A Tug-of-War: How Spain is Caught in the Middle of a Narrative Power Battle between the United States and China

By Hunter Gilfillian, M.A. in International Affairs ‘20

In recent months, a battle of United States and Chinese narratives has gained traction in the land of Don Quixote. Although, instead of windmills, the new “giants” are satellites, economics, and security.

Currently, Spain is caught in the middle of a narrative “tug-of-war” between the United States and China regarding Chinese technological investment in Spain’s fifth generation (5G) networks. In response to Chinese efforts to develop and maintain its technological footprint in the Western Mediterranean, the United States has responded with an “offensive” narrative, one that places more pressure on Spain. Conversely, China is producing a “defensive” counter-narrative combatting that of the United States, resulting in a large-scale battle of narratives.


On one side of the narrative battle, ring is the United States. Threatened by investment of Chinese technology in the networks of a key European ally, the United States is maximizing a “great power” narrative in terms of its international relationship with Spain and China.

Normally, the United States does not need to warn its European allies, especially those of which it has a long and shared history. Recently, however, the United States utilized a “great power” narrative when it issued clear and concise feelings about Spain’s relationship with Chinese technology firms. In February 2020, United States officials warned Spanish officials and telecommunications executives of a potential withdrawal of sharing sensitive information with Spain should Chinese technology firms, like Huawei, continue to be involved in local markets.  Issuing these types of warnings toward a friendly nation is a tool that a “great power” can utilize in a narrative context. Spain would likely not issue a similar warning to the United States. Nonetheless, while the United States’ actions and warnings are rooted in trying to protect its ally and other partners against potential threats to security from China, this type of narrative places Spain in an awkward position.

A potential effect of the utilization of a “great power” narrative is an indirect and unwanted strengthening of the Chinese counter-narrative against the United States in Spain. International warnings and this type of narrative may harm an already fragile Spanish favorability view of the United States given that favorable views from Spain decreased from 59% to 42% from the end of the Obama presidency to the end of 2018 according to the Pew Research Center. This would arguably help China in its approach toward the issue further down the road, something the United States does not want.


United States and China, Image by Iecs on Wikimedia Commons (CC by 3.0)


Comparatively, China has produced a defensive counter-narrative in response to the United States. When asked about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments on China’s espionage, information stealing, and link to the technology company, Huawei, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Hua Chunying, compared Secretary Pompeo to that of a fictional character in a Chinese short story. Spokesperson Chunying said, “unlike her harmless monologue, Mr. Pompeo keeps repeating poisonous lies.”

China is attempting to change and control the narrative through its response. This type of response produces a counter-narrative where China shifts the blame from itself to another country, despite any accusations or evidence. While this may seem like an offensive tactic, China’s action is in response to the United States, allowing it to take a defensive position in the narrative battle.

Furthermore, a defensive position allows China to continue bolstering its counter-narrative against the United States. Recently, Chinese technology company, Huawei, played a soft power role through its delivery of medical supplies to countries like Spain during the COVID-19 pandemic. These types of good acts by Chinese companies have the potential to strengthen China’s counter-narrative toward the United States as this type of action is a key public diplomacy instrument. Building a rapport with the Spanish government and people during times of a crisis undoubtedly have beneficial effects for diplomatic relations whether this is the intention of China or not.

This narrative battle between the United States and China is not only recognized in theory, but also in the heart of international relations as well. Huawei’s role, and ultimately China at large, was noted by the European Union’s Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell, saying, “there is a global battle of narratives going on in which timing is a crucial factor,” and “China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner.”

If the United States wants to succeed in this battle of narratives, it may need to balance its approach toward Spain and its call for security in Europe in a more positive tone. While the counter-narrative produced by China is bolstered by technology and soft power approaches at the moment, the United States’ long and shared history with Spain is a force to be reckoned with. However, for the time being Spain is stuck in the middle of this narrative “tug-of-war” between the United States and China, so time will tell how “giants” in the land of Don Quixote will affect this narrative battle.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not express the views of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.



