In the International Relations (IR) discipline, states often revolutionize military, economic, social, and political domains as their tools to achieve their national interests and influence other states.

This influence is used primarily to establish and exert hard power. On the other hand, soft tools exert powerful control over other states. One such tool in IR is “narratives.”  

States have long used narratives to gain influence and a weapon against other states, but only recently have IR studies started focusing on it.

They are a powerful feature characterized by political uncertainty, cultural diversity, and institutional complexity.

Narratives shape the way we see a particular object or subject. They help make sense and meaningfully order realities, forge collective identities and create normative guidance along future trajectories.

Narratives hold great power over how people perceive certain things. As Gabriel Garcia Márquez enunciates that what matters the most is what someone remembered and how someone remembered it to tell it.

If one profoundly investigates any concept, one will understand that there is a story behind it. This story builds the narrative. While the story itself will be constant, the narrative will vary, depending on who is telling it and how they choose to tell it.

The different versions are not necessarily all right or wrong, but they are formed according to the specific manners in which they are perceived and narrated.

They are something passed on from one person to another in a way they were explained to or, in the broader sense, how those people understood the phenomenon of the world.

For instance, the common knowledge is that Neil Armstrong was the first person to land on the moon.

Even though no one saw him landing on the moon, no physical proof existed, but the way it has been told for decades helped build the narrative that the US was the first country whose astronaut landed on the moon.

Narrative Building in IR

Narratives Building in IR has become a site of political contestation. There is a fight over whose narrative will win; ultimately, the most powerful one or the narrative backed by powerful states wins.

Narrative building by one actor in IR is a way states try to reach their goals while simultaneously oppressing possible threats.

A narrative built on numerous self-clarified pieces of evidence is spread through countries and communities with the aid of media and other means of communication.

In this regard, Western Metanarratives have enjoyed popularity in recent decades. The term developed by Jean-François Lyotard generalized ideas from past events to provide a pattern of understanding that linked people with that idea.

In such a way, scholars could build a link and point of attachment to propagate Western concepts in their societies.

Such metanarratives, like enlightenment, liberalism, and progress, used to hold civilizations together but also functioned as a cover for violent practices.

Ultimately counter-narratives to splinter widely accepted truths and realities also have started emerging that challenge the hegemonic position of the West.

The following sections explain how different narratives penetrated IR and how the art of narrative building is used as a weapon in various fields.

The Case of the US and China

The US and China have been linked with each other through years of fighting in trade, economics, military, science, technology, land, and power. China’s rise challenges the hegemonic and most potent position linked with the US.

Therefore, the US continuously sees China as a threat and is involved in numerous indirect confrontations with China.

From the perspective of power rivalry, the United States, as it always does, seeks in-depth adjustment to its global strategies and concentrates resources on the strategic competition targeting China. It mobilizes internal and external resources to this end continually.

The US and China have been linked with each other through years of fighting in trade, economics, military, science, technology, land, and power.

China’s rise challenges the hegemonic and most potent position linked with the US. Therefore, the US continuously sees China as a threat and is involved in numerous indirect confrontations with China.

From the perspective of power rivalry, the United States, as it always does, seeks in-depth adjustment to its global strategies and concentrates resources on the strategic competition targeting China. It mobilizes internal and external resources to this end continually.

On the softer side, the US has used narrative building to hinder China’s trade. For example, uplifting negative narratives under the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have warned states not to get involved with China in such projects.

However, such projects can benefit states if the governing authority plans appropriately. But, the threat these projects bring to the US includes decreasing its hold on other states.

The US has enjoyed years of significant influence over weaker states due to its strong economy and military. It utilized the periphery and semi-periphery states as a ladder to achieve its goal of a stronger nation.

For years the US could use its power to extract raw materials and resources such as oil and petrol at cheaper rates and sell them at higher rates within weak nations.

Moreover, it has also used International Law and Norms to build narratives that can help the US extract interests from other states.

A simple example is R2P (Responsibility to Protect) included in the UN Charter in 2005. The Right rests on three pillars, including the responsibility of each State and International Community to protect citizens.

It also involves the international community’s commitment to watch when a state fails to protect its population.

The US has used R2P to intervene in states; with the pretext of protecting citizens and human rights while behind the scenes, it was in their interest. Building a narrative of threats to citizens from states’ governing authorities is sold quickly.

This makes it easier for the state to intervene in other countries. Ultimately, China’s rise was also tried to be tackled through narratives. Whether it is calling China godless and loan sharks to its engulfing territories under BRI, many narratives are popular.

Even though the US does the same of oppressing states with their power and debts, but as its enemy, it popularizes such ideas with its link to China.

The Debt Trap Diplomacy

The debt trap narrative is also quite popular these days. Brahma Chellaney used it for the first time in 2018 with the sole explanation that China is following it.

According to Chellaney, China is extending debt to unstable and weak countries to extract their geographical and geostrategic ends.

He gave the example of Sri Lanka’s economy falling due to deficits. He explained that Sri Lanka took obligations to build the Hambantota port, but China took the port.

This narrative of China as a loan shark following debt trap diplomacy became popular because Western countries backed it.

