Language and diplomacy

It has often been said that language is not only an instrument of communication, but the very essence of diplomacy. Diplomats engage in negotiations, persuasion, presentation, and communication, all of which necessitate language skills for the effective conduct of diplomatic work.
Both the written and the spoken language require the mastering of concepts and skills, and need to consider message and context. Language can also serve as a form of action: when we warn, threaten, promise, suggest, agree, advise or otherwise, we are doing something, and not merely saying something. The role of the unsaid in communication (the meaningful silence) is equally crucial.
Language is as much important today as it was to the first envoys and negotiators. Today, technology is continuously shaping certain aspects of language and diplomacy, with the introduction of new tools for communication and interpretation, novel ways of capturing and preserving diplomatic documents, and methods that facilitate online negotiations. Despite the changes, core issues remain fundamental to the practice of diplomacy.
Language and Diplomacy online course
What makes one set of words more convincing than another, and how can language best be put to work in the service of diplomacy and international relations?
The course promotes language awareness as a means of improving the skills of opinion shapers. Close attention is paid to case studies of treaties, presidential speeches, public announcements, government advertising and media materials in order to link theoretical discussion to practical examples. Since effective communication has much to do with reading intentions and contexts correctly, insights are provided into relevant cultural, social and psychological variables.
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Why is language important to diplomacy?

Illustration showing opposing sides at war keeping a communication channel open via telephone

Language is one of our most basic instincts. From birth humans communicate, at first in order to survive – to ensure that needs are met. But at an amazing rate communication becomes refined into language, one of the defining characteristics of human beings.

In The Language Instinct Stephen Pinker writes:

In any natural history of the human species, language would stand out as the pre-eminent trait […] A common language connects the members of a community into an information-sharing network with formidable collective powers. Anyone can benefit from the strokes of genius, lucky accidents, and trial-and-error wisdom accumulated by everyone else, present or past. And people can work in teams, their efforts coordinated by negotiated agreements. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1994, 16)

As Pinker points out, language is what allows us to build on the work of others, benefiting from their knowledge and collaborating to achieve more than one person can alone. The processes of diplomacy – communicating, negotiating, reaching and formulating agreements, collecting, creating, transmitting and recording knowledge – all depend on language.

Studies of diplomacy usually concentrate on the message rather than the means. However, examination of language use in diplomacy can lead to a better understanding of the way diplomacy functions and why some diplomatic processes are more successful than others. Through careful and critical attention to various aspects of diplomatic language we can improve our understanding of both the explicit and implicit messages world leaders and other political figures send out, and improve our own ability to communicate in the most effective and appropriate ways.

Speech act theory

Illustration showing two ancient Egyptians negotiating an agreementPopular dichotomy views words as distinct from actions. Yet, language can also serve as a form of action. The Speech Act theory shows that not only do words have the power to give rise to actions, but many utterances are a form of action in themselves.

This approach to language as action is significant for diplomacy, since it confirms that diplomatic interventions and communications are not just a means to an end, but may be ends in themselves: diplomats act on the world through language. It is therefore important to understand what exactly they are doing by means of the language they use.

The Speech Act theory invites us to distinguish between an act of saying something, what one does in saying it, and what one achieves by saying it. It also distinguishes between direct and indirect speech acts. Direct speech acts are either flagged by set phrases such as ‘hereby’, or by explicit mention, as in ‘I promise, I warn you’ etc. In the case of indirect speech acts, the intention of the speaker has to be inferred from context.

Persuasion and rhetoric

The aim of persuasion is to change the attitudes and associated behaviour of another party in line with one’s own beliefs or purpose. Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, is the practice and study of the linguistic resources which help speakers to achieve their objectives.

The study of rhetoric has traditionally been understood under three headings: (1) pathos (Greek ‘emotion’), generally referred to as an ‘appeal to emotions,’and which includes the ability to engage the sympathy and imagination of one’s audience; (2) ‘logos’ (Gk. ‘word’), namely the appeal to reasoned argument, which involves the felicitous choice of words, the use of logical thinking and sound argumentation; and (3) ‘ethos’, which is an appeal to the good character of the speaker: their credibility, experience, knowledge and authority; the genuineness of their stated interests and objectives and the nature of their evidence. If we were to recast the traditional terms of rhetoric into the jargon of today, we might say that pathos translates as ‘soft persuasion’, logos as ‘hard persuasion’, and the judicial combination of the two, combined with ethos, as ‘smart persuasion’.