President Donald Trump’s impeachment could ruin U.S. influence in Ukraine—but it won’t. Here’s why.

By Joli McSherry, MA Global Communication, ’20

On July 25, 2019, President Donald Trump had a good, normal call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The rest—forgive the cliché—is now history. We know that this call led to the President Trump’s eventual impeachment and acquittal, which is both a cause and a symptom of the continued fracturing of the American public and political institutions. We already know the impact on the American public, but what about the impact America’s very important strategic partner in Eastern Europe and our characteristically friendly relationship with its people? Could this be a dangerous blow to the relationship? Fortunately, President Trump does not have to be, nor should he be, the sole diplomatic messenger. And the United States, dealing with its own conflicting national narrative as its public becomes more deeply divided, is at an advantage: Ukrainians understand what it is like to call a country that is fractured by two opposite narratives home.

As a young country sharing a long history with its aggressor, Ukraine deals with dual competing narratives for the same stories and events. One is the pro-Ukrainian, pro-West narrative, which emphasizes a shared Ukrainian fight for freedom, as well as the drive to stand against and overcome oppression. This narrative is woven into prominent figures and events, such as nationalist revolutionaries Stepan Bandera and Ivan Mazepa, and the devastating Holodomor genocide where Ukrainians were starved out by the Soviet Union. However, take those same events and one can see the pro-Russia, anti-West narrative: Ukraine and Russia’s shared history is to be honored through their bond, and those who reject the bond (as Bandera and Mazepa did) are defectors and traitors.


The narrative used by the U.S. diplomatic system focuses, obviously, on reaching those pro-West Ukrainians who favor their own democratic state, free from Russian meddling. Despite Trump’s own words and behaviors, Ukrainians who are sympathetic to European integration will be particularly responsive to the messages that continue to be put forth by a plurality of the U.S. government and population, working to see its own unrelenting desire for freedom, independence, and democracy overcome its internal ills. This resonates with the Ukrainian master narrative of overcoming oppression. All the U.S. diplomatic system must do to avoid endangering relations with the Ukrainians is continue to hold steady and show Ukrainians that nothing in the context of the relationship has changed. As far as public influence goes, the golden rule of successful public diplomacy is that it must be rooted in truth. The United States, casting an inconsistent president aside, undoubtedly has that covered.

While U.S. soft power has been on a steady decline since President Trump’s 2016 election, the United States has long held influence on Ukrainian public opinion, particularly when the choice at hand is America vs. Russia (a 2019 International Republican Institute public opinion survey gives a detailed picture of Ukrainians’ opinions of the two). This is in large part because the United States invested early emphasizing the role it can play in fulfilling the fledgling Eastern European country’s desire for freedom and democracy. The United States has continued to firmly promote a narrative of support and shared objectives with Ukraine even during times of turmoil; the pithy “Crimea is Ukraine” refrain is a great example. It has then backed these messages up by conducting a robust public diplomacy effort connecting with and engaging the Ukrainian people, and targeting some of the most pressing issues Ukrainians face, like an eager civil society and independent media, both desperate for more resources to foster their own fight to maintain freedom and stability.


In short, the United States has long talked the talk and walked the walk. Since Ukraine broke free from the Soviet Union, the United States has stood behind the strongest and most effective narrative that a freshly post-Soviet state with often insurmountable historical ties to Russia can expect to have: the right to an independent, democratic Ukraine. This would take a while to undo. Contemporarily, as America struggles to get its own domestic narratives in order in a Trump world, the use of this narrative to advance foreign policy goals in Ukraine has not waivered. The “partners in freedom and democracy” narrative holds strong, even as both countries deal with the calamities caused by President Trump. As the president’s own drama unfolded, the U.S. State Department faithfully told Ukrainians: Ukraine is so important to us; we share your values of freedom and progress; we have a shared adversary; and we will not let that enemy impinge on your right to a secure, democratic, and prosperous state.