They backed it as the diplomacy behind the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI project by China is a massive infrastructure project that stretches from East Asia to Europe.

It was launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping and pronged two significant projects under it; the overland Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road. It includes many smaller projects of roads, railways, and economic zones.

However, some analysts have labeled BRI as a source of Chinese expansion only that is harming weaker nations. This narrative is famous in the West because it projects Chinese intentions and publicizes the debt trap as part of China’s aim to control states.

Chinese Response

China, on the other hand, rejects all stakes concerned with it regarding the Debt Trap Diplomacy. In response, it highlights what the US or the West has been doing for years.

Chinese Narrative claims that even though the word is constructed now yet, Western countries have done this for years.

Western countries hold great authority in major International Institutions like the IMF and World Bank. Moreover, as their largest funders, these countries have an outstanding share in the profit it gets.

China has based its narrative on the evidence that the West, in the form of debts provided to weaker countries, has intervened in these countries’ decision-making and policymaking process. They have not only extracted material aid but have also enforced their decisions on the land.

For years, countries could not get rid of the debt they took from these institutes. Additionally, Pakistan and Sri Lanka owe more to other financial institutors than to China. This shows who has more say in the country’s internal politics.

A summary of SriLanka's debt for the year 2021
A summary of SriLanka’s debt for the year 2021

Moreover, China, known for its competency in soft power, builds many narratives about the West as a countermeasure. It has also unconsciously pointed towards the narrative that the Global North is the sole reason the Global South could never progress.

Their sovereignty, economy, and power grew less with time while the North grew stronger. This has also attracted many countries from the Global South to let China invest in their countries.

Due to this, many countries also became part of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). This has happened because of Chinese claims of development which will bring investment, trade, and economic prosperity to countries through BRI.

It depicts what the Global South is lacking and brings a sense of knowledge on how to move toward development

The African countries, many of which have taken debts from China, say that this is the first time that a country is giving them debt as well as investment and trade opportunities.

They say that they see a ray of hope for development and progress through such projects because it will bring them employment and address many other issues in these countries

However, on the other side, it is true that China is also just using these weaker countries. Moreover, while pointing toward the atrocities of the West, it is trying to hide its work in many areas like the Uighur concentration camps.


Many incidents of terrorism have occurred throughout history, but why did the world only feel the need to fight it after 9/11?

History is filled with examples of terrorist attacks, and many countries have faced them. For instance, the Russian apartment bombings; a series of explosions that hit four apartment blocks in the Russian cities of Buynaksk, Moscow, & Volgodonsk.

This incident which took place in 1999, killed more than 300, injured more than 1,000, and spread a wave of fear across the country.

It was after a series of investigations that the court ruled that Islamic warlords did all bombings.  Moreover, such incidents took place in many other countries too.

However, it was only after the attack on World Trade Center that the War on Terrorism began on a large scale. Terrorism as an act meant to harm or inculcate fear in public grew after Al-Qaeda’s members hijacked two planes.

Moreover, they later crashed into the World Trade Centers of the US. Nations left every other important matter and gave their full attention to the need to end terrorism.

But on the opposite side, terrorism in itself built a narrative that gave the US a solid reason to intervene in countries like Afghanistan.

The harsh division made by President Bush with “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” This caused many nations to choose the path put forward by the West.

Combined with the solid evidence of the occurrence of the incident, the necessity of curbing terrorism by intervening in Afghanistan was made a priority.

So, even though terrorism is not a narrative but behind this, states have used this concept for their benefit. For this, they have built a connection between terrorism and that state.

In the case of Afghanistan, the reason was given to take out the leader of Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden. However, when we look at this closely, we also realised that the leader was killed shortly after the Western Forces’ arrived.

But it was announced long after to legitimize the presence of the forces in Afghanistan. Weak nations like Pakistan are still fighting the after-effects of this war on Terrorism.

Instability grew in these states. Afghanistan too is still facing numerous problems like attacks on institutions and schools around the country.

On the other hand, Westerners pay no heed to the acts of terrorism within these nations. Every day, many children die due to terrorist attacks on schools.

As explained earlier, Terrorism is the organized or threatened use of violence to create a general climate of fear. It intimidates a population or government and thereby affects political, religious, or ideological change.

Therefore, it is labeled as a narrative because it is dealt with differently. Authorities deal with such crimes differently based on who commits them.

Despite the harm such incidents bring, the way they are treated differently shows prioritization based on state interests.

Subsequently, a shooter killed six people and injured 38 by attacking the parade in Chicago celebrating US Independence Day.

6 die and many injured as a result of shooting on people celebrating American Day on July 4 in Highland Park, Illinois.
6 died, and many were injured due to the shooting of people celebrating American Day on July 4 in Highland Park, Illinois.

However, killings by external forces like Al-Qaeda have been termed terrorism, while by locals, it is termed everything except terrorism. Correspondingly, it is hidden under the banner of mental trauma and abuses faced by the culprit in the past.

This has caused mass shootings and school shootings to increase to a high level in the US. Thus taking strict measures against one and softer ones against others presents the interests behind.

