Inquiry: Diplomacy and Language

Preliminary Treaty of Paris, 30 November 1782, Painting by Benjamin West in 1783

by LJ Frank

Diplomacy has a long tumultuous history with numerous revisions during its illustrious coursing through the centuries. It’s an art, not a science. If you are a conqueror then the language of diplomacy changes to justify the reason for your being in power. Language is diplomacy in action and is a largely successful human experiment with war being the failure of language and conscience. And there is no statute of limitations on the downstream effects of a war.

If efficacious enough the language of diplomacy whether verbally or at times in silence offers a method and means to resolve potential conflicts before they begin. A significant challenge of diplomacy has been keeping promises. Once a promise is made, it’s best to keep the promise when peace is the objective.

Language, logic and culture are complex. Frames of reference are embedded in our words from earliest humans in our negotiations from ancient China, India, Greece, Egypt or Rome among hundreds of other societies, tribes and families. Economics is prominent in most diplomatic relationships. Governments, rulers and officials develop treaties, cultural exchanges and trade policies with economics being the significant influence. What are the benefits to the negotiating participants? The language of poverty and the poverty of language are finely interlaced threads in a given diplomatic culture.

Character is an ingredient that shapes negotiations, whether a nation or an individual. When he was a young man, and not unlike his father, after hearing a fiery sermon from a colonial minister, young John Quincy Adams (later diplomat, president and statesmen) asked the minister why he should pay someone else to be made to feel guilty when he could feel guilty all by himself without another’s admonition and at no cost except perhaps his own conscience. The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree that births it. That reputation of questioning served John Quincy Adams well in negotiating treaties later in life on behalf of the young country. The point is our family, culture, knowledge and education effects and shapes our character to a large extent.

The efficacious use of a single word or sequence of words could mean the difference between positive or negative outcomes, whether it’s détente, brinksmanship, Cold War, Manifest Destiny, domino theory, containment, raison d’é·tat, self-determination, exceptionalism, realpolitik, globalism, convergence theory, big money and numerous other words of multiple meanings within different frames of reference.

People live within frames of reference. A good example was the colonists that used the words of religion as a resource for “conscious morality,” (see) historian Andrew Preston’s Religious Language in US Foreign Policy. He spells out how words and religion are used and their effectiveness in this insightful scholarly work. The danger was/is the effect of narrow religious convictions as the breeding ground for division.

In his work titled God’s Phallus, Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, observes the ambiguous nature of human relations and cultures with their “God” through their choice of words. We give “God” a body through our words and in turn the problems develop in bodily images and roles between men and women. Our beliefs affect our relations on a local, national and international level. Once you give a name to something Martin Buber suggests in his work, I and Thou, you make the person approachable and it serves as an opportunity to control the attributes you give that person or “being.”

In another frame of reference the Ambassador’s Journal, by John Kenneth Galbraith (Ambassador to India during the JFK Presidency) noted the challenge for journalists who traveled halfway around the world to cover a non-war and felt inconvenienced. They decided to word their stories to show that tensions existed between probable enemies that shared a common border, so as to appear they hadn’t traveled there for nothing. Galbraith adeptly stepped back and spoke little. Diplomacy requires being selective with one’s words or being altogether silent.

Frames of reference and its language determine the relationships whether at a diplomatic outpost as well as wading through the twist and chaos of logic in fighting a war. With regards to war one of the most insightful sequence of words is to found in the language of a novelist. In his brilliant work titled Catch 22, Joseph Heller wrote pithily about the nature of words and logic: “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr  (a pilot) was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”

One may come away from reading Heller realizing that “world order” is in the minds of those who act within the framework of their perceived or actual power. Perceived power is an aphrodisiac, observed former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. And words are a form of persuasion even when talking to oneself and looking into the narcissistic world of self. And therein lies a danger when we are unable to step back and discern the nuances of reality.

Words are always used in a framework – perhaps at times with psychological purposes with meanings only known to an inner circle as if they were coded. Still, as Benjamin Disraeli pointed out, “Finality is not the language of politics.” There is always another word(s) to be spoken and another moment of needed quiet. And those who travel that diplomatic path become an ingredient in the ambiguous narrative itself. Pick a diplomatic policy issue and look at its history. Ambiguity is as relevant today as it was during the time of the pharaohs and their relations with their Mediterranean neighbors.

In his Parable of Tribes, Andrew Bard Schmookler wrote, “The experience of meaning requires connection between thought and feeling, between perception and passion.” While today existential alienation allows for us to become “strangers to ourselves,” (see Albert Camus, The Plague).

In Franz Kafka’s work The Trial, one senses a discomfort from the author himself as he attempts to weave as story about a man only known as Josef K. His surname is never revealed. There’s a lack of connection as if everything around was surreal as to what was happening to him, for there was no legitimate explanation. The writing is rough, insightful, poetic and disturbing, much like human relationships within families and the family of nations.

Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher in his work, On Being and Time, suggests to be radical is to get at the root. “Being” is not only the idea that one finds oneself some place, it also means we are dealing and concerned with a specific thing. The problem is found in our words and the disparate meanings a given word has within a given frame of reference. People think differently and the same word in different cultures has varied meanings. Man must create his own middle, according to Heidegger.

We use words with intent. An indelible mark or stain remains with an ill-used word. A single word can literally lead to retribution. In an age of existentialism where we gaze toward the precipice of nuclear havoc, irreversible climate change and the abuse wrought by poverty we need to choose our words and subsequent policies, wisely.

Diplomacy is a high calling. It means we must examine ourselves, our relationships with others and seek to understand our place if we wish to have a peaceful coexistence. The word humble when translated into different languages has cultural variations but the intent is similar. Or as Thomas Aquinas wrote in the margins of a manuscript, “We think we know, but have yet to discover.”