While there is concern over a growing distance between Ukrainians and the United States in light of recent events, thanks to the decision to not stray from the strong U.S. narrative promoting friendship and cooperation among a shared goal between the two states and their people, the Ukrainian peoples’ disillusionment with America will likely not last. Despite some political decisions that left Ukrainians questioning America’s commitment, Ukraine holds an identity narrative that leaves it feeling something of an underdog truly in need of support in its fight to maintain their right to exist in the manner it feels it deserve. The country needs support, and the U.S. has positioned itself to still spread the idea its strong and unwavering support despite any of its own internal ills. In fact, those ills may help the cause—Ukrainians know well what it is like to be fractured by an internal divide. The fact that the U.S. continues to maintain its commitment despite this can only mean positive things for the relationship going forward.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not express the views of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.

The Battle for Georgia: How Strategic Narratives Inform and Impact a Geopolitical Struggle

By Jenna Presta, BA in Political Communication ’19, MA in Media & Strategic Communication ‘21

In the 1990s, the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared their independence and intentions to secede from Georgia. Neither of these territories is widely internationally recognized as an independent state. However, in 2008 Russia moved troops into the regions, declaring them to be independent. Georgia, backed by most Western nations, declared Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be occupied territories. Russia’s destabilizing moves point to more than a display of dominance. They have consequences for Georgia’s larger place in the international system and its identity as a nation. These are shaped by and build upon strategic narratives.


There are several layers of narratives that grant this territorial standoff a greater meaning. Narratives are the frameworks by which we understand the world around us. When it comes to international affairs, narratives can describe and shape a particular issue, the identity of a nation, or even the international system itself. These all help to shape and explain Georgia’s resistance to Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Also relevant to this issue are master narratives, which are those embedded within the historical memory of a nation or people. Master narratives do not have to be taught; they are passed down through a culture. Two of Georgia’s most salient master narratives are (1) the struggle for sovereignty against an imperial power and (2) the rebirth of Georgia as an independent, self-governing state. These narratives often operate in tandem; rebirth following struggle. These master narratives explain why Georgians perceive Russia’s presence within its internationally recognized borders as a continuation of the historical aggression the Georgian state has experienced from Russia and the Soviet Union. Georgia’s historical memory catalogues the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as an affront to its sovereignty, rendering Russian narratives ineffectual.

This perspective feeds into Georgian identity narratives, which are those that describe Georgia’s identity as a country. These identity narratives depict Georgia as a strong, independent, and unified state which governs itself. Identity narratives can also constrain a nation’s behavior. Georgia, for example, values self-governance and is a nascent democracy, and thus is expected to behave as such. Additionally, Georgian nationalism has become increasingly important since it seceded from the Soviet Union in the 1991 referendum. This helps to explain why Georgia views the Abkhazia and South Ossetia controversy as an occupation of their territories, rather than accepting Russia’s narrative of support for independent states.

Narratives related to the international system are especially important in this situation as they demonstrate the aforementioned line between “occupation” and “independent states.” Georgia and most of the West have invested in narratives which demonstrate the importance of international institutions. They argue that the international community should be the forum for recognizing nations, and that, therefore, Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory violates international norms. This further influences the perspective of Georgians by characterizing Russia’s moves as an infringement, thereby decreasing the power of their narratives. These separate narratives all come together to emphasize the sovereignty and independence of Georgia as a self-governing state, in turn shaping Georgia’s – and most of the West’s – response to Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

This situation further impacts Georgia’s larger place in the international system. As a relatively young democracy, Georgia is seen by many as torn between allying itself with the West and with Russia/Eurasia. Where Georgia chooses to align itself has real consequences, as narratives do shape and constrain behavior. A Georgia in a Western alliance may behave quite differently than a Georgia in a Russian alliance. In the fight for Georgia’s allegiance and national identity, Russia attempts to cast a shadow on partnership with the West in order to bring Georgia into the sunlight of a Eurasian bloc. Its presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is supported by propaganda campaigns asserting that aligning with the EU, US, or NATO will corrupt the traditions and identity of Georgia as a state. This taps into narratives related to Georgian nationalism, sovereignty and independence to create an overwhelmingly negative picture of a Western Georgia.

