and importantly to ideas of enhancing societal resilience, the strategic narrative (1) allows those who are first responders to make decisions based on it and (2) ensures that civilian populations understand strategic objectives obviating the impact of stresses on societal systems. The shocks run the gamut of disintegrating influences all the way from natural events to adversarial activities.  In the latter case, it is necessary to provide narratives that overwhelm those of your opponent. These narratives must be a counter-message that serves the interests of those exposed to it, more so than those offered by other entities. 

Traditional strategy creation views the overarching goals, or the ends, of alliance, coalition or national objectives constructed at the highest levels of policy-making. The ends are strategic objectives co-ordinated in a way that allows the attainment of these goals using elements of power (diplomatic, informational, military and economic) either in combination or singly, using options – the ways – and resources or means. This systematic approach is envisioned as a top-down process that has the ends, ways and means clearly identified and promulgated in a systemic fashion from the highest to lowest levels of national execution via policies, implementation directives and plans. This way, the sometimes nebulous aims of policy are translated into tangible activities. The reality of this ends-ways-means paradigm is somewhat messier than theory would have one believe, particularly in the Canadian context. Canadian strategy-making, which is less constrained by process, is sometimes slightly incoherent and fragmented, with elements generated from the bottom up in a discursive fashion. However, the romanticized version of strategy is the one upon which most policy-makers and implementers would prefer to focus.

From a Canadian perspective, one impact of this systemic interpretation of national strategy process is to concentrate on traditional hierarchical communication and cede involvement with the broader information environment to others who may have agendas inimical to national interests or the well-being of Canadians. Even if other actors are benign, their messaging may not aid in developing or enhancing societal resilience. Through strategic communication, the Canadian government could use public diplomacy, public affairs, international broadcasting and information activities to promulgate strategic communication that supports national messaging. Various mass media should be used, including social media – an arena in which government has been reluctant to enter with a co-ordinated approach or establish and maintain a consistent presence. This inaction vis-à-vis social media must be resolved, as any gap in communications will be filled by misinformation and disinformation including that from adversaries bent upon destabilizing any strategic narrative. Only by addressing the communication of strategy and the strategy of communication can the narrative be embraced, conveyed and reinforced, with corresponding and timely positive societal effects.

Consequently, strategic narratives – or comprehensive stories that inform the public – can assist in fostering the societal resilience necessary to resist shocks and stresses. Furthermore, with a strategic narrative, one can form a solid core into which others (from individuals through various organizations to allies) can coalesce. While strategy and narratives should intertwine in a complex discourse, at the most basic level the strategic narrative is a story in which the complex ideas incorporated in strategy are simplified and made easily understandable for the audience. It should be tailored as needed to reach those for whom it is intended. There are four main elements: (1) a protagonist and an antagonist – people; (2) a world view or perspective; (3) an objective, which provides a purpose and (4) a manner of achieving the goal, thereby defining a process. The story allows people to identify with the strategic narrative and, in turn, the strategy. These activities create informed, resilient populations who will understand and deal with the major shocks that can be encountered by instabilities, including imperatives produced by COVID-19. To be effective, the strategic narrative must also reflect the activities conducted under its auspices. As a result, there should be no discontinuity between a Canadian strategic narrative and the activities conducted at home or abroad. A complete strategic narrative tells a story that is convincing to those who are exposed to it. It is not separate from strategy but complements it, reflecting ends, ways and means in a fashion nuanced for the intended audience. In doing so, this process, the product and its communication enhance the group’s resiliency. This means that from a national perspective, the strategic narrative supports Canadian societal resiliency, making Canadians better able to counter disintegrating factors and concurrently reinforcing vital and important interests with the public. Importantly, and bearing further thought and exploration, this approach could aid the creation of broad consensus and support of Canadian strategy and corresponding policy involving all elements of national power during and after the age of COVID-19.

I would like to express my gratitude for the advice and input of MCpl. Leo Coombs, 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron, Lt. Colin de Grandpre, 2 Service Battalion, Col. Pat Kelly, MSM, CD, Military Personnel Command, and Col. (retired) Alain Pellerin, OMM, CD, Royal 22nd Regiment. Also, I would like to acknowledge the encouragement of Dr. Dan Eustace, CD, Editor Royal Canadian Military Institute SITREP, to write this analysis. As always, all remaining errors are mine alone.


About the Author

Howard G. Coombs is an associate professor and the associate chair of War Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada, in Kingston, Ontario. He is also a part-time Canadian Army reservist with the Office of the Chief of Reserves, located at the Canadian Armed Forces National Defence Headquarters. Coombs received his PhD in military history from Queen’s University, in Kingston. His research interests are Canadian professional military education, Canadian military operations and training. In 2020, he was the first Canadian Mobilizing Insights in Defence and Security Programme (MINDS) Fellow at the NATO Defence College in Rome, Italy.


Canadian Global Affairs Institute

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