Overlaps are inevitable between appeals to argument and to emotion since rhetoric involves drawing on all the resources of language in order to persuade one’s audience, and these resources do not come neatly pre-packaged. The traditional headings indicate general dynamics, not discrete categories. Thus logical fallacies, for instance, are usually thought of as a form of faulty logic, but they constitute the staple of propaganda due to their rousing emotional content. Similarly, the choice of the ‘right word’ may be thought of as a rational exercise – certainly Classical rhetoric assigned it to ‘logos’ and the appeal to reason – yet the ‘stories in a capsule’ contained in connotations and metaphors also centrally belong to the study of emotional appeal, or pathos.

Classical rhetoric is defined as the art of speaking or writing effectively: as (a) the study of principles and rules of composition formulated by critics of ancient times, and (b) the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion. However, people often think of ’empty words, meaningless speech: The prime minister’s speech was pure political rhetoric.‘ (The Newbury House Online Dictionary) These definitions seem at odds with each other: effective and persuasive speech compared to empty, meaningless speech. But whether one considers rhetoric in a positive or negative way, the common factor is that it is speech aiming to persuade.

Diplomats can benefit from studying both the positive and negative aspects of rhetoric. World events are triggered by the words and actions of national leaders and politicians. Diplomats need to pay careful attention to political speech in order to gain clues about the concerns, intentions, and agendas of national leaders and political figures. At the same time, the work of diplomats is based largely on their ability to use language well – to convince and persuade. Diplomats need to be aware and in control of the power and effect of their words. As Drazen Pehar, researcher on language and diplomacy, writes: ‘…when it comes to the use of language and its many styles, diplomats must bear in mind that they have a choice. They may choose one or more among many styles of language. This freedom of choice of an instrument of expression is particularly important because plurality of such instruments makes diplomats aware of their own responsibility in verbally expressing their attitudes towards international developments.’ (Historical Rhetoric and Diplomacy, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

On a comical note, visit An English primer (a glossary translating political rhetoric into plain English), created by Thomas Sowell. The glossary offers definitions such as:

Demonstration: A riot by people you agree with.
Mob violence: A riot by people you disagree with.

While the intent is comic, the glossary makes the point that most of us believe politicians to be hiding behind their rhetoric as a way to avoid direct communication. And most of us have accepted this practice as simply the way politicians work.

Analysing rhetorics

Diplomats seeking to analyse political rhetoric can benefit from knowledge of the terms and    techniques of classical rhetoric as well as techniques frequently used in modern political speech. Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric provided by Dr Gideon Burton of Brigham Young University, is a guide to the terms of classical and renaissance rhetoric: definitions and examples of Greek and Latin terms, discussion of general rhetorical strategies and examples of different types of rhetorical analysis.

While the site focuses on classical rhetoric, many points are equally relevant now. Rhetorical analysis does not involve simply identifying and labeling linguistic features, but an examination of the entire context of the communication: ‘Speech or writing never occurs in a vacuum, but in some historical, cultural, temporal setting that is intimately tied up with how one frames discourse. In one sense, the ‘rhetorical situation’ refers to what prods or inspires communication: a pressing need, a conventional ceremony, a specific intention.’

An important part of context is audience: ‘Rhetoric is never about discourse in the abstract; it is always concerned with directing one’s words with specific intentions towards specific audiences…All rhetorically oriented discourse is composed in light of those who will hear or read that discourse.’ As an example of rhetorical analysis focusing on context, Burton writes about Hitler’s rhetoric:

Germany of post-World War I was demoralized and disorganized. Adolph Hitler’s rhetoric was successful not only because of his personal charisma and his mastery of delivery, but because he spoke at the right time: the German people wanted a way out of its economic morass and its cultural shame, and Hitler provided them both with his strong, nationalistic oratory. Had Germany been doing better economically, Hitler’s words would have bounced harmlessly off the air.

Professor Hugh Rank of Governors State University proposes an ‘intensification/downplay‘ schema to analyse methods of political communication and persuasion in How to Analyse Political Rhetoric. Intensifying involves the techniques of repetition, association and composition, while downplay involves omission, diversion and confusion.

Repetition: Repetition is effective because people feel comfortable with what they are familiar with, and repetition creates familiarity. Most people have favourite songs, television programs, etc., that they listen to or watch repeatedly. Chants, prayers, rituals, and dances are all based on repeated patterns; we learn them and remember them through repetition. Politicians often repeat key words or themes throughout a speech, and also use internal repetition techniques such as rhyme, alliteration and anaphora (repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences). Slogans are another repetition device used by politicians in the hopes that, like in advertising, audiences hearing a message many times will become saturated and remember the message without conscious effort.

Association: Association is the process of linking an idea or product with other ideas, events or products which the audience either likes and respects, or hates and fears, depending on the aim of the association. Politicians may use association by directly asserting, for example, their connection with certain groups and communities with which the audience identifies or respects. They may also use indirect language to establish associations, for example, metaphors or allusions. Association may be established with images, music, colours, flags, choice of location and timing for a speech, etc., as well as words. Association may take the form of literary, historical or religious references or allusions.

Composition: The way a presentation is composed can be used as a technique of intensifying. The type of language used (negative or positive, active or passive constructions, simple or abstract, etc.), the level of detail, the use of absolutes (all, always, never, etc.) and qualifiers (perhaps, some, a number of, maybe, etc.), metaphors, rhetorical questions, exaggerations, the order of presentation and the overall organisation of a speech can all be used to emphasise certain ideas or themes. Non-verbal elements can also contribute to composition: facial expression, gestures, tone of voice, etc. also play a role.

Omission: All communication involves decisions about what information to include and what to omit and therefore is limited, slanted or biased in one way or another. However, politicians often choose to deliberately omit information about disadvantages, hazards or side-effects of their proposals. What US politician, proposing military action in another country has reminded the US population that his proposed action is likely to result in the deaths of a certain number of soldiers not through enemy attacks, but from ‘friendly fire’? Politicians can also be expected to omit information about any criminal or scandalous activities of their own or their associates in the past, as well as information about their own mistakes or failures. Conflicts of interest may be covered-up and information about the source of controversial information may be omitted also. Finally, information about the opposition’s good points is likely to be omitted. Subtle forms of omission include quotes taken out of context and half-truths, and can be hard to detect.

Diversion: Diversion techniques distract focus or divert attention away from key issues, usually by intensifying unrelated issues, or trivial factors. Diversion techniques include attacks on the personality and past of opposition figures rather than their relevant policies, appealing to the emotions – fears, hopes, desires – of the public rather than their reason, directing attention to the short-comings of the opposition rather than to one’s own weaknesses, evasion of difficult topics, emphasis on superficialities or details rather than substance, and finally, jokes or other entertainment to distract attention.

Confusion: Politicians sometimes make their presentations so complex and chaotic that those listening get tired or overloaded, and give up on trying to follow. Confusion, whether caused by accidental error or deliberate deception, can hide or obscure important issues. Politicians may seek to confuse their audience by using unfamiliar or ambiguous words, technical jargon, euphemisms, round-about or rambling sentence construction, inappropriate or unclear analogies, non-logical sequences of thought or linking of ideas, manipulation of statistics, over complexity, information overload, etc. After introducing confusion, the politician is in the position to offer an easy answer, a simple solution to complex problems, telling the audience: ‘trust me’.

Henry Jankiewicz suggests some additional tools for analysis of rhetoric on his page The Concepts of Rhetoric. He brings up the topic of intertextuality: using references to link contexts or topics, with the following example: ‘President George Bush tried to arouse negative sentiment against the Soviet Union by referring to it as the Evil Empire, associating it with the nemesis in George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy. This resonated with the fact that the government’s plans for a cumbersome satellite anti-missile defense system were popularly referred to as Star Wars.’ In a written text, traditionally footnotes are used to create intertextuality – a footnote establishes credibility by making a link to the texts written by experts. The most intertextual form of communication that exists today is the World Wide Web, which consists of a huge number of documents linked to other documents through hypertext.

War propaganda

Hugh Rank offers a set of guidelines for analysing war propaganda, another genre of political rhetoric. He writes: ‘Words are weapons in warfare. Words affect how people think about themselves and about others. War is probably the time of the greatest language manipulation, when people are most likely to deceive others, least able to negotiate, and are under the most intense emotional stress — of fear and anger — with the greatest dangers of loss, death, and destruction.’

Rank points out that some types of war propaganda target the domestic audience, with the aims of uniting the country, building morale, silencing opposition, inciting action, and channelling energy. Other types of war propaganda are aimed at the enemy, with the intention to terrorise or demoralise. With modern means of mass communication, messages can be ensured to reach a huge audience, worldwide. War propaganda has the risk of getting out of control, and inciting more hatred than originally intended. The basic techniques used for war propaganda are to intensify your own good points and downplay the enemy’s good points, and to downplay your own weaknesses while intensifying those of the enemy. As we have seen repeatedly in the last century, the enemy is demonised, while the ‘good guys’ are portrayed as the protectors of the free world.

To learn more about techniques of war propaganda, visit Hugh Rank’s page War Propaganda.


Professor Peter Serracino Inglott, former rector at the University of Malta and lecturer in philosophy, suggests that humour may be a useful rhetorical technique for diplomats. He proposes that a new type of joke, which he refers to as the ‘serious joke’, may aid the diplomatic practice of the 21st century, inspiring creative approaches to problem solving through new perspectives and shifting frames of reference.

Inglott writes: ‘jokes are the paradigmatic example of language. […] the most singular aspect of language – namely its creativity – is most manifest in wit and humour – in jokes.’ A joke is a powerful tool because it shows things in a new perspective, it shifts frames of reference and places things in a new gestalt. As Edward de Bono puts it, it causes perceptions and conceptions which were set up in one pattern to be reconfigured into another different pattern. That is its inbuilt goal…It takes you to an apparently unreasonable point from which the main road along which you have been travelling does not appear to be the only one. A joke is the best device to get you on the side track from where you can see that there are other ways of getting about than just the contraries forward or backward, or right and left. Joking involves glimpsing the improbable and using upside down logic.

Inglott compares jokes to arguments, pointing out that joking may be a more productive technique in diplomacy:

The structure of an argument is the confrontation of contraries aimed at making a choice between opposite ways. A serious joke, on the other hand, is a provocation to both parties displaying the possibility of adapting an as yet unexplored angle of approach. It aims not at the victory or defeat of either side, not a compromise, which means some sacrifice by both sides, not consensus, which is only agreement at the low level of the highest common ground, but at a situation where something is gained by both sides. Serious joking is the prime tool of the mediator who does not conceive of his role as neutral or passive, but as a promoter of win-win conclusions. (‘To Joke or Not to Joke: A Diplomatic Dilemma in the Age of Internet‘, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Historical analogies

Historical analogies are a rhetorical device frequently used by politicians and diplomats to strengthen their arguments or to persuade the public of their views. Drazen Pehar explains why this type of rhetoric can be so effective:

First, historical analogising is an essential part of national narrative and national identity. Nations tend to group around their most central and deeply rooted memories. Over time many of those memories acquire the status of lasting symbols that nations use to describe their contemporary concerns or fears as well…they help people symbolically transcend the limitations of time and space…

The second function, which is directly linked to the aforementioned one, is the function of identity maintenance. Historical rhetoric not only provides nations with the sense of worldly immortality; a surrogate of religion, but also with an answer to the question ‘Who are we?’ Historical rhetoric explains the lasting origins of a nation…When a president says that the nation must look to its past for a vision and inspiration to guide its present choice, he actually says that if applied to the present, models from the past will help the nation maintain its spirit and sense of specific identity…

