How Words Matter: Rhetoric, Politics, and International Relations

Many rhetoricians believe that rhetoric, like art, should be pursued and studied for its own sake.  Speakers and writers concerned with politics, however, have long known that rhetoric is very much of this world.  A pure art and science of rhetoric may be a desirable goal, but rhetoric in this world is not goal-free or context invariant.  Political rhetoricians  from the time of the Sophists through Classical figures like Aristotle, Cicero, Caesar and Quintilian have long known that rhetoric can be the high road to political power.

Cicero.jpg boatagainstthecurrent.blogspot.com 962 × 600 – Attributed to Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 B.C.-43 B.C.)

The development of language and the development of politics have been tightly bound together.  One of the most striking and central passages in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is where he makes it quite explicit that the central power of the sovereign is the power to stabilize the meanings of words within the commonwealth.  Political rulers during the Middle Ages were anxious to define and determine languages within their sovereign boundaries as a device for communicating their power and authority.  Machiavelli lays particular importance on The Prince’s use of language as a device for inspiring the proper obedience among his subjects.  Language becomes the defining framework for political authority and communication.  It also emerges as a primary means of motivating political actors.  The symbolic subjective dimension helps to determine the disposition of the physical and the material.  The pen, as it is said, becomes at least as mighty as the sword.  It is not enough for Julius Caesar to conquer the Carthaginians and to cross the Rubicon.  He must also write a history of the Gallic Wars.  Images and actions join together in a way that makes the physical and virtual worlds inseparable.

In spite of this connection between language and politics, students of politics have not always been eager to recognize the political importance of language.  Scholars of international relations, in particular, have long been dismissive or ambivalent about the importance of language and rhetoric.  Thucydides, in the Melian debate of The Peloponnesian Wars, dismisses the use of mere words. On the other hand,  it is important to note that Thucydides’ views come to us down through history through the medium of the written text.  And it is also important to note that the work itself, the Peloponnesian Wars, embodies a highly structured dramaturgical design, reminiscent and reflective of the finest works of the Greek Classical dramatists. There is, of course, an important stylistic dimension to the work.  Argumentation forms the central core structure.  The actors are presented in a series of set argumentations or debates and finally there is a literary dimension reminiscent of postmodern perspectives.  In this work, the virtual, the symbolic assume a critical life of their own.

Nevertheless, scholars of international relations have not laid, in general, a heavy emphasis on language and rhetoric.  As Thucydides tells us, “The strong do as they will while the weak do as they must”.  In an outlook reminiscent of Plato’s belief in Forms, more modern scholars such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz set forth a stark, essentialist view of international relations, international realism.  This view is based on their intuitive grasp of the essence of international relations, its geometric structure.  The system of international relations, in this perspective, consists of a minimalist field of forces.  Nations are essentially power robots.  They define their national interests in terms of power and they use whatever means, including war, to maximize that power.  Words are decidedly weaker, lighter, inferior to military force in this drive for power.  Nations that do not follow the structural laws of the system are quickly eliminated.  The system evolves to favor the survival of the powerful.  International relations, in this view, are the domain of specialists in coercion, not of specialists in persuasion.  The system of international relations consists, In Lasswell’s term,  of garrison states.  Non-garrison states are either incorporated into the garrison states or cease to exist.  This modernist, deep structural, essentialist, minimalist view is appealing because of its simplicity, its parsimony, its linearity – its cleanness.

Unfortunately, this view does not really do justice either to the complexities of the modern world, to international relations, or to politics in general.  A growing body of literature has now begun to recognize that our understanding of the relationship between politics and language must go beyond discussion of “cheap talk” and begin to deal seriously with political rhetoric with the politics and strategy of rhetoric.

Words matter, first of all, because they reflect the minds and thoughts of those who speak or write them, those who hear them or read them.  It is true that political actors very often, perhaps usually, do not say what they really think or mean.  An important part of political action is dissimulation to the extent that political action and political talk are strategic.  It would be naive to take words at their face value.  Nevertheless, the basis of any strategy must be the assumption that words do have an effect and an important one.  The actors may not say what they mean, but their words must, in their minds, carry a meaning that they would wish them to have.  The actors may not express what they think but they must express at least what they think their audience would want to hear or what would move their audience.  Political talk, then, may or may not be an authentic expression of the minds and thoughts of political actors.  Nevertheless, in its strategic form, political language must be importantly related to these minds and thoughts.  If political language is to have a strategic effect, words must matter and matter in an important way.

