Strategic communications : A new field for rhetoric
Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric,
Centre for Rhetoric Studies,University of Cape Town
1. A recent National Summit on Strategic Communications afforded me the opportunity to observe, as a rhetorician, a field cognate to my current investigation into surveillance and secrecy, and this field is called « Stratcomm » or « strategic communications » (plural). Participants were US generals and admirals, NATO representatives, CCOs and diplomats, together with foreign delegations.
Stratcomm was originally invented by military personnel of the USA and NATO, an integrated communications strategy developed after the bombing campaigns of the former Yugoslavia (1995 and 1999), during the intervention in Afghanistan (since 2001) and, to a certain degree more difficult to identify, during the invasion of Iraq (2003). It is noticeable how the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps personnel are at the forefront of the field with an intellectual expertise I have already noted elsewhere.
While forming a single persuasive strategy tactics developed in the three military contexts mentioned were aimed at persuading four distinct audiences in regard of the appropriateness of these military actions and of the expected combined effect (stability, prosperity, peace etc.). The four rhetorical audiences were the personnel involved (NATO, Allies), local entities or collaborationists, the saved or subjugated populations (in military jargon, « populace ») and the international environment, whether in terms of organisational or of media.
This strategy was a sum of methods aimed at establishing an influence applied systematically by an entity that has already taken the power, in order to ensure that this overtaking is so internalised by those who are its targets that the entity in question occupies the entire field of application and completes its initial goal – a control accepted as permissible by its targets with a concomitant, gradual and publicized decrease in coercion.
The teams and the individuals who invented Stratcomm did so by the systematisation and extension of public relations techniques, information services, simple press agencies – all communicational practices that have become outdated and unsuitable for the dimension of the recent conflicts in which the newness (a genocide a one-hour flight away from Venice), the legality (the intervention in Kosovo) or the legitimacy (the invasion of Iraq) – without counting a return on investment – remain contested and where the political outcomes remain subject to controversy and serve, in the renewal of this form of dispersed guerrilla, to justify jihadist terrorism. In sum they moved into rhetoric.
Stratcomm, as described here, is recent but is already developed enough for the participants of this conclave to propose a transfer of skills from the military to the societal; namely to consider application to government action, and commercial, financial and industrial action (or « corporate »), and to the work of NGOs and INGOs. We are there, at the heart of an overall rhetorical strategy. Stratcomm wants to use the real (or imagined) gains of a military strategy of persuasion to formulate a general communications strategy applicable to all areas of public affairs.
It is in this that the rhetorician is interested, but I will focus here on the expectations of the military model and not on its transfer to the civil, the governmental or the entrepreneurial.
2. Stratcomm is above all an « economy » of persuasion: it strategizes rhetorically coercive acts, which are difficult to put in place; punitive measures, which are complicated to manage; material interventions, which are costly and garish and often perceived as an abuse of power, therefore suspicious to the population and international opinion. Stratcomm takes the reins of the brutal takeover, it softens the effect of the control until the power thus established presents itself to targets audiences as a natural benefit (e.g. the education of girls in Muslim countries). Stratcomm allows to act on the collective mindset and thus achieves (military) action, giving it « influence » rather than power. It is a rhetorical bringing together of « all available means » (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1355b)
The strategy of influence is to transform what is at first a coercive action of A on B, and which B resists actively or passively, in an acceptance by B that A acts in favour of B – naturally. Therefore, Stratcomm converts an action of A on B into « agency » of B, in other words, the transformation of the subjects of a brutal and external action into social agents in the sham of their autonomy. We know the formulae: « The Kosovars have taken control of their destiny, » « The Afghan government is in charge of its security, » etc. Indeed but, initially, if there is a « destiny » or « security, » it is due to an external intervention. The cause, which is external, becomes an internal finality thanks to Stratcomm.
« Agency » as a concept comes from the field of economy: an agent or authorised representative is one who acts on behalf of the principal. In this strategy the « populace » subject to the effects of control by the influence of Stratcomm can be persuaded that it act by itself when it is in reality acting on behalf of the principal – the occupying power. Influence is to make act and disguise this « to make act » as acting.
3. Now, the term « influence » is the unspoken element. However, by an inevitable return of the repressed during the more relaxed part of questions and answers, two of the participants – a rear admiral in charge of U.S. Navy Information and the director of communications and public diplomacy of the State Department – summarised their thoughts by stating that the whole system « boils down to influence. » The Marine went even further in this natural return to the rhetorical foundation of Stratcomm, beyond the effects of scientificity intended by flow charts and flashcards, when he affirmed that « speech-writing craft is essential. » He even came to abandon the idea that the role of a Stratcomm specialist is to « advise and counsel » the commander in chief, a traditional rhetorical role of adviser to the prince; in other words: how to influence who in the position of « commanding and controlling » admits that the use of brute force or legitimate authority must be extended by a force of influence, and agrees to put in place the necessary and placatory shams.
But this fundamentally realistic conception, in the Machiavellian sense and therefore exactly political, of the extension of the use of force by the persuasive influence, was never explicitly put on the table. There is a blockage and this blockage deserves scrutiny.
This methodological blockage comes from the fact that all intervening parties – even those who by profession are adept in the manipulation of information – insist repeatedly on this maxim: « Truth First, » or more precisely: « We must be the first to convey the truth » (for example in the episode of a US soldier who opened fire on villagers) in order to create a strategy of influence.