COVID-19 Blame Game

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the worse pandemics that hit the world; within months, it covered the whole globe, and hardly there were any states with no reports of Coronavirus patients.

The virus erupted from the Chinese province of Wuhan and took over the entire world. While it was a state of emergency for the whole world, it saw the politicization of the virus. This erupted with the blame game between the US and China.

The US politicians blamed China for the eruption of this virus that harmed the Earth. There was less focus on spreading awareness among the public and more on charging China for causing the virus.

This was because the COVID-19 virus, as a global pandemic, caused all external and internal activities to stop. Trade, Tourism, and other exchanges stopped due to it.

Moreover, the authorities accused China of violating Human Rights. This came with the evidence that China is taking citizens’ right to freedom by putting them under a complete lockdown.

Moreover, the enforcement to wear masks and take other protective measures to stop the further spread was also disregarded.

Such measures were described as “draconian,” “repressive,” and “heavy-handed” by Western media. However, in the end, the US had to follow the same steps.

Thus, the narrative that China consciously spread the virus was tackled with the idea for other countries to follow suit with Chinese policies and control the virus.

China’s control of the pandemic has brought it significant benefits.  The economy grew by 2% in 2020 and 8% in 2021. At the same time, the economies of advanced countries, even the most influential Western countries, shrank.

However, China too has blamed the US for making the virus spread around the world. According to them, they had bought the virus under control with lockdown and strict preventive measures.

But they say that due to Western neglect, the virus spread again. The American vision of prioritizing individual freedom caused the virus to spread.

Yusuke Narita and Ayumi Sudo, two scholars from Yale, concluded a survey on this. Its analysis presented that democracy was responsible for an extra 279 COVID-19 deaths per million in 2020.

It was announced that this was primarily due to weaker and narrower containment policies at the beginning of the outbreak.

Thus, it gives a sound backing to the Chinese narrative accusing the West, mainly the US, of causing the spread of the virus. However, the COVID-19 pandemic still exhibited the dark sides of the world.

When international cooperation, not hostility, was needed, states were busy blaming each other. Entering into a collaborative agreement would have helped control the virus more quickly.

Human Rights violations; the Double Standards

The West and all-powerful states around the world are advocates of human rights. Every day, debates occur to condemn human rights violations and strengthen policies to protect these rights.

However, these advocates of human rights are the violators themselves too. The US has intervened in states like Libya and Syria in the name of the protection of citizens.

It brings the narrative backed by insufficient evidence that the governments of these nations have violated human rights.

Therefore, to address the citizens’ Right to Protect (R2P), the West intervenes in the country, eventually siding with the anti-government side.

Intervention for protection sounds right, but the question rises whether they are protecting them or causing more unrest is debatable.

In Syria, protests rose against President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father, Hafez, after he died in 2000. Several problems of increasing corruption and unemployment and a decrease in political freedom were linked with the President.

These demonstrations, inspired by uprisings in neighboring countries against oppressive rulers, erupted in 2011 from southern Deraa.

When the Syrian government used deadly force to crush the dissent, protests demanding the president’s resignation erupted nationwide.

While the conflict has grown into an entire fledge civil war, it has also caused the death of more than 238,716 people. The Westerners who have sent a joint US-led coalition to aid the opposition forces have caused more harm than help.

Although it was to protect citizens, scholars now analyze different interests linked with US aid to opposition forces. Moreover, the airstrikes carried out by these forces have also caused significant destruction to the country.

Furthermore, looking at other cases presents that human rights supporters intervene in some countries and ignore others. Pakistan and India have been fighting over the disputed land of Kashmir for years.

Recently, India unconstitutionally annexed Jammu and Kashmir as its part. With that, the Indian forces increased their presence on the ground.

Correspondingly, Kashmir is living under lockdown with no contact with the outer world since the annexation 3 years ago.

Depiction of Indian atrocities in the unconstitutionally annexed Jammu and Kashmir
Depiction of Indian atrocities in the unconstitutionally annexed Jammu and Kashmir

The protectors of human rights stay quiet on that too. Atrocities committed by the Indian forces have caused the death of many Kashmiris. This shows the Western world’s double standards, which intervene in some areas but ignore others.

Following Narratives

The article discussed the different ways the powerful states are using narratives in IR. Whether it is to oppress states or extract state interests, narrative building has undoubtedly become a powerful weapon.

However, as a student of IR, one should carefully analyze these narratives. Instead of narratives swaying one’s ability to make decisions, students should base their thinking on careful observation.

This is because most of the narratives are used as a tool by states. They serve as a means to fulfill interests and help the ones spreading them.

Correspondingly, following a narrative unconsciously makes one part of the process that allows states to achieve their goals.

Successful discourse should base on great facts and effective practices. Open concepts and declarations can persuade ignorant people but not for long. Eventually, they backfire. Therefore, one should spread only those narratives that are based on facts.


*The writer is a Fellow at The Diplomatic Insight, published by the Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies 

**The views, opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in these papers and articles are strictly those of the author(s). They do not necessarily reflect the views of The Diplomatic Insight and its team.