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Our public discourse is seeded with dangerous and counterproductive ideas concerning national security that are so deeply embedded we may often be unaware that we, as story tellers, are invoking or reinforcing them in our own narrations. Thus, over the past few years OBI has partnered with many organizations to develop a set of principles for reframing the discourse on national security.

The idea behind this narrative principles project is to equip as many narrators as possible to frame their messages in a way that, over time, will shift the public’s assumptions and understanding about a field of discourse—in this case, the discourse around national security. To equip the largest possible group of narrators, we try to minimize specific content in favor of principles articulated in broad terms of values and vision. This allows narrators to apply the principles over a broad range of fields and contexts, and thereby reinforce and amplify the narrative change work of partners narrating in other arenas.

We invite social justice narrators to use these principles when communicating about national security issues, or about issues that may be overshadowed by a mainstream discourse of “national security. 

We know that many narrators who focus on a certain area may search these principles for language that pertains specifically to their work and concerns. But as you approach these principles, bear in mind the intention is that they should have as much flexibility in application as possible. 

These principles have been drafted with a view to shine a critical light on those deeply embedded ideas, and equip audiences to envision a different reality, organized around the health and thriving of our human communities and natural world. In particular, we hope to call out and eradicate narratives that sow human division and weaponize fear. We also reject narratives that falsely insist that peace for some can only be achieved through the deprivation of justice for others. Finally, we wish to call attention to the very poor record of security solutions to political problems: in the medium and long term, the only guaranteed outcomes to security-based solutions are diversion of public resources and postponement of inevitable crises. In contrast, an affirmative emphasis on the values we wish to see at the center of our discourse reveals the possibility for transformative solutions based in human and natural well-being. With this in mind, these are the principles we encourage people to use in framing their communications in debates where “national security” may be invoked:

Principle 1: Protection of Life

Center life, including human communities and the environments that sustain them. Choose language that reflects the lived daily human struggle to attain conditions that protect life, including, e.g., a healthy natural environment, full recognition of every human being’s equal value and dignity, the freedom to enter voluntarily into economic and social relations, and freedom from both physical violence and systemic oppression.

Principle 2: Opportunity to Thrive

We wish for a transformation to sustainable political and economic order organized around well-being. The current “national security” approach pulls us ever further from this goal, normalizing a world view where insecurity and hardship for most is seen as an acceptable tradeoff for “security” for some. We recognize a general trend in which actions and policies justified on national security grounds are predicated on centralizing power among elites and diverting resources away from meeting broader human needs. We seek to promote a collective vision of well-being, in which individuals and collectives can exercise power over resource decisions, including the freedom to reject harmful and extractive security policies in favor of resource uses that sustain life.

SUSTAINABILITY. True security lies in having the material conditions to sustain individual and community life beyond the decision–making elites. We reject state-centric models of security that accept extractive economies and destruction or of the natural environment as “necessary evils.”

DIGNITY. The dignity of persons, human collectivities, cultures, and the natural environment is essential to well-being. We reject “security” narratives that do not recognize the centrality of dignity.

PEACE AND JUSTICE. We understand “peace” to be not merely the absence of armed conflict but the presence of justice. Both depend on the ability of individuals and collectives to pursue authentically meaningful lives according to their beliefs.

Principle 3: Interdependence/Solidarity

We can only heal and repair our home planet through collective action that recognizes the interdependence of all human communities and natural systems. We seek to forge and strengthen solidarity across communities and geographies, and to not repeat divisive, zero-sum frames of national security that engender adversarial feelings toward some human communities, such as threat inflation and scapegoating. We do not repeat frames that dehumanize or exceptionalize persons or peoples based on their characteristics or circumstances. In particular, we recognize the harmful prevalent narrative framing that posits an inextricable link between security and US hegemony.

Principle 4: Transformative Solutions

We recognize that security-based measures do not resolve problems; instead, they forestall reckoning with contestations over power and resources. When narrating in this space, we seek to highlight solutions that would transform situations of friction or conflict. Security measures are rooted in zero-sum thinking; solutions that transform arise from a holistic vision of human communities whose conflicts do not eclipse their essential interdependence.

Principle 5: Accountability/Rule of Law

Individually and collectively, states are governed by domestic and international legal frameworks that constrain and compel their conduct. Respect for the rule of law, by honoring norms and principles such as transparency and ascertainability of the law, accountability for the application (and violation) of legal rules, mechanisms for review, and others, is considered a hallmark of a state’s legitimacy. At the same time, we recognize that in some circumstances, rules entrench systemic injustices or are applied unfairly. Though this framework is not perfect, we believe that demanding compliance with applicable rules (both internal and international) is a useful way to shift the conversation and foster awareness of the fact that much of what is done in the name of “national security” does not conform with widely accepted global standards. We provoke people to question what other ends and interests are served by our narrative framing when we communicate about national security. We invite people to be guided by the question: does your narrative and rhetorical framing advance justice for those most affected?


This project was principally led by Open Society-US in partnership with Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security and the Othering & Belonging Institute, with assistance from the Narrative Initiative. Read more about this project and all the partners involved in our Principles for Reframing the National Security Narrative document.