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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Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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