Jyoti’s new article for the Geneva Centre for Security Policy in preparation for next week’s groundbreaking course!

The artist’s approach to saving the world

In September, the GCSP is hosting an innovative course on ‘Creative Diplomacy’. What can we expect? GCSP Novelist-in-Residence Jyoti Guptara will be teaching a session on Story as Influence.

Hi, Story: Fiction as a tool for lateral thinking

GCSP Director Ambassador Christian Dussey believes in learning from history — the obvious intersection between International Relations and story. As Churchill put it, “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” So how about using fiction as a means of looking sideways?

The key area of convergence between writing fiction and the work of GCSP is conflict. If it weren’t for conflict, we would both be out of business. Conflict is the fuel of fiction (and defence budgets). No friction, no fiction. At least, nothing readable.

Going beyond the contribution of the arts to soft power, how would a storyteller make decisions? I will examine the question with a trusty storytelling device: beginning, middle and end.

Amb Narayanan, JGuptara, GCSP Creative Diplomacy Sept 2015

Jyoti Guptara with Ambassador Chitra Narayanan co-teaching at GCSP’s first Creative Diplomacy course

In the Beginning

Frequent advice on structuring stories runs like this. Act 1: Put your character in a tree. Act 2: Throw stones at her (and light the tree on fire). Act 3: Get her out of there. These are broad strokes. How do you come up with the dastardly details? Further advice for storytellers reads very nearly like preparation for political advisors, with the subtle difference of a word. Ah, words.

The novelist plans, while the advisor plans for, everything that can go wrong to go wrong. It’s strategic foresight. In the real world, this is where many solutions can be found before a situation develops. For instance, thinking like a novelist, policymakers could have asked: What potential troubles could arise from sending Iraqi security forces home? Ah. While brilliant minds are capable of recognising these threats entirely unaided, fiction can stretch, or add a little colour to the grey matter.

Whereas the state wants to pre-empt complications, of course, the novelist wants to prolong them, so let’s leave the advice at that…

The Muddy Middle

In order for our readers to care about our hero’s incredible ordeals, they need to care about our hero. They need to empathise. This is a key skill for policymakers.

We’ve been talking about ‘heroes’. While fiction necessitates a narrow cast of actors, often a likeable hero and a villain we love to hate, and of course reality is much more complex … Wait, is it? Often not in its portrayal.

At the 20th anniversary celebration of GCSP, Associate Fellows, journalists Souad Mekhennet and Janine di Giovanni, concurred that by presenting heroes and villains, the media has done a lot of damage. Take, for instance, the portrayal of the Arab Spring as a democratic uprising when most people would have been satisfied simply with an improvement to health care.

If both approaches suffer from the same symptoms, how does fiction help? Unlike journalism, reading fiction builds empathy by getting into the heads of people different from ourselves. If, say, policymakers had paused to consider how Iraqi security forces felt about being sent home (character motivations), perhaps we would have come to similar foresight as we did in exercise 1 (plot complications).

Soldiers are feeling shamed, so they might act to boost their bruised masculinity. They could beat their wives… They could form militias… Ah.

The point about empathy is understanding the essential principle that everyone is the hero of their own story. This awakens us to the fact that everyone has a story, a story conducive to — or even incompatible with — participation in the state.

Revelation preludes Resolution, the End

Finally, for happy readers and citizens, we need a creative resolution to our problems. Often accompanying our story’s climax and hence paving the way for a resolution is a revelation. The hero realises she must change a mindset or behaviour in order to succeed. If she changes, we have a happy ending. If she fails, it’s a tragedy.

The same thing happens in the real world. As Shakespeare said: “to hold, as ‘t were, the mirror the nature,” and make sense of it all. If only diplomacy would learn the same lessons.

To end diplomatic stalemates and avert future tragedies, consider applying for the course.

The GCSP’s motto is ‘Where knowledge meets experience’. The goal of this marriage is wisdom (or ‘strategic intelligence’.) By reading non-fiction, you arrive, if you’re lucky, at knowledge. By reading fiction and thinking like a writer, you could arrive at understanding.