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.