Iraq and the Pathologies of Primacy
The Flawed Logic That Produced the War Is Alive and Well
I Recently attended a round-table discussion of distinguished and imaginative Latin American leaders during which two speakers berated various countries for lack of "political will." In the first instance, what the United States needed to do to demonstrate its political will was to provide tariff preferences for imports of manufactured goods from less- developed countries. In the second case, political will was needed for Latin America to achieve an integrated, Hemisphere-wide, common market. To repeat: the speakers were men of substantial intellect.
What they were saying was true. But it was so obvious that it did not need saying. A lack of political will must reflect an unwillingness for some reason(s) by some country(ies) to do something. That, too, is self-evident. And yet the code words "political will" were used.
That set me to thinking about code words in international conferences, particularly those on political-economic issues, such as this round-table discussion. The American public knows a good deal these days about code words: about busing, neighborhood schools, workfare and welfare, job quotas, increases in employment as opposed to rising unemployment, budget limitations, disclosure deadlines for campaign contributions. But all these are domestic usages. A glossary is needed in the foreign field.
There are more international conferences than is generally realized. I counted the number during the month of October 1972 listed in a State Department publication, and it added up to 74. This is more than three conferences getting under way every working day of the month, and did not include the General Assembly of the United Nations or any of Henry Kissinger's meetings in Paris or Saigon or any other bilateral or informal get-togethers. Thousands of delegates go to these meetings; hundreds of newspapermen report on them; millions of persons read about them. I became concerned that without a glossary none of these hundreds, or thousands, or millions understood what was being said. Hence, this partial compilation of international code words as a service to persons interested in foreign political-economic affairs.
Not much space need be given to definitions that are generally understood. For example, in U.N. parlance, all delegates know that a centrally planned economy refers to a Communist country, and a market economy to what we call free-enterprise societies and the Communists label capitalist countries. There are developed countries, developing countries, and least-developed among the developing countries. Resolutions of international conferences refer to countries, most countries, many countries, some countries, several countries, one country, as the nuance may be and the negotiating situation will allow. Countries will agree to do things, or to do things "as appropriate," or "in accordance with their domestic procedures," or in conformity with some other previously approved resolution-all of these implying some degree of escape.
It is generally known that liberation may mean enslavement, counterrevolution the restoration of a previous legal authority, and that many peace-loving states foment war and revolution. Recent experience has demonstrated that racism often refers only to the type practiced in other countries. A good many countries appealed to the concept of universality in demanding that Communist China be seated in the United Nations, only to later observe Communist China veto the admission of Bangladesh. Since these conventional usages of doublespeak are well known, it may be of some service to run down some less well-known usages.
Political will, to start with what started me out, means that somebody else- some other country or group of countries-is unwilling to do something you want him or them to do. In the Latin American context of the round-table discussion, it may mean that countries are unwilling to undertake free- trade obligations among themselves that international civil servants want them to undertake. Another current and commonly used example: "The United States lacks the political will to provide sufficient foreign aid to meet the one-percent target." The target is something that all insiders know about. It refers to various U.N. resolutions calling on developed countries to provide net capital flows to developing countries of one percent of their respective gross national products.
Political reality is the obverse of political will. This is the expression used by a country about itself when it is unwilling to do something others are seeking to make it do. For example: "Political reality makes it impossible for us to commit ourselves to a precise date for meeting the one- percent target." Or: "Political reality is such that countries will never allow the marketplace alone to determine exchange-rate relationships." Or, for developing countries with clearly overvalued exchange rates: "Domestic political reality prevents any devaluation." Or for a country with too much inflation: "Political reality will not permit cutting back on budget expenditures."
The problem is political, not technical is a much-used phrase that belongs to the same genre as the foregoing. "The reason for Latin American countries' failure to eliminate tariffs in trade among themselves is political, not technical." This means much the same as lack of political will, i.e. somebody else does not want to do something you want him to do: "United States opposition to a cocoa agreement is political, not technical."
Sometimes the phrase is reversed, that the problem is technical, not political, and, peculiarly, this often means the same thing. "United States opposition to a cocoa agreement is technical, not political." Or, in the case of the current negotiations on international monetary reform: "The use of a single criterion, like reserve changes, as a guide to the need for adjustment, is a technical, not a political, problem," which in this arcane field refers to the reluctance of countries which are gaining foreign reserves to take measures to stanch the flow.
This is a job for technicians has a slightly different and derogatory connotation. When those who consider themselves to be "policy" officials cannot reach agreement, the subject matter can be downgraded by labeling it as a task for technicians.
This is a decision for policy-making officials to make has the subservient- superior hierarchical ring that conference-goers love. It is used when the "technicians" are unable to reach agreement and the problem is kicked upstairs.
This is a task for political leaders, not technicians, means much the same thing. This is a favorite of some of the countries in the European Common Market: "We need decisions by political leaders, not technicians, in order to move to the next phase." Depending on the precise circumstances, this means either that the other technicians do not agree with your technicians, or it may mean that you wish to stop some forward movement on which the other technicians all agree.
Lack of imagination means that you have not convinced the other country to do what you want it to do: "There is a complete lack of imagination in the proposals of what the rich countries will do to help the poor countries."
We are making a maximum effort means that you are expecting more from somebody else. This is a favorite among developing countries: "Since we are making a maximum effort in behalf of our own development, we look to more imaginative ideas from the developed world."
Acceptance in principle, in international conferences as in many other aspects of life, usually means rejection in practice, at least for the time being: "We accept in principle the need to do more to help ourselves." Or: "The United States accepts the principle of generalized trade preferences." Or, in mixed college dormitories: "In principle, the men and women sleep in different rooms."
