The Case for Tougher Talk in Foreign Affairs

International relations might be more effective if we ceased using soft, diplomatic language.

By Nicole Jenaye
May 7, 2012

Seven men, members of an insurgent group in a forgotten African country, are ordered to lie face-down on the dusty ground outside a police station. Devoid of crescendo music or pregnant narration, the Al-Jazeera video continues unapologetically as the men are systematically shot in the back with crude, rattling AK-47s. An insatiable appetite for foreign affairs, a stint in the Marine Corps, and nearly a year spent in the hot desert sun in Afghanistan absolutely failed to prepare me for the brutal image. The stark contrast between the harsh, unedited realities displayed on Al-Jazeera and those superficial, polished segments on CNN or Fox News provides a useful allegory for politics in the United States. In a world where atrocities are committed without a moment’s hesitation, we Americans shade our eyes, speak in euphemisms, and pretend not to have noticed the world has long since debunked the idealistic notion of American Exceptionalism.

In the US, the season of politics is in full session, as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama prepare to duel over a bevy of issues, each named the vital concern of the American people. Vitriolic rhetoric is already flowing from both sides of the aisle, and if the past three elections are any precedent, this season promises to be the most violent pillow fight of weightless sound bytes and vapid talking points in history. Mirroring the campaign tone, entertainers posing as news anchors spew utterly unacceptable yet titillating morsels of nonsense, egging on an unsettled, unsure, and weakly educated population. Real issues are sidelined in favor of 140-character snipes, sensationalized ticker tapes, and statistics depicting the number of “likes” accumulated on Facebook. There is no political science theory, quantitative economics analysis, or conflict resolution techniques on display here. Triteness, superficiality, and snarky one-liners will be in high demand until November 6th.

This dialogue is the flamboyant side of an odd dichotomy in US politics. The sober, self-aware, and equally disconnected language of diplomats and officials who discuss incidents like those depicted on Al-Jazeera with phrases like “asymmetric conflict” and “expressions of unrest” contrast with the realities: lost limbs, shattered minds, and dead American troops in Afghanistan; the brutal murder, rape, and mutilation of helpless populations in Sri Lanka; and death tolls well into the millions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The official, “soft” method of depicting foreign policy decisions does little to convey the realities and critical importance of such decisions’ collateral effects. Consequently, it severely restricts the options available to politicians, who must place image and perception over effectiveness and security.

Few would argue that politeness in social conversation is not beneficial for developing and maintaining good relationships. However, it is oddly absent in domestic politics, where it would go a long way towards strengthening the image of democracy, improving cooperation, and achieving progress towards political goals. Conversely, in foreign affairs, reducing politeness in favor of speaking honestly about what we actually can do, why we should, how long it will take, and what the costs will be, would be much more effective.

We must immediately move away from unproductive rhetoric, misplaced comedy, and soft, misleading talk about the problems of our world. The critical flaws in our domestic and foreign policies will not heal themselves. The more we ignore reality, the more gnarled and convoluted the problems become, and the more difficult they will be to repair. We must wake up, turn away from soft coddling news sources, seek out veracious information, and demand politicians tell us the truth, devoid of flowery, overly simplified logic and euphemisms. Only then we can begin to make the hard choices essential to our continued existence as a great and respected nation.

Image courtesy of njl-photolog via Flickr.

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