In the midst of the current global instability that features geopolitical flashpoints around the world, and as the system of international relations and power evolves and transforms, information and perception drives how publics form opinions on events and processes and how they react to them. The communication of information and ‘knowledge’ in the current crises and international conflicts is intended to influence, rather than inform, publics in an age of obstructive geopolitical competition. This communication practice prompts a number of questions to be posed as to why, where, what and how this contemporary informational geopolitics phenomenon is occurring. Answering these helps us to make sense of why the communication practices are being initiated and what possible result is anticipated.
The aim and purpose of this brief overview is to help the reader decode the geopolitical interpretations and representations found in the current dirge of propaganda from Western mainstream media and politics. There is a pattern and logic in the communication management found in the current attempts to regulate and manipulate the current transformations in international relations, if one knows what to look for in the information streams.
The Geopolitical World is Transforming
It has become increasingly self-evident that the geopolitical global order has been rapidly evolving and transforming in the 21st century. The Western-centric United States unipolar hegemony that has been firmly entrenched since the collapse of the Soviet Union that ended the old Cold War is gradually giving way to the rise of a Non-Western-centric multipolar order. The loss of power and influence by the US-led West has created and continues to produce effects and consequences in the system of international relations.
No hegemon wishes or likes to cede influence and power to its geopolitical competitors, and at some point the hegemon is likely to seek to counter and contain other powers that are perceived to be rising to supplant the old order. In the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election, Joseph Biden, or at least those around him, penned a foreign policy declaration that the United States was going to retake its global leadership role.
Given the decline in power and influence of the US-led Western bloc, owing to Endless Wars, economic crises and the crisis of liberal democracy that tend to focus on liberal ideology at the expense of democracy, indirect forms of political and information warfare are the preferred option.
Managing and regulating geopolitical balances of power through the use of intangible resources is seen as a less risky and cheaper form of coercive foreign policy outcome than a tangible and kinetic form of warfare against militarily strong opponents. Therefore, there is a clear answer as to why the current conflicts and crises are occurring in international relations, which relates to strategic imperatives of the transforming global geopolitical order.
Information and Knowledge as Geopolitical Instruments
In total, three principle realms dominate human experience: the physical, the informational, and the cognitive. The physical realm is where actors and events are tangibly situated and the basis of objective matter-of-fact occurrence without interpretation. The informational realm is where the interpretations and representations of the physical realm occur, and the cognitive realm (the subjective finale) is where individuals and collectives attempt to make sense of the physical and informational realm stimuli. Information and knowledge as intangible resources are used as informational strategy to support the physical realm which, in the case of the US-led Western bloc, relates to the strategic imperatives of US unipolar priorities regarding self-preservation and containment of geopolitical rivals.
The operationalisation of geopolitics (as opposed to the scientific definition) is aimed at the effective regulation (physical realm) and representation (information and cognitive realm) of international relations. Historically, great powers have focused more on the physical realm through the different dimensions of strategy – land, water, air and space. However, the fifth dimension of strategy shifts the focus towards the intangible information and cognitive realms by instrumentalising information and knowledge for geopolitical advantage. The answer to the question of how the geopolitical conflict shall be waged is primarily through the fifth dimension of strategy, however, there is still a risk that competition and conflict will take a hard kinetic turn.
Powerful states attempt to engineer consensus concerning perceptions and opinions of ‘knowledge’ and understanding of the physical realm. This is done by attempting to create an [Orthodoxy of Knowledge], which means that an audience agrees upon an interpretation or representation of the physical realm. However, this does not necessarily automatically make this consensus an objective or even a realistic one. The purpose is intended to obstruct other powers in international relations from realising their foreign policy aims and goals, therefore leaving the communicating power with a relative contextual advantage against an opponent or rival.
One of the most expedient ways to influence and persuade a mass audience of a certain orthodoxy of knowledge is through the use of a concentrated propaganda campaign. For the purposes of this article, propaganda is understood as an emotionally-based means of mass communication intended to prime and mobilise audiences for a concrete set of (geo)political goals and objectives that benefit the organisational agenda of the communicator. Propaganda, when used effectively, can reduce critical, rational and individual thinking of a society to uncritical, emotional and collective thinking. In the words of Wilfred Trotter, propaganda creates a herd mentality among the audience, which is much more prone to manipulation and suggestion. In the contemporary information environment, there is a tendency of the US-led West to follow a standardised blueprint or cookie-cutter propaganda technique to the geopolitical problem.
