American Diplomacy

Highlight map


Support American Diplomacy RSS Mailing-list Subscription Email American Diplomacy Facebook

The Place of
. . .in the Arena of
Professor McDougall explores the mysterious world of what we might call “strategy speak” as an investigation into the meaning not so much of words, but the intent behind the words.

Walter A. McDouga1l, Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania, is editor of Orbis and co-director of the Foreign Policy Research InstiItute’s History Academy.

~ Ed.

by Walter A . McDougall  
LATELY, PRESIDENT CLINTON DECLARED WAR on terrorism. Did he really mean it? Of course not. Objectivity is the historians’ highest professional virtue. They are, in theory, pledged to reconstruct the past, in Leopold von Ranke’s famous phrase, “wie es eigentlich gewesen.” That is usually translated “as it actually was.” The German really says “as it essentially was” — a more modest ambition — but the intention is nonetheless clear. Historians are supposed to try to suppress their personal biases, transcend their own time and place, and see the world through the eyes of their historical subjects. How else can they claim to “explain,” for example, the words and deeds of a medieval pope or a French revolutionary?
It goes without saying that historians, being human, fall short of that goal. They may, for instance, marshal evidence to support interpretations that will attract attention, impress their critics, and advance their careers, while ignoring evidence to the contrary. But even scrupulous historians have a way of fooling themselves. When confronted with a daunting mass of memoranda, policy statements, and public speeches, they may read too much, or not enough, into the words of historical actors.

Consider President Clinton’s 1998 statement in Beijing in which he associated the United States, for the first time, with China’s insistent “Three No’s” regarding the status of Taiwan. Did he himself understand how radical a shift in American policy that was, or did he just  blunder  from  having  been  put  on  the spot  or inadequately briefed by his aides? And if he did understand what he was doing, did he do it because he believed it was wise on the face of it, or because it was a concession made to obtain Beijing’s help on some other foreign policy problem, or because he was “paying off” the Chinese for services rendered  to  his  political  campaign? 

Now, diplomatic historians tend to assume rationality. They assume that the U.S. government does have a China policy, and that it is based on some calculation of the national interest. But that assumption is not always warranted, and not only because politicians are even more slippery than those who attempt to explain them. It is not warranted because words themselves are opaque. Consider the wisdom of Aristotle: 

Man, when perfected, is the best of animals; but if he be isolated from law and justice he is the worst of all. Injustice is all the graver when it is armed injustice; and man is furnished from birth with arms (such as, for instance, language) which are intended to serve the purposes of moral prudence and virtue, but which may he used in preference for opposite ends. That is why, if he be without virtue, he is a most unholy and savage being, and worse than all the others in the indulgence of lust and gluttony.

How modern he sounds! But then, to say that an ancient writer sounds “modern” is just to admit that not only these times, but all times try men’s souls in similar ways for similar reasons born of the immutable human condition. Whether one prefers to name it vice with the philosophers, sin with the theologians, or  dysfunction with the psychologists, the universal perversity of human behavior is an empirical fact. It is what makes governments necessary, then promptly corrupts those governments,  making necessary a balance of power within states and among them if human beings are to enjoy some interstices of peace and liberty during their brief span of years.

In our own time, the corruption of language has been a specialty of totalitarian regimes, as satirically exposed in George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, wherein freedom is slavery, war is peace, and some animals are more equal than others. But the human condition being what it is, all statesmen of whatever stripe must practice deception to some degree or else be outmaneuvered bymore ruthless opponents. Strategic thinkers from Sun Tzu to Sir Basil Liddell Hart and our own Edward Luttwak have explained how deception and the indirect approach are often fundamental to victory in any sort of strategic conflict. A cynic might claim that this applies as well to everyday life: in an automobile showroom, in competitive games and sports, in a negotiation on the job, committee meeting, or court proceeding, in an encounter with a traffic cop, or quarrel with a spouse — indeed in any social situation in which we hope to advance our cause whether for good motives or ill. That does not mean we tell bold-faced lies, only that we choose our words so as to soften or shade the truth in situations where blunt honesty would be imprudent. At other times, we may indeed tell the “naked” truth, or profess to do so, not because we are mythical George Washingtons who “cannot tell a lie,” but rather because we judge that the appearance of honesty, or a reputation for honesty, best serves our purpose at this time before this audience. In sum, words and truth, rhetoric and reality, do not coincide as often as we might like.

A true cynic might agree with Machiavelli’s observation that “the experience of our times shows those princes to have done great things who have had little regard for good faith, and have been able by astuteness to confuse men’s brains, and who have ultimately overcome those who have made loyalty their foundation.” To be “practiced at the art of deception,” to quote the Rolling Stones’ lyric, is thus a sine qua non of what the world considers success — and a reputation for honesty useful only insofar as it is undeserved.