Despite these efforts, polling data collected by NDI shows that the overwhelming majority of Georgians do support EU and NATO membership. This could point to the salience of the Georgian narratives I’ve described here. Russian propaganda efforts do not seem to be enough to override Georgia’s historical memory, or its vision of itself as a sovereign nation that is part of a greater system. It is clear how the various narratives surrounding Russia’s presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia feed into a larger picture of Georgia’s place in international affairs – and vice versa.

> The author has also written a case study of the battle of narratives over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not express the views of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.

Facebook Meets Global Agitprop

By Rob Cline and Olivia Dupree

Facebook has come under fire by Washington lawmakers and the American public in recent months for their apparent involvement in the 2016 election. It has been discovered that Russian disinformation operations paid for targeted Facebook ads that promoted Donald Trump and sowed divisions in the electorate by touching on cultural wedge issues.

Facebook’s leadership failed to identify and curve these propaganda operations on their site, raising questions about the company’s ability to independently maintain a truthful and fair media platform for Americans to get information.

While this problem seems uniquely American, we need to point out that Facebook is a global website. Nations across the world have experienced Russian disinformation campaigns through Facebook over the past two years. It has been discovered that the Brexit campaign in the UK was plagued by Russian social media influence, as well as the French presidential campaign.

While it’s majorly important that Russian intelligence is interfering in the elections of Western democracies, there are places in the world where groups utilize Facebook for much more dangerous outcomes. In Myanmar, the militant government in power is engaging in ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims. This brutal violence against the Rohingya has been fueled, in part, by misinformation and anti-Rohingya propaganda spread on Facebook.

In countries like Myanmar, social and governmental instability means that traditional news outlets like newspapers and cable TV have much less sway with the public, something both Patricia Kabra and Louisa Williams spoke to when visiting our class. Without these forms of media, the public forum moves to open social media platforms like Facebook. Facebook has become the primary news source for most citizens of Myanmar.

This sets up a huge problem: Facebook creates a massive, open public sphere and leaves everyone else to deal with the consequences. As the New York Times put it: “Correcting misinformation is a thorny philosophical problem for Facebook, which imagines itself as a neutral platform that avoids making editorial decisions.” Unfortunately, like we saw with fake news in the US presidential election, people seem to have a willingness to accept what they see on Facebook as true. This means the government of Myanmar has been extremely successful in alienating the Rohingya through misinformation campaigns.

For PD practitioners, this represents an information crisis. On one hand, Facebook is an essential tool in the modern age to reaching broad audiences that you would normally not reach with traditional media. On the other hand, Facebook is an untrimmed landscape ripe for misinformation and deceit by those who want to manipulate public opinion.

Battling social media disinformation will likely become a common practice of public diplomats around the globe. US envoys who want to maintain the US’s image abroad will most likely have to deal with Russian backed anti-American propaganda campaigns. Additionally PD practitioners will have to learn how to deal with the social and political upheaval that comes when disinformation campaigns are successful in their host countries.

Resource: Facebook as a Tool of Global Propaganda

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s). They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.

How ISIS seduces European Muslim women–and what Europe can do about it

Why are so many Muslim women in Europe susceptible to ISIS propaganda? Many of them join ISIS to commit jihad, or violence in the name of the “sustained struggle” to advance Islamic extremism. In 2014, about 18 percent of all European ISIS members were female. As of August 2017, experts believe the total number of women is more than 550. But are women brainwashed by the Islamic State or choosing jihad of their own free will?