This statement and this will to be the « first to tell the truth » are curious in two regards: first, from a philosophical point of view, if a truth is « the truth, » little does it matter whether one is the first or the second to tell it. It is only if one wants to manage an information, i.e. shape its effects – or in short, to be rhetorical – that one insists on holding the advantage in the field of influence. Yet there is no doubt that this primacy displayed of the truth, expressed by general officers whose integrity is certain, operates from a « moral » conviction and that it is the ethical kingpin that « morally » backs, even ennobles, Stratcomm’s strategy: it is interesting that it is Hannah Arendt, and not a Stracomm operative, who declared : »To look upon politics from the perspective of truth means to take one’s stand outside the political realm. This standpoint is the standpoint of the truth teller, who forfeits his position-and, with it, the validity of what he has to say-if he tries to interfere directly in human affairs and to speak the language of persuasion or of violence. »
However the anti-political « truth teller » position is the one advocated by the sponsors and strategists of influence who claim to stand by Truth and by the use of force, whether military, economic or societal; in short, « political. »
4. There is a paradox here, and in my view a danger, that we would call self-defeating, an intellectual suicide. Influence is political by nature, therefore, by nature, amoral.
The paradox is the following: the moral philosophy of rhetoric, as I see it, is amoral and anti-truth, while military communication or Intelligence strategists, who are often accused of being liars or manipulators, defend (and believe in) truth and an ethics of language. Yet the foundation upon which the different versions of Stratcomm is : what is an action of influence?
Let us then go back to the Rhetoric.
Aristotle makes a fundamental distinction between the two types of actions that articulate a single act of persuasion. Specifically, an act of persuasion is a strategy that activates two tactics: the first tactic is called kinêsis and the second is energeia. In English: kinetic action and energetic action. If « kinetic » surprises, it is however a standard term in the U.S. military glossary: « kinetic action. »
The fundamental distinction made by Aristotle is between these two actions or tactics that together form a strategic action of persuasion, applicable to the action of influence.
– Kinêsis: an act is complete when the purpose of the act is attained, that is to say, when the action, the movement that moves it, leads it to its objective (I walk from a to b and I reach b). In rhetoric, as a technology for seizing or holding power, there is a kinetic action when a target audience accepts the validity of an argument of which it is the target.
– Energeia: an act of persuasion is truly realised when it achieves a complete form that stands out as the right method (even if I do not walk from a to b, I definitely know how to get there).
In other words, the kinetic action is material (I go from a to b), the energetic action is formal (I understand how to get there, the procedure); and the influential action is both physical and formal (if I go there, I know how to say how I got there; if I do not go, how would I have gone, and how does it work every time).
Let us now transpose this rhetorical scheme of action to Stratcomm. In the action of public persuasion or strategic influence it is not enough that a tactical action is fulfilled (we take imams to an allied country of moderate Islam, for them to see that Islamic law can operate in compatibility with the democratic rights of women, etc.) . But it is also necessary that, when the specific instance or example for action (that stimulates agency as defined above) is no longer present in the mind of those who have been exposed to it, the generalising energy of the example (a formal procedure) nevertheless still continues. This allows those who have been exposed to a given situation, to transfer and to apply the lesson to other comparable situations (e.g. the rights of children or the humane treatment of animals). In short, the dual action of persuasion must allow for a cognitive transfer: the kinetic action is specific and concrete. The energetic action is generalising and formal. The first tactic has to do with a precise target. The second tactic is a « training » of the minds. The two put together form a strategy of influence.
5. Stratcomm, as it now stands, comes up against the question of the truth and morality of information management. A disjunction is evident between who defines the policy to be pursued and who is in charge of the control centre where coordination must take place with those who conceive and manage the strategy of influence. A recent book by the North American essayist, Thomas E. Ricks, The Generals, delivers a merciless indictment on the strategic ineffectiveness of the U.S. military machine, echoing the more general condemnation by historian Richard Kohn: Nearly twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the American military, financed by more money than the entire rest of the world spends on its armed forces, failed to defeat insurgencies or fully suppress sectarian civil wars in two crucial countries, each with less than a tenth of the U.S. population, […] Why such a disjunction between enormous expenditures and declining capability? 
One solution would be found within Stratcomm’s effort to raise, through strategies of influence, the degree of effectiveness that exorbitant expenses and expansive force failed to produce. This shows the magnitude that this discipline of control is taking, if it resolves the theoretical issues that, as a rhetorician and from my vantage point, I believe must be raised.
-  This work is based upon research supported by the National Research Foundation of South Africa (grant 81695). Any opinion, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and therefore the NRF does not accept any liability in regard thereto.
-  Organised by Grupp Global Partners LLC, www.strategicsummit.com in Washington.
-  See my « Du secret d’Etat au Royaume-Uni : Classified. Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain », Centre français de recherche sur le renseignement, TL31, August 2013, https://cf2r.org/
-  The abbreviation varies: Stratcom, StratComm, Stratcomm but the fixed part, « communications, » remains plural.
-  http://www.aco.nato.int/stratcom.aspx
-  Chief Communications Officers.
-  See my « Patriotisme rhétorique, au cœur de l’Amérique » http://www.lesinfluences.fr/Patriotisme-rhetorique-au-coeur-de.html, and chapter « Onze Novembre à Washington », in my Paroles de Leaders (Bourin, 2011).
-  I quote from my notes the remarkable opening address delivered by General John Allen, former commander in chief of NATO in Afghanistan or ISAF. His intervention was his first « public » speech since having declined his appointment to the supreme command of this organization in Europe and taken early retirement. The text of the speech remains embargoed.
-  « Truth and Politics, » in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, Penguin, 1968, 570.
-  Quoted from my notes. Material embargoed.
-  Richard E. Ricks, The Generals: American Command from World War II to Today, Penguin, 2013.
-  Here, in other words, the US Army.
-  Richard H. Kohn, « Tarnished Brass: Is the U.S. Military Profession in Decline? », World Affairs, Spring 2009, p://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/tarnished-brass-us-military-profession-decline