  ALL THIS CONFOUNDS HISTORIANS, who must work almost exclusively from literary sources — documents — in their attempt to reconstruct past events and explain why they happened. Harvey Sicherman, president of the FPRI and veteran State Department speechwriter, knows from experience that in our Republic of Leaks and Freedom of Information Acts few documents are drafted, especially those classified Secret (!), without the author keeping in mind the impression they will make on the media (and future historians) once they become public. Or, as a wise man of my acquaintance once said, “Don’t put anything on paper that you can say on the telephone; don’t say anything on the telephone that you can say in person; and don’t say anything even in person that can be conveyed with a wink.” Frankin D. Roosevelt was just such a sphinx. He put very little of substance on paper. He habitually and breezily promised one thing to a cabinet member, reporter, or visitor in the morning, implied the exact opposite to another after lunch, and denied both accounts to a third in the evening. No wonder historians are still in the dark about the real motives behind many of his policies. But for all his dissimulation over thirteen years, he never lost the trust of the majority of the American people.

So far, I think, the post-modern deconstructionists would applaud what I have written. To them, all language is without intrinsic meaning and all values and concepts, from love and beauty and truth and justice to freedom, equality, sanity, and reality are mere social constructions imposed by the dominant race, class, or gender. But I must disappoint the post-modernists. For even as I agree that language is susceptible to infinite manipulation, I do not conclude that it therefore means  nothing — or anything, as in the Alice in Wonderland world of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. In the world of strategy, words do mean something real and important to the speaker and to the audience. The words just do not always mean what they appear to mean, and if the statesman is good at his task, the audience knows and applauds it. For the people are in on the fraud: they are the willing accomplices in their own apparent deception.

To be sure, such political chemistry is hard to measure, and any attempt to decode rhetoric, much less deduce from it a statesman’s genuine policy, will strike some as intuitive. But the tweaking of rhetoric is grounded in the need to persuade, admonish, or dupe the masses into supporting the leadership. It is a reality that politicians and their speechwriters and spinmeisters confront every day.

We are overdue, I know, for examples, and at the risk of my reputation I shall suggest some. When FDR told the American people that they had “nothing to fear but fear itself,” he was not saying to them “Don’t worry, be happy” or “What, Me Worry?” or “Happy days are here again.” He was really telling them, “I know you’re afraid. You have every right to be. And I intend to exploit that fear to rally support for whatever emergency measures I decide to take because elements in the Congress, courts, and business community are going to resist them and say terrible things about me. So don’t forget your fear. I’m going to need it.”

Implicit bargains between leaders and voters are more complicated in foreign policy because most Americans most of the time don’t want to hear about it, while the president must craft his words for their effect on foreign governments as well as for their effect at home. Thus, when Khrushchev rattled his rockets and threw up the Berlin Wall in 1961, President Kennedy made loud noises about resistance, beefed up U.S. forces in Europe, visited Checkpoint Charlie himself and declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” That satisfied both his constituencies perfectly, because it made the American people feel good while at the same time signaling the Soviets that he in fact had no desire to risk World War III over Berlin. That is, Kennedy took it upon himself to reconcile Western public opinion to the Soviet outrage. And if you doubt that, contrast it with Eisenhower’s handling of the Berlin crisis of 1959. He said nothing and even withdrew some conventional forces from Germany, while quietly reinforcing U.S. nuclear forces on station. Khrushchev, knowing Ike’s acts spoke louder than words, forgot all about his ultimatums and deadlines.

What did Mao Zedong expect to achieve when he bragged that the East is Red and denounced the United States as a “paper tiger”? Surely he did not think Americans would collectively answer, “Mao is right! We Yanks should be ashamed of ourselves, imperialist running dogs that we are, and withdraw from East Asia immediately.” On the contrary, by simultaneously stoking “wars of liberation” in Asia and belittling American resolve, he was all but inviting the United States to remain engaged in Southeast Asia. Why? Because he had no desire to see Vietnam, which had hated and feared China for a thousand years, unite under the tough regime in Hanoi and make common cause with China’s real enemy, the Soviet Union.

Lately, President Clinton declared war on terrorism. Did he really mean it? Of course not, and the American people knew it, which is why they continued to give him high marks for leadership instead of rising as one to protest a “war” that could make their daily commute to work a nightmare of uncertainty. Do the American people really want to bomb and invade half a dozen Islamic countries and thus invite retaliatory acts of terror in their own hometowns, which is what Clinton’s declaration, taken literally, would entail? Of course not. What really happened was that, just as Osama bin Laden needs to blow up some embassies once in awhile to establish his bona fides among his own followers, so Clinton needs to express outrage and fire off some missiles into obscure corners of the Islamic world so as to liquidate the affair in American politics.

“We are the folk song army and every one of us cares/We all hate poverty, war, and injustice, unlike the rest of you squares.” So went Tom Lehrer’s spoof on the 1960s protesters’ penchant for declaring risk-free war on abstractions. But real statesmen do not publicly target abstractions like terrorism. They secretly target terrorists, instruct their agents to put a dozen contracts out on the ones they want out of the way, then rely on the intrigues of the bazaar to provide at least one assassin with a motive and a chance to succeed. That’s the way the British did it, from the Sudan to Afghanistan, for over a century.

In our quest to understand the place of words in the arena of power and to judge their effect on real events, we historians may indeed have much to learn from semiotics (the science of symbols) and linguistic theory. But we may learn even more from Aristotle, Cicero, and the ancients. And we shall learn most of all, I suspect, from observing ourselves, which is to say, the contrast between our true selves and the selves we craft for others to see and hear.

Republished by permission of FPRI from its newsletter Volume 1, Number 3, November 1998.


white starAmerican Diplomacy white star
Copyright © 2012 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC