Friday, January 19, 2007

In Search of a Metanarrative

While I have already expressed my annoyance with Emery Roe's Narrative Policy Analysis book, I find myself in agreement with at least one of his key points: When you are confronted with a complex issues in which different points of view are being articulated through conflicting narratives (the "Rashomon phenomenon," as I like to call it), the best strategy is to seek out a metanarrative that explains the conflicts between the narratives. This seems like the appropriate point of departure when Al Jazeera English runs a story about an interview that Jordan's King Abdullah II has given to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. The single declarative sentence should be enough evidence that any attempt to read this story is going to run into a lot of complexity!

I am now more than half-way through Roe's book; and I have yet to find any guidelines regarding just how one would go about constructing a metanarrative. The book is actually a relatively disjointed collection of case studies, so I am not sure it is fair to expect any such general conclusions from it. Furthermore, I have discovered that I am not particularly happy with some of the metanarratives that Roe himself proposes as examples; but I still think is strategy as a good one, fitting nicely into an age that has occupied itself with "thinking out of the box." So, in the absence of any good guidelines, I am just going to try to role my own with this particular example; and, lacking any better alternative where the news is concerned, the best place to start is right at the surface. If we start with who is saying what to whom, we can use that as a point of departure for trying to uncover motives and potential conflicts.

With that in mind, here is the operative lead for the Al Jazeera report:

Jordan's king has said in an interview with an Israeli newspaper that he wants his country to develop a nuclear programme.

King Abdullah II told Israel's Haaretz newspaper that Jordan would use the programme for "peaceful and energy purposes and that he was already discussing his plans with the West, in an interview published on Friday.

Keeping to the surface, my first reaction is that the King keeps up with a set of news sources as broad as the collection I have tried to gather for my own more humble purposes. Therefore, there is a good chance that he was aware of the report by Rüdiger Falksohn for SPIEGEL ONLINE on a revived interest in nuclear power as a remedy for global warming. The King often gives the impression of being a "concerned citizen of the world," which, in this case, would mean that he is interested in any proposals regarding the global warming problem; and, since his own country is not particularly oil-rich, that interest would probably be raised by a solution involving an alternative power source. In other words Jordan is well-positioned to play a key role in what some are calling the "nuclear power Renaissance."

However, we now have to address a question of motives: Why should the King be discussing this in an interview with an Israeli newspaper (albeit the newspaper with the best reputation in Israel for covering alternative points of view)? The answer to that question appears to lie in another sentence from the interview:

"The rules have changed on the nuclear subject throughout the whole region," the Jordanian king said.

Israel has a reputation for a strong knowledge base in nuclear engineering. The King is acknowledging this reputation, but he is also announcing that Israel's neighbors are now in a position to build up knowledge bases of their own. This can be read optimistically or pessimistically:

  • On the pessimistic side the announcement can be read as a threat to Israel to recognize that it will no longer be the only kid on the block with nuclear knowledge.
  • On the optimistic side it could be an invitation to participate in the knowledge sharing, which could be seen as a new opportunity for Israel to improve its political relations with its neighbors.

Needless to say, Israel is likely to opt for the pessimistic reading. Al Jazeera stressed this point by reporting reactions from Shlomo Brom, "a researcher at the Institute for National Strategic Studies and former head of strategic planning for the Israeli military:"

Brom said the Jordanian king was probably trying to make the point that if Iran, which is moving ahead with its nuclear programme despite UN-imposed sanctions, is allowed to become a nuclear power, then a regional nuclear race will be unavoidable.

"Abdullah might be saying that if the Iranians aren't prevented from getting a nuclear program, Jordan and everyone else will want one of their own," Brom said.

In other words Jordan chose to use an Israeli newspaper to deliver a message about Iran to the rest of the world! If this is the case, then King Abdullah may have a better intuition for metanarrative than I have managed to cultivate thus far!

On the other hand my own inclination is that the metanarrative has more to do with the rising interest in this "nuclear power Renaissance." If this turns out to be a serious trend (and I have my own opinions about why this is actually a bad idea), then we shall have to face up to the prospect that nuclear energy cannot be restricted to the current "Nuclear Club" (as the media like to call it, even if they are not always sure who the members are). In other words the metanarrative is about the need for a global perspective on the supply of nuclear energy, which is why the King stressed the importance of a "change of rules" emerging at a regional level. Such a global perspective would have to involve authority, rather than just policy; so, to take an example "ripped from the headlines," there should be authority to rule on a proposal to build a reactor at the foot of a dormant volcano. Personally, I see this global perspective as a corollary to the need for a global perspective on all threats to the environment, global warming being the most critical of those threats at the present time. Unfortunately, we have seen the ways in which national politics (particularly from the United States) has interfered with efforts towards a global perspective on global warming; so I am not particularly optimistic about such a perspective where nuclear energy is involved. Nevertheless, if this is the most viable metanarrative behind King Abdullah's interview, then I applaud his effort to get the ball rolling!

1 comment:

max norman said...

Very interesting. You interpretation of news fascinates me, and I will sure be a steady reader of your new blog.