11nuremberg_mass1934

Political Rally; Nuremberg, Germany, 1934.

Talk may appear to be cheap because the marginal cost of each additional word seems to be close to zero.  Major economic investments are not required for President Obama or President Putin to utter the next word.  At the same time the infrastructure for the transmission of words and messages is far from inconsequential.  The modern media, as well as multibillion dollar state and corporate public relations enterprises exist precisely for the transmission of these messages.  Though a good deal of media content is commercial in form, its substance is always deeply political.  The dominance of world culture by Western media is the best example of this.

Martin Luther King, I Have a Dream, Washington DC Mall, August 28, 1963

i‑have‑a‑dream.jpg lesterandcharlie.com

Words are, of course, also a form of action and verbal behavior.  Verbal action is equivalent to non-verbal action and operates parallel to it. We can see the importance of words by examining their political role more closely in the field of international relations.  In the first place, the dominant theory of international relations, realism, is expressed verbally.  Words are used to develop, support and maintain this theory as the dominant interpretation.  In the same way words problematize realism and can help to validate other interpretations.

  • Words express the memories and histories of international relations.
  • Words express the narratives and myths of international relations.
  • Words express the perceptions of the observers and actors of international relations.
  • Words are used to convey many of the messages and signals of international relations.
  • Words and combined with each other, and with different forms of non-verbal behavior, into rhetorical strategies of persuasion.
  • Words are used to make peace.
  • Words are used for negotiation and bargaining.
  • Words are used to publicize the positions and views of different international actors.
  • Words are used to bind together international allies.
  • Words are used to command soldiers.
  •  Words are used to differentiate friends from enemy, self from other.
  •  Words are used to construct coalitions and hierarchies.
  •  Words are used to develop strategies, to articulate and discern preferences, utilities and probabilities.
  •  Words are used to describe trends and projections.
  •  Words are used to develop plans and policies.
  • Words are used to order military activities.
  • Words are used to coordinate economic international activities.
  • Words are used in debates and speeches over foreign affairs and reports that deal with foreign affairs.
  • Words are used in diplomacy.
  • Words express logic, cognition and ideas.
  • Words express interests and emotions.
  • Words express both the simplicity and complexity of international relations.
  • Words are both stimuli and responses in international relations.
  • Words construct political power and authority.
  • Words construct the rituals and meanings of politics.
  • Words construct identity and interest, privilege and disadvantage.
  • Words construct domination and subordination, victims and executioners,  resistance, rebellion and death.

We often wish for “magic words” that will quickly and easily bend others to our will. They may exist, but, if so, they are very elusive, hiding from us when we need them most. Yet talk is not just “cheap talk”, or “just rhetoric”.

Words matter for political leaders who talk and write, and for citizens,  journalists, and scholars who talk and write about them.

Toward the Terrorist Anti-World

We watch in horror as terrorist hijackings, suicide bombings. car implosions, and  even missiles intrude into the comfortable world where we and our allies live. These events involve countless individual tragedies, including the victims themselves, their families, friends, and associates. We do not easily recover from the physical and psychological trauma.

We search for answers. Who does these things and why? What should we do about terrorism? One body of opinion suggests that World War III is upon us. According to this view, Western civilization itself is under attack. It is faced with radical evil and needs to use whatever force is required to eradicate it. The many people who die, innocent as well as guilty, civilians as well as soldiers, are the necessary cost of maintaining our way of life. The United States as leader of  the free world, to recall the words of President Kennedy, must pay any price, bear any burden, to make the world safe for democracy. These words still speak to our heroic ambitions.

The vision is clear, but the path is uncertain. United States military forces are deployed for action across the globe, but are such military actions are likely to achieve their aims? Can all of the guilty be so easily located in the distant mountains and deserts of the world? Is bombing completely innocent foreign civilians consistent with our values? While we may  help defend some of  our allies, do we encourage others or repel them? Do we persuade the billions of people in other cultures that they want to be our partners? Do we wish to follow policies that risk escalating existing losses toward the very much higher casualty levels of World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam? Though one could ask the same questions of those who undertake the attacks, we can, for the moment, only try to answer them for ourselves.