Many Muslim women in Europe are enticed by ISIS’s recruitment videos and social media presence. ISIS portrays the Caliphate as a utopian land where ISIS’s very narrow view of Islam is strictly enforced. ISIS uses Hollywood-level video production and a social media strategy which rivals any Silicon Valley startup. On social media, women members of ISIS promise their women viewers a fulfilling life married to a devout Muslim man in the Caliphate. These women leave discrimination and alienation in Europe to support jihadis in Syria—or to take jihad into their own hands.

But why are ISIS recruitment efforts so effective? Answering this question requires an overview of how Muslim women are excluded from European society. For example, many French people do not consider a Muslim immigrant living in France to be “French, ” regardless of citizenship. A “French” identity includes Western clothing, language fluency, and a desire to assimilate. The French government and mainstream media view national identity narrowly—“traditional” so as not to make white French citizens uncomfortable.

Immigrant Muslim women are marginalized and their religion, way of dressing, and race are always at the forefront of their minds. They are forced to define their “Muslim” identity as incompatible with their “French” identity. Many choose to perceive themselves as “Muslim” rather than “French” in a nation that shows them time and time again that they do not belong. Taub calls this phenomenon “identity choice.”

ISIS uses these cleavages created by the French government to target French Muslim women who want to wear religious coverings and marry a devout Muslim man without being cast as a social pariah. Recruiters appeal to women fascinated by extremism and enamored with escaping France to join the Caliphate. By creating media channels apart from the French mainstream, ISIS can control the slant and message of their posted content to target and lure.

The divergence of media outlets can explain why recruitment videos spread like wildfire.

Model for Blog Post

The fork in the road: ISIS creates a sophisticated rival of mainstream media, which garners attention from the women who embrace this romanticized extremism


However, ISIS’s savvy productions only explain part of the phenomenon.

ISIS’s chosen messenger? Other women.

British women recruiters are master strategists at romanticizing life under ISIS: they catch more flies with honey than they do with vinegar. ISIS women reach out to other women by creating News Frames of the propaganda. Through a process called framing, they shape and interpret the content of ISIS videos and social media posts to win the upper hand in reaching French Muslim women—their target audience.

The most powerful way to frame ISIS propaganda is to create a utopian image of the Caliphate that is consistent with what many Muslim women have already determined to be their ideal society.

Women recruiters can frame ISIS propaganda to convince a woman that joining is in her own best interest. Here’s three ways how:


  1. They display their elite status in the Caliphate as wives and mothers and invite other women to emulate them.


  1. They provide detailed instructions on how to use weapons, travel to Syria, and even commit jihad.


  1. They distort the concept of women’s “empowerment” to mean challenging western gender norms and joining all-women brigades.


By glorifying this active role for women, recruits develop an affinity for a Caliphate ready to welcome them with open arms.

Despite its recent territory losses, ISIS still manages to release a few recruitment videos. Nations committed to countering violent extremism cannot fight fire with fire: instead of sensationalizing the videos and perpetrators to the public, European officials and mainstream media outlets must disseminate content that exposes these recruitment tactics that put women at risk.

In addition, French society must broaden their definition of “European” to include Muslim immigrants. In order for this shift in public opinion to occur, European mainstream media needs a new approach: discussing Muslim women as French citizens or residents, not permanent outsiders. Media accomplish this goal by at the News Frames stage of the model above.

Elected officials in Europe must rise to their higher calling as public servants and unite citizens of all religions and national origins under a new “European” identity. Factionalism may be good for getting votes, but this tactic has succeeded at the expense of Muslim women’s livelihoods. This is the most difficult and far-reaching change to implement, as the model suggests.

If France better integrates its immigrant communities, French Muslim women can emerge from the margins of society. ISIS’s power to prey upon these women diminishes when women can practice their religion, wear garments of their choosing, and access education and employment opportunities.

ISIS’s glossy social media images will lose their luster for the many women they once seduced. The news frames won’t be as effective for Muslim women immigrants once Europe stops treating them as “the other.”

Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.

GW is committed to digital accessibility. If you experience a barrier that affects your ability to access content on this page, let us know via the Accessibility Feedback Form.