Psychological studies indicate that the way people react to stories depends in large part on the way that the stories are ‘framed’. For all the talk about ‘fake news’, control of the facts people receive is relatively unimportant; more significant is the battle to control the overall framework within which people interpret the facts. If you will allow me to be all postmodernist for a bit, it’s all about the discourse, not the details.
If we look at current Russian-Western tensions, the problem, it seems to me, is that both sides are trapped within discourses which encourage them to frame events in terms of blame, conflict, and threat and not in terms of mutual misunderstanding. Consequently, they frame solutions in terms like security, deterrence, and containment, and not in terms of negotiation or compromise. Political discussion thus turns into a struggle to determine who is to blame for common problems not into an effort to find mutually acceptable solutions.
This is well illustrated by the responses in both Russia and the West to the recent event in the Black Sea, when the Russian coast guard seized three ships belonging to the Ukrainian navy. The Russian media has framed this entirely in terms of Ukrainian ‘provocation’; the Ukrainian and Western media in terms of Russian ‘aggression’. Almost nowhere will you find anybody discussing ways to improve the situation and prevent future clashes, except in the form of recommendations to increase the level of coercive power being exerted on the other party.
Interested in seeing how the Russian media was addressing the incident in the Black Sea, I spent a lot of last week watching Russian political talk shows. It was rather depressing. Again and again, the shows descended into shouting matches between the Ukrainian participants on one side and the Russian participants (including the talk show hosts) on the other. The incident was framed by all parties in terms of guilt: somebody was guilty of behaving badly; the question was simply who. This framing turned all the discussions into competitive zero-sum games – the more guilty the other party, the less one’s own; and conversely the more guilty one’s own party, the less guilty the other. The framing encouraged all involved to cast the entirety of the blame onto the other side, and to avoid any intimation that their own side might be even in the slightest bit responsible. This tendency goes beyond just recent events, and extends to the entire conflict in Ukraine – it’s either ‘Russian aggression’ or ‘Ukrainian fascists’. Anything in between is impossible.
Not once in all the shows I watched did I hear anybody from either side attempt to reframe the issue in terms other than guilt. Consequently, there was absolutely no talk of what could be done to improve Russian-Ukrainian relations beyond ‘regime change’ in the other country. One can see much the same thing in discourse concerning Russian-Western relations more generally. They are framed exclusively in terms of blame and of threat, leading to policy recommendations couched in terms of combatting the threat, rather than in terms of overcoming differences in mutually acceptable ways. The result is an escalating cycle of political tension.
How do we solve this problem? The answer is that we have to try to reframe the problem. When the issue is framed in terms of the ‘Russian threat’ or the ‘Western threat’, ‘Russian aggression’ or ‘Western aggression’, or any other similar wording, then solutions are inevitably going to be found in new security measures, increased defence spending, sanctions, and the like. Different policies will only become possible once people start framing East-West problems in ways which allow for win-win solutions. That means looking at things in terms of tensions which result from the clash of legitimate but competing interests, and from mistakes on behalf of all parties. Above all, it means framing matters in terms of finding solutions, not casting blame. Unfortunately, at present it’s the other way around – everybody is more interested in establishing the other side’s guilt than in finding a way forward. Until that changes, I don’t see how we are going to make any progress.