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Dumbing Down Of Diplomatic Language Hides Deeper Conflicts

The usually hushed words of international diplomats is a reflection of our real-time communication age, but also of rising tensions on an unsettled geopolitical chessboard.

Putin, Erdogan and Macron in Istanbul in 2018
Putin, Erdogan and Macron in Istanbul in 2018
Dominique Moisi

PARIS — Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: This was the title of a film by Pedro Almodóvar, released in 1988. In the year 2021, isn't the world of international diplomacy also "on the verge a nervous breakdown?"

The question is worth asking. The new president of the United States nods in agreement when an ABC television journalist asks him if "Putin is a killer." Vladimir Putin, never one to be outdone, responded to Joe Biden's statement by calling back his ambassador to Washington for consultation, adding with a wry sense of humor — as a child would do on a school playground: "It takes one to know one."

And what can we say about China's new diplomatic tone, describing, through very official channels, a French sinologist — who'd been deemed unnecessarily provocative — as a "crazy hyena"?

To this short anthology of the impoverishment of diplomatic language, we should add the continuing tensions between President Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey and President Emmanuel Macron's France — even if on both sides, in an admittedly contradictory manner, appeasement seems to be sought. Didn't President Macron accuse Turkey, in a recent television interview, of preparing to intervene in the French presidential election of 2022? This was no doubt to dissuade the Turks from behaving as the Russians had done toward America.

There was a time when diplomacy was a hushed art form that presupposed a mastery of the nuances of language. To borrow an old expression, "an ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country." Defending one's point of view does not mean systematically insulting the other's.

French diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord could be cynical, opportunist, corrupt. But he will remain in history as the man who, during the Congress of Vienna, knew how to reintroduce France in the concert of nations by finding a language and a style common with the victorious powers. Similarly, one may have very serious reservations about Henry Kissinger's policies in Asia and Latin America. But he knew how to find the right words to gain the confidence of personalities as diverse as China's Zhou Enlai and Syria's Hafez El Assad.

How can the world continue to believe in the values you carry, if it no longer respects what you have become?

Lamenting the "great diplomats of yesteryear" is meaningless. The world has changed too radically to indulge in any form of nostalgia. And absolute cynicism is not the best indicator. On the other hand, it is legitimate to try to understand how we could have arrived at such a drift in the "art of diplomacy." Is this what it is all about, or are the diplomats, like the young Chinese "fighting wolves," simply following to the letter the instructions of aggressive — if not violent — language, given by their leaders?

To understand the "dumbing down" of diplomatic language, one can point to the impact of the communication revolution, and even the climate of heightened tension created by the pandemic. But the main explanation lies elsewhere. The confrontation between the "big powers' has returned to the field of ideas. The post-ideological world is behind us.

Donald Trump speaking (diplomatically?) with Japan's Shinzo Abe in 2017 — Photo: Chip Somodevilla/CNP/ZUMA

By changing his tone and even more so his course toward Russia, Joe Biden is not only marking his difference from Donald Trump. His message is simple and can be summed up in one formula: It is not only America that is back, but the America of values. This allows him, as in a game of billiards, to send an unambiguous message to China: "I have not forgotten the fate of the Uighur minority." More globally, it is also a strong signal to all despotic regimes that oppress their people, the most prominent of which today are the Burmese generals.

It is not the one who speaks the loudest that wins.

This awakening of the "America of values' is occurring precisely at the moment when China is least ready to accept it. Like the Prince of Metternich in Edmond Rostand's play L'Aiglon, Xi Jinping is inclined to tell the world, "But I am everything, but I can do anything. I will not tolerate you lecturing me on human rights or, even worse, treating a "province of China," Taiwan, as if it were an independent state. The winds of the East now prevail over the winds of the West. Do not believe that in your Western-style democratic sensibility, you are in the majority. How can the world continue to believe in the values you carry, if it no longer respects what you have become?"

In its legitimate resistance to Chinese provocations, the West must resist the temptation of verbal escalation. It is not the one who speaks the loudest that wins. It is the one whose results and progress are the most convincing. The best way for Europe and the United States to counter the Chinese and Russian challenges is to show unity in the face of their challenges and confidence in ourselves.

But the Western world must also integrate the lessons of history. It is perhaps not appropriate to tell the Chinese that "neither Europe nor France can be used as doormats." Didn't we Westerners metaphorically, if not actually, wipe our feet on Chinese carpets (which we also stole) when we behaved as the absolute masters of China beginning in the second half of the 19th century? The Chinese treat us as we treated them, too happy to consolidate the confidence of their citizens by underlining their strength, based on our weaknesses.

In this phase of "unfortunate globalization," if not the beginning of de-globalization, that we are living through, nationalisms are exploding. In such a context, the "other" is the ideal scapegoat. But by constantly insulting each other, we risk encouraging the rise of anti-Asian and anti-White reflexes among us.

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