Geopolitics

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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January 15-16

  • Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
  • COVID school chaos around the world
  • The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. What extreme measure did the Canadian province of Quebec take to encourage people to get vaccinated?

2. What caused a massive power outage in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, leaving 700,000 in the dark for hours?

3. Norwegian soldiers were asked to return what piece of clothing at the end of their military service, so that future recruits can reuse them?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Djokovic, BoJo, Xi Jinping: rules & power in pandemic times

It was the phrase of the week down on Fleet Street, the historic HQ of the London press corps: “Bring your own booze” — BYOB — the instructions secretly sent around for the garden party held at 10 Downing Street in blatant violation of the first coronavirus lockdown, back in May 2020.The revelations of the event (the second such scandal to emerge in the past two months) has left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely holding on to his job after his admission to Parliament this week that he was there … and he was, well, quite sorry.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the former British empire, Australians are following how their public representatives will resolve the latest twist in pandemic policy that has captured the sporting world’s attention. Back and forth, like a tennis match. By the end of the week, Australia had reversed a Monday court decision, and canceled Novak Djokovic’s visa that would have allowed him to defend his Australian Open title. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa was revoked on the grounds that the presence of the unvaccinated Serbian star risks fueling anti-vax sentiment on home soil.

This is high-stakes political gamesmanship indeed. The unprecedented health crisis, and associated restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, requires our elected leaders to react to ever-changing information and a chain of lose-lose public policy choices. COVID continues to make the hard job of being a public representative that much harder. The best, we can agree, are doing the best they can. The worst, well … are the worst.

The British public has rightly taken offense to the idea that the very people charged with making and enforcing COVID rules, were also busy breaking them. In the Djokovic saga, skeptics of vaccination mandates — in Australia, Serbia and beyond — will have new ammunition if the world’s top tennis player is kicked out of both tournament and country.

The good news is that in our eternally flawed democracies, the public eventually (though not always!) finds out what goes wrong, and ultimately has the final say of who’s in charge. The same can’t be said everywhere, including the country that has been cited for having the most successful methods for controlling the virus and limiting death tolls. That is, of course, China … where it all began.

Yet the authoritarian regime's “Zero COVID policy” comes with deeper questions that largely mirror the downside of authoritarianism in general: ruthless enforcement, quelled dissent and the sometimes blind following of the masses. It’s hard to imagine that Xi Jinping has had any “BYOB parties” in the past two years. But if he did, you can be sure we’d never know.

— Jeff Israely


🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Makar Sankranti 2022: The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated on January 14 and 15 in almost all parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. The festival marks the end of winter, the beginning of a new harvest season, and has ancient religious significance.

• Parthenon fragment returns to Greece: A marble fragment from the Parthenon temple has been returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily. Authorities hope the move will rekindle efforts to force the British Museum to send back ancient sculptures from Greece's most renowned ancient landmark.

• 400 years of Molière: France honors its seminal playwright on the 400th anniversary of his birth. His influence, comparable to that of Shakespeare in the anglophone world, is such that French is often referred to as the "language of Molière."

• Vinyl surpassed CDs sales for the first time in 30 years: For the first time since 1991, annual sales of vinyl records surpassed those of CDs in the U.S, according to MRC Data and Billboard, with an estimated 41.72 million vinyl records sold in 2021 (up 51.4% from 27.55 million in 2020). This means that vinyl is now the leading format for all album purchases in the U.S.

• Kendrick Lamar teams up with South Park creators: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and his former longtime manager Dave Free are working with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a live-action comedy for Paramount Pictures.

📚😷 COVID SCHOOL CHAOS AROUND THE WORLD


The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic, with students suffering both academically and socially from online learning or no education at all. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.

The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and shortages of staff in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools, ending the world’s longest shutdown, and some American parents have decided to offer more personalized education with homeschooling.

Read the full story: COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World

🇰🇿  KAZAKHSTAN’S VICIOUS CIRCLE OF STRONGMEN


The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.

However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor. For Russian daily Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov ponder why strongmen are able to keep power in Kazakhstan — but can't ensure its peaceful transfer.

Read the full story: Kazakhstan, When One Strongman Replaces Another

🐟 DENMARK, A SMALL FISH IN THE SALMON INDUSTRY’S BIG POND


Things are getting fishy over Nordic fishing regulations, as the Danish government has banned further growth in sea-based fish farming, claiming the country had reached the limit without endangering the environment. In Danish newspaper Politiken, marine biologist Johan Wedel Nielsen explained why Demark’s policy has given Norway a de facto monopoly on the lucrative salmon industry. This is particularly significant as changing diet habits are increasing demand for the nutritious pink fish, and Norway has taken advantage, accounting for about half of the world’s salmon production.

Nielsen argues that environmental concerns aren’t warranted, as fish have an inherently small impact on the environment. Denmark has the potential to establish 150 salmonid (a family of fish including salmon and trout) farms in the Baltic Sea, producing some 500,000 tons of trout per year with a value of 2.7 billion euros and employing tens of thousands. But the Danish government has so far given no indication of allowing any addition to Denmark’s 19 existing farms.

