Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

11 November 2008


Yesterday I stopped at Pizza Schmizza for a quick slice of pepperoni. There was a television in the dining area displaying CNN Headline news. It was showing an interview with an “expert” about the choice of the new White House puppy. The BBC had a story that Peru had offered a native hairless breed that wouldn’t compromise the allergies of one of the children. Obviously, this is a complex issue. While the popular press was enthusiastically engaged with the story of the new first puppy, other matters of import were taking place elsewhere.

Barney will be difficult to replace, but the search is on and the media are interested.

Barney will be difficult to replace, but the search is on and the media are interested.

The election of Barack Obama brought congratulatory messages from all over the world, including from the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadi-nejad. (This is one expression of the international outpouring of goodwill discussed in my Opening Reflection.) While other congratulations received presumably routine responses of thanks, the president-elect publicly stated that he had not responded to the message from Iran, and that he was concerned about their nuclear program and their support for terrorist groups.

Mahmoud Ahmadi-nejad, President of Iran and International Pariah

Mahmoud Ahmadi-nejad, President of Iran and International Pariah

When Obama was campaigning, one of the issues that drew attention early in the campaign was his statement that he would meet the leaders of other nations without preconditions. As the US seeks to systematically isolate certain regimes its finds distasteful or unacceptable, this pronouncement was controversial. Many questions were asked, and the usual hedging took place, preserving something of the sentiment expressed while gutting it of substantive content for all practical purposes. Obama is not unique in following this line; all presidential candidates do so.

A composite map of distasteful and unacceptable regimes, as named by President Bush and John Bolton

A composite map of distasteful and unacceptable regimes, as named by President Bush and John Bolton

Now we see, before he has even taken office, an important continuity with the Bush administration: Iran will continue to be isolated by the US. There might yet be some wiggle room, but the tone has been set. And the tone is that of continuity, not transformation. If anyone was hoping for a transformation of foreign relations under a President Obama, this is among the first of the clues that this is not going to happen. No transformation here, folks.

Non-Transformational Politicking

The Identity of Indiscernibles: Non-Transformational Politicking

Don’t get fooled again: all of this is predictable power politics. One can only understand diplomacy as a language of performatives. Philosophers of language sometimes distinguish between performative and constantive speech, by which they mean the difference between language that seeks to perform some action and language that seeks to describe states-of-affairs (the distinction has been disputed, and good people disagree as to its legitimacy). A paradigmatic example of performative language would be to say “I promise…” or “I am sorry…” Such statements, simply as statements, perform an action by making a promise or making an apology, etc. Similarly, diplomatic speech not only carries with it implied commitments to action, but the very act of engaging (so it is thought) legitimizes the parties to the exchange. Thus even responding to a congratulation from Iran is seen as legitimizing Ahmadi-nejad, hence being “soft” on a US adversary, and no president-elect can afford to begin his term by appearing soft. That would be career suicide before one’s career has even begun.

J. L. Austin's How to do Things with Words

J. L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words, a classic of ordinary language linguistic philosophy

This confirmation of continuity is also disappointing, but it is equally predictable that one will be disappointed by suggestions of a “breath of fresh air”, as it were, from a new administration. I, for one, am wholly in favor of US representatives, including the president, talking to any and all. Talking to other world leaders, even those considered unworthy by the US, does not mean giving away the store. It also opens up opportunities.

J. L. Austin, Unsung Diplomat Extraodinaire

J. L. Austin, Unsung Diplomat Extraordinaire

There was much hand-wringing throughout the term of the Bush administration regarding the failure to use diplomacy, joined with excoriations of the Bush administration for its readiness to use unilateral force. Diplomacy means talking to people. It means talking to rivals, adversaries, and enemies. We already talk to our friends and allies. We have enough talk shops for this purpose. What we need to do is to talk to those we do not talk to now. This would not transform our enemies into our friends, but it would make them more accessible.

Nixon famously employed ping pong as a diplomatic opening to China

Nixon famously employed ping pong as a diplomatic opening to China

Why should we want our enemies to be accessible? What opportunities does diplomacy offer? It offers opportunities to manipulate and mislead opponents and adversaries, keeping them off-balance and off-guard so they can be blindsided at the appropriate time. Diplomacy — hold on to your hats, here, folks — often involves lying. That’s right. Sometimes you need to mislead others with a bald-faced lie. Sometimes this involves lying to constituents, sometimes it involves lying to the press, sometimes lying to other world leaders, sometimes lying to the populations of other nations. It very frequently involves saying one thing in public and another in private. Diplomacy is the art of eloquent contradiction, tasteful subterfuge, careful dissimulation, principled hypocrisy, calculated vagueness, measured affront, and prudent doublespeak. And we need more of it.

A little lesson in diplomacy

A little lesson in diplomacy

Perhaps Americans have a hard time with diplomacy because diplomacy, with its language of performatives, is a matter of ceremony and display, which latter also seek to perform some action merely by the fact of their being seen (as performative utterances perform an action by being heard). In my earlier piece on Symbolic Efficacy I discussed the ways in which industrialized democracies are at a disadvantage in the realm of spectacular displays. Since we have gotten out of the habit, we have lost the sure instincts that make such displays effective. Democratic states are also at a disadvantage in regard to propaganda and diplomacy. And here by “democratic” I don’t just mean a country that holds elections; I mean a country with truly democratic institutions like popular sovereignty, a constitution that is respected, an independent judiciary, separation of powers, and freedom of the press. With such democratic institutions in place, there are a hundred ways for lies to be exposed, and the exposure of lies militates again their successful use in diplomacy. But being at a disadvantage does not mean giving up. We may have a handicap, but the open institutions of the US can also call forth the best efforts of the best talents. Too bad it isn’t happening.

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