Representing Crisis and Conflict in Contemporary International Relations
In the current climate of international relations in an era of geopolitical transformation, the role and use of slogans, catch phrases and rhetoric used by the US-led West to define and distinguish between the ‘Them’ (China, Russia and ‘Axis of Evil’) and ‘Us’ (US controlled ‘international community’) is very revealing through its attempted storytelling approach. Brand and reputation management play a key role, where propaganda and other forms of Organised Persuasive Communication attempt to represent a global physical realm full of polarised binary projections. The US and the system of vassal and client states have undergone a quiet, yet significant, rebranding from being an international law-based order to a rules-based order. The change smuggles in a number of problematic issues via deceptive communication by implying a relative equivalence to the uninitiated ear. Specifically, international law is codified and agreed upon as an expected legal standard and practice, whereas a rules-based order is not codified, but rather can be created by powerful actors to suit their agenda and interests.
This can be seen in the institutional operationalisation of the NATO brand concept. In spite of assurances of its defensive nature and geographical focus, NATO has been spread gradually eastward to try and include Georgia and Ukraine so as to weaken and contain Russia. An ‘Arab-NATO’ has also been proposed to contain and weaken Iran, and most recently NATO involvement in the Indo-Pacific region is being proposed in order to contain and weaken China. It is based upon self-righteous Western-centric assumptions and projections of a defensive posture and reaction to assertions of vaguely construed threats to Western-centric values, interests and security. If the communication of fear is effective on the audience, they shall give their consent in the belief that their safety is being secured when in fact it is being eroded as the targeted countries move to counter the threat to them.
The recent crisis events in international relations surrounding Ukraine and Taiwan have demonstrated a rather standardised approach to manufacturing and then representing the nature of the problem. A crisis is often seen as a negative and disruptive event, but the disruption can also create opportunities as the agreed upon rules governing the exercise of international relations and geopolitics can be potentially broken owing to the reason of ‘extraordinary circumstances’. The elements and effects of orthodoxy of knowledge and obstructive foreign policy are also plain to observe. Propaganda is not only about telling deliberate lies, but it also concerns the use of selective truths. This gives a descriptive rather than analytical tone to communications, which is also played out in news media where there is no accident in terms of the tone and timing of ‘news’ stories. The intention is to create the basis of the façade of the constructed binary appearances of good versus bad, and legitimate versus illegitimate.
For example, Western mainstream politics and mass media storytelling propaganda focuses upon the now that is devoid of the past as a means of generating the unbridled or inexplicable aggression narrative of the named ‘Them.’ Therefore, the long history of NATO’s promise not to expand one inch eastward is deliberately excluded as this key detail would create a greater and more complex perception of culpability in the current Ukraine War. There is the usual diet of stories of actors cast as heroes (Ghost of Kyiv and Snake Island myths) and villains (Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant attack). Such wartime propaganda has a long and established tradition of manipulating the emotional sensitivities of the audiences to rally for one side and against the other, where one side is portrayed as being overwhelmingly militarily powerful (the villain) over the military weaker, but more democratic just like ‘us’ actor (the victim).
A similar approach is used against China and Taiwan, where the established One-China policy is currently ignored or interpreted as being something else. Once more, the US and its Western-centric order represents ‘Them’ (China and Russia) as being solely responsible and to blame for the crisis, seeking to ignore their concerns and obstruct their interests via a propagandistic system of value and narrative discourse, and overlaying moralistic and ethical judgement in a highly selective manner. This is used to prime and mobilise global public audiences to try and justify risky and hazardous foreign policy suggestions that are rhetorically positioned as being solutions for the audience to escape the cognitive environment engineered fear. Such proposals would not be viable to a critically thinking audience.
What is the Possible Intended Result?
The result intended by the US is to weaken and contain China and Russia, and thereby delay or even possibly prevent the successful rise of the multipolar order. This is the self-centered strategy for attempting a rescue of the unipolar order, which is framed as being benevolent and selfless by ‘saving democracy’ or ‘rescuing freedom’ and other such vague and widely interpretable catch phrases and slogans making use of Orwellian double-speak. However, the indications are that this is not likely to happen as the geopolitical and geo-economic strategies applied against China and Russia are actually exacerbating the US-led West’s existing crises and creating new ones. The result might well be the acceleration, rather than a delay, of the global geopolitical transformation.