Read the full story: Norwegian Salmon v. Danish Trout: Lessons On Ecology And Economics

💡  BRIGHT IDEA

French start-up Airxôm has unveiled its unique respiratory device at Las Vegas’ CES tech event. Their plastic and silicon face mask is the first capable of destroying particles of all sizes and has inbuilt decontamination properties, hence protecting against pollution, bacteria and viruses including COVID-19. Oh and, as a bonus, it also prevents your glasses from fogging.

#️⃣ TRENDING


Boris Johnson memes flooded social networks this week, mocking the UK’s prime minister's excuse for attending what was quite obviously a party at the height of the pandemic: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.” The quote was shared alongside a toe-curlingly bad 2013 video of BoJo dancing to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” which resurfaced on Instagram, while Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts its own spin on the lame explanation.

🤦‍♀️🛴🤦‍♂️ FACEPALM OF THE WEEK


A Belgian national was intercepted by the French police while riding his e-scooter on a highway in eastern France. The confused trottinette user said it was his first time riding in France, and that he’d failed to select the “no toll roads” option on his GPS.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Climate, COVID, Costa Concordia: why humans are wired for denial

This past week marked 10 years since the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany. Writing in Italian daily La Stampa, Guido Maria Brera sees connections between the way passengers and crew reacted in the minutes and hours after the ship ran aground to other calamities we face that may seem to be moving more slowly:

In 2012, the same year the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off of Giglio Island, David Quammen published his book Spillover, which predicted that somewhere in Asia a virus would be attacking the human respiratory tract on its way to becoming a global pandemic. And so it was. This terrible shipwreck, which the world watched in slow-motion exactly ten years ago on January 13, 2012, now appears to us — just like the COVID-19 pandemic, like the trailer of a horror film we are now all living for real.

Millions dead, ten of millions sick, and the psychological collapse of entire generations, the youngest and most defenseless. In the meantime, climate change is spiraling out of control: sea levels are rising, land is drying out, ice caps are melting, not to mention hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, famines, wars, migration.

The correlation between climate change and the pandemic has been demonstrated countless times by scientists. Soaring temperatures, intensive livestock farming, deforestation and the devastation of the natural animal kingdoms have led to zoonosis: Species-hopping, in which a bacterium or virus escapes from its host and spreads to another, creating a chain reaction with devastating results.

Finding the correlation between the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the current situation is more a subtle exercise: by looking at the decisions we made to respond to the disaster — or rather, how we failed to take action.

"The Concordia has become a maze of choices in the dark, deciding whether to open a door or not, whether to move or stay put, can be the difference between life and death,” Pablo Trincia said recently in his podcast “Il Dito di Dio.” (The Finger of God). A cruise ship with more than 4,000 people, including passengers, crew and ship personnel, is a microcosm in itself: it contains everything. And indeed, in these very long and slow moments, when time seems suspended, a tragedy was in the making.

There were reported many notable demonstrations of solidarity, as strangers helped each other. There were also those who fled as quickly as possible, seeking their personal safety at the expense of others. There were those who, between the ship crashing into the rocks and the dropping of the first lifeboats, seemed not to care.

If it is true that there are lessons to learn even from the worst tragedies, then we must make sure that the terrible wreckage of this small world can help us understand and identify the rocks we are heading towards today: the climate crisis and the pandemic. Time is the discriminating factor, as always. Director Adam McKay explains it well in his movie Don't Look Up, showing us how people react as they face slow-motioned tragedies.

In this scenario, the slowness of the film is the central narrative choice: there is initially plenty of time before the comet would hit the earth, ineluctably ending human life, and there remains plenty of time to live and love and enjoy.

Hence, we also have time to expect that the asteroid is still far away, to imagine that it will deviate from its course. We even have time to forget that the impact is inevitable, and to continue to live as if nothing is happening.

This is the most common reaction to pandemics and environmental disasters. Turn your head away, pretend you don't see, don't look up.

Denial is the work of politicians incapable of questioning the only development model they know, of the billionaires who built bunkers to survive in New Zealand, (where it seems that the crisis will have less impact), of the Silicon Valley gurus have already bought coolers to preserve their bodies for eternity by cryogenics.

On the Costa Concordia, refusal to look the disaster in the eye wasn’t just the work of those who were supposed to give the alert and manage the evacuation: we are all in the same boat when it comes to denial. When a disaster happens in slow motion, it feels as though there is still too much time to bother rushing for solutions now.

We tend to think about the time we have left, about the costs and benefits to our tiny lives, without even realizing that never has the need for salvation been more collective.

Ten years ago, as today, we convinced ourselves that we are absolved of responsibility precisely because we know that everyone shares the same responsibility.

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set next week as the ultimatum for a confirmation that NATO will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

• Next Sunday will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared during an emergency meeting that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

• On Tuesday, a 3,400-foot-wide asteroid will make a safe flyby of Earth, whooshing by our planet at the equivalent of five Earth-Moon distances (still pretty close from a cosmic point of view).

• Monday is Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day, so you still have a few more hours to decide whether that gym membership really was a good idea.

News quiz answers:

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