Friday, September 22, 2006

Undiplomatic Language

In comments here, PW points to an op-ed by Peggy Noonan from the Wall Street Journal. Noonan rightly criticizes the over-heated rhetoric (hellish rhetoric might be a better term post-Chavez) that seems to be circling the globe these days. It's almost as if Kim Jong-il had become the avatar of diplomatic discourse.

Noonan writes:

U.N. speeches are, by history and tradition, boring. You daydream to them. This is not all accident, not only the result of the fact that a nation's diplomats don't usually come from the more scintillating parts of its elites. (They rose to the U.N. in the first place because they didn't fatally offend anyone back home.) Their speeches are dull because they know divisions can be dodged or blunted by a heartening vagueness. And so their words are blankets, not bullets; meant to envelop, not pierce.

Noonan obviously didn't have John Bolton in mind when she wrote that UN representatives "rose to the U.N. in the first place because they didn't fatally offend anyone back home"--unless she meant the term "fatally" to be taken with great literalness. But I digress.

Many others have made similar observations about the language of diplomacy. Isaac Goldberg said, "Diplomacy is to do and say / The nastiest things in the nicest way." Caskie Stinnett, in a 1960 book entitled Out of the Red, defined a diplomat as "a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip."

Traditionally, diplomats have tried to keep their discourse diplomatic even when the policies they are defending have not been. Otto von Bismarck noted that "even in a declaration of war one observes the rules of politeness."

As Noonan points out, "Harsh words inspire the unstable." But Noonan fails to recognize that George W. Bush has based his presidency on harsh words and simplistic categories. We could certainly use more of the bland language of diplomacy--at the UN and elsewhere--and a good place to start might be in convincing the president of the United States to consider the impact of his words on foreign audiences.