Moderation beckons.  Domestically, the United States takes steps to defend itself, while also remaining conscious of what we are defending, particularly in the area of civil liberties. Internationally, our allies continue to work with us. But many of are concerned that the strongest medicine may make the disease worse rather than eradicate or contain it. We continue to take seriously their views, connecting with them both individually and within the global web of international institutions. We remain conscious of the need to align ourselves with the consensus of world opinion.

While the United States continues to use the hard power resources of appropriate force, we try to limit this force to what is consistent with rational objectives. The use of cruise missiles and drones on innocent people in foreign countries has unsurprisingly enhanced the very enmity that underlies terrorism.

Non-military means, diplomatic consultations, economic incentives, and appeals to shared humane values are preferred means of soft power. But we also take seriously the way that our international trade, aid, and debt policies may increase popular frustrations and terrorist recruitment in poor countries.We may ask how legitimate opposition grievances in other countries might be addressed in a more democratic context. As President Reagan reminded us, one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.

We place all these efforts in the frame of a larger strategic question: How will our actions produce a world in which terrorism is less likely to grow, a terrorist anti-world? We, and some of our allies, tend to focus narrowly on immediate military responses to terrorist attacks. We also need to remain true to ourselves and a long-term dream for our own society. How do we work to create a more democratic, just, and peaceful future for ourselves and for all the other people on this planet?

See also Counterpunch 10/29/2001

Flying Bombs

On September 11, 2001, two hijacked planes hit the Twin Towers in New York; another slammed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C. A fourth aircraft crashed and burned in Pennsylvania. An estimated 3,000 people died.

The flying bombs of that day had other longer lasting effects. Obviously, the lives of the victims’ families, friends, and neighbors changed permanently. The attacks led directly to President George W. Bush’s declaration of the Global War on Terror, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, drone attacks on targets in Pakistan, and much heightened domestic security. An Office of the Director of National Intelligence and a Department of Homeland Security were created. The Patriot Act authorized enhanced surveillance and intrusions into previously protected civil liberties.

Many thousands of Americans and people of other nationalities died or were wounded in the ensuing wars. It didn’t take long for the counterattack casualties to surpass the 3,000 dead of 9/11. Trillions of dollars that could have been used for other purposes were spent on military activities. Scientific research grants that might have been directed elsewhere went into research on terrorism. There were also cultural effects. Media coverage followed the maxim, if it bleeds it leads. Images of people hurling themselves from skyscrapers, Abu Ghraib, major combat operations, special forces raids, targeted assassinations, explosive demolition, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, and waterboarding contributed to popular fear, insecurity, and callousness. Monuments, memorials, ceremonies, and commemorations, including the current 10-year anniversary, keep the flames of traumatic memory bright and hot.

The effects of the planes that flew and crashed that day in the United States have obviously been enormous. These have occurred not just in the United States but on a global scale, as America has reached abroad to find and destroy its enemies. Subsequent American military attacks outside the U.S. have had massive impacts. If the four original flying bombs had complex, long lasting consequences that we have described on American life, what have been the parallel results of many more American flying bombs that have fallen over many more days on many more people in other countries? In addition to killing thousands of individuals not associated with 9/11, they have left deep scars on the political, military, economic, scientific, cultural lives of foreign individuals and their societies. We are rightly concerned about those who suffered though 9/11. What about those abroad, who live and die under the volcano of American firepower? The flying bombs, many years later, have gone forth and multiplied, taking on a life of their own as they continue to circumnavigate the globe.

See also Daily Camera 09/11/2011

War and Peace Trends

When one reads current literature about the obsolescence of large scale war, it recalls what people were writing a hundred years ago, just before the outbreak of World War I. After the general European peace established by the Congress of Vienna that ended the Napoleonic wars, many people believed that the progress of civilization had moved well beyond the barbaric practice of large-scale warfare. They had a century of European quasi-peace as evidence. Boy, were they surprised.

It is true that there has been a hiatus in war of the largest scale since the end of World War II. At the same time, my own research suggests that this contemporary trend nests within a larger trend of peace diffusion, war concentration and war aggravation.

Translated into plain English, this means that, over the long run, periods of general peace have become longer and more widespread. When major wars do occur, they are shorter. But in such large-scale wars, casualties have become higher both in terms of absolute numbers and relative to population.

Short-term trends involving fewer large-scale wars are welcome. As they say in the stock market, however, past results do not necessarily predict future behavior. War may appear to be going out of style right now, but over the longer run, styles can and do change.

See also New York Times December 31, 2011