Since this last example is a crude use of code words in that the phrase "in principle" is a dead giveaway to the catch, countries have developed more sophisticated escapes geared to the particular circumstances in question. The one-percent aid target lends itself admirably to this. Thus, the United States has accepted the principle of the target, but without setting a date for meeting it. One issue under discussion in the international monetary reform negotiations is to link the issuance of new Special Drawing Rights- paper gold to the layman-with development aid; this is outwardly an abstruse subject but intrinsically deals with transferring resources from rich to poor countries. France recently suggested that the SDR-aid link might be a good idea for countries which have not met the one-percent aid target-which France has met because of the large amount of aid she devotes to her former African colonies. This more specialized use of code words demonstrates that many glossaries may be needed to deal with specialized subjects, such as aid, trade, monetary reform, disarmament, foreign investment and the like.
One specialized term in the aid field is burden sharing. It usually means that the country using it wants to provide less aid and that it believes it is up to somebody else to provide more. During the early-to-mid-1960s, it was common for the United States to argue: "Now that Europe and Japan have recovered, they must share more of the burden of providing aid to the developing countries." Or, as Senator Fulbright might urge: "By providing foreign assistance through the multilateral financial institutions, we get an appropriate sharing of the burden." When we seek to reduce the U.S. proportionate share in the next replenishment of the International Development Association (the affiliate of the World Bank that makes loans on concessional terms), which some administration officials have promised the Congress we will try to do, this is justified on grounds of more equitable burden sharing.
Conversely, the Europeans and Japanese have agreed to various schemes to provide tariff preferences for their imports of manufactured goods from less-developed countries. The United States has not; now we are being berated for failing to share the burden equitably.
As times changed from the 1950s and 1960s, and aid from the United States, measured as a percentage of gross national product, declined to less than that of practically any other developed country, burden sharing began to undergo a subtle shift in meaning. When the Europeans and Japanese use it, they mean they want to give less and the United States to give more. When the United States uses it, it means that we want to look not only at aid, but also at military expenditures. We are saying that when the latter is looked at alone, or coupled with aid, the United States is providing the bulk of the defense cover for the world and thereby permitting the economies of other rich countries to grow unhampered by excessive military expenditures. Thus, "Europe and Japan must do more for themselves and thereby reduce the burden on the United States for the defense of the free world."
Many Europeans also have a view of their burden regarding Africa, Mediterranean countries, and even some countries in the Caribbean, which goes under the heading of political responsibility. In the trade field, what this means is that their producers must get favored treatment over those of other exporters in return for the tariff preferences they give to the less-developed countries. "We have a political responsibility toward these countries, and they are too proud to accept trade preferences from us without also giving reciprocal preferences to us."
The trade field has a particularly harsh term that is popular in Latin America-that their development programs are being strangulated by world- trading patterns. This often means they have not developed the requisite efficiency to compete effectively in world markets. It also means they want higher prices for their primary commodities. E.g., "The adverse terms of trade are strangulating our growth." (Terms of trade refer to the ratio between prices of a country's exports and its imports; when they move adversely, such as when primary product prices decline, a country has to export more of its products in order to import the same quantity of the products of others.) Or: "A new international division of labor is needed to undo the strangulation of our foreign trade."
Strangulation also refers to the fact that producers of certain primary products do not have the monopoly clout to raise prices unilaterally as the oil-producing nations have done, either because there are too many producers or because if the price gets too high, the consumer can live with a lot less of the product. Strangulation in this context thus means that they want the help of the consuming countries in order to raise prices in the consuming countries.
Let me return to some terms that are less specialized.
The results did not meet our expectations means that one party to a negotiation did not get everything he demanded at the outset. This is a particularly favored phrase of the less-developed countries in certain international economic forums: "While we welcome the progress made in the resolution on trade preferences, the results of the conference did not meet our expectations." Or: "The Kennedy Round of trade negotiations was valuable, but the results did not meet our expectations." Or: "The understanding on aid volume targets does not fully meet our expectations."
When a country says that discussion is premature, this means it wishes no discussion and hopes the subject will go away. When a country clearly has to alter its exchange rate and does not wish to do so, discussion is always premature. The United States has not wished to face the policy aspects of the Special Drawing Rights-aid link, and we have found "that discussion is premature until the SDR first firmly establishes itself as an accepted instrument of reserve liquidity for official monetary authorities." Developing countries with overprotected domestic industries, and hence with an inability to export because of relative inefficiency, often find it premature to discuss their trading regimes.
We have to explain this to our Congress: when used by an American, this means "no" to a proposal, and that he would rather pass the buck for the refusal: "I could never explain to Congress why I gave you terms more favorable than we give to others." Or: "Congress would never accept the one- percent aid target." In outright dictatorships, the phrase has an interesting variant: We have to explain this to our public. This means the same thing: No.
Clarion calls to national sovereignty in international forums, like those to patriotism in the domestic context, are rarely unambiguous. Thus Latin America appeals to national sovereignty when it rejects the idea of some impartial international procedure to settle expropriation-compensation disputes. All countries allude to sovereignty when they insist on maintaining a clearly inappropriate exchange rate.
This translation of codes only scratches the surface. As one who has sat through scores, really hundreds, of international conference sessions, and at 4 a.m. found himself doodling on note paper, "Resolves, to carry out . . ." or ". . . to request governments to carry out," or "... to carry out as necessary," and pondering the differing acceptability of different codes to the various agencies of the executive branch, the Congress and to the other participants, and wondering whether the addition of the words "frankly speaking" would add an aura of sincerity or dissimulation, I have come to realize that the loudmouths were often shouting at the deaf. It took me a long time to decipher many of the codes and some still remain a mystery to me. Clarity of intention is sometimes in the mind of the speaker and only infrequently in that of the listener.