A third function of historical analogy is simply to provide a sense of cognitive orientation in international affairs. The future is always open and undetermined, and the number of international actors and the complexity of their relations are too high to give a straight clue about future developments… [Historical analogies] indicate a direction for actions in this world, which would otherwise remain too complex to allow for an intellectual grasp. Historical analogy simply projects an image of past developments into the future and thus makes the future cognitively manageable…

Finally, historical analogies could be used as a kind of anti-depressant; a colourful imagery which neutralises a boring and non-dramatic kind of political reality. Historical analogies make international relations intriguing, interesting, worth watching and participating in, which without such a drama-producing imagery would not be the case. (Historical Rhetoric and Diplomacy, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Positiveness rhetorics

Dr Francisco Gomes de Matos of Federal University of Pernambuco, Recife, Brazil, examines diplomatic communication and proposes applying his ‘pedagogy of positiveness’ as a means to improve diplomatic communication. He provides a checklist of suggestions for the pedagogy of positiveness, which includes pointers such as:

  • Emphasise ‘what to say’ constructively. Avoid ‘what not to say’.
  • Communicate national and international values constructively.
  • Learn to identify and to avoid potentially aggressive, insensitive, offensive, destructive uses of languages. Do your best to offset dehumanising ways of communication, often the outcome of human communicative fallibility.
  • Think of the language you use as a peace-building, peace-making, peace-promoting force.
  • Handle differences of opinion in a constructive way. Remember that ‘negative talk’ tends to predominate or often dominate in face-to-face diplomatic interactions.
  • Try to see and describe both sides of an issue. Challenge yourself to make balanced (rather than biased) statements. Don’t be a polemicist.
  • Conflict can be managed to some extent, and so can language use, especially if you adopt a constructive perspective, for expressing your attitudes, beliefs, and emotions…Educate yourself in identifying ‘positivisers’ in spoken and written texts in your field and challenge yourself to make increasing use of such constructive, human-dignifying adjectives, verbs, and nouns.

Matos believes that ‘communicating well diplomatically means communicating for the well being of diplomatic interlocutors and, more broadly, for the well-being of humankind’. For more on his pedagogy of positiveness read ‘Applying the Pedagogy of Positiveness to Diplomatic Communication‘ (Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001).

Some Sample Analyses

Learn more: Analyzing Rhetorics | Language and Power

Language and power

Illustration showing ancient Roman preparing a speechEffective rhetoric is about the right words, at the right time and in the right place. As we saw earlier with Burton’s example about Hitler, the right words at the right time can shape world events.

Language is a powerful tool; it can be used as a means of controlling or shaping the    thoughts of others. Tongtao Zheng of the University of Tasmania writes: ‘Language is a weapon and a powerful tool in winning public support, especially during the current information revolution period…it is also a powerful weapon in the struggle of community against community, worldview against worldview.’ (‘Characteristics of Australian Political Language Rhetoric,’ Intercultural Communication, Issue 4, November 2000)

New terminology

Dr Andrew Cline writes: ‘The power to define, and make it stick, is arguably the premier political power. To control the definitions of terms is to control the debate by bracketing how the audience may think about an issue. To create new terms is to create new realities.’ He demonstrates the power of creating new terminology with an example from April 12, 2002, when White House press secretary Ari Fleischer introduced the term ‘homicide bombers’ for the Palestinian men and women blowing themselves up in public places. He points out that this change in terms is not politically innocent: any terms created or redefined by a political administration have political importance:

In this case, the new term helps further delegitimize the bombers. What’s wrong with that? Perhaps nothing, except that the term may also further delegitimize the larger cause of the Palestinian people, which is the establishment of an independent state. In other words, this new term might further aggravate the idea of guilt by proximity, as if all Palestinians think and act alike in regard to the violence.

Suicide bombers might be fighting for legitimate political ends (establishment of a state) by decidedly illegitimate means (the murder of civilians or non-combatants). A ‘homicide bomber’ is simply a criminal who wishes to kill outside of political goals. While it is possible under some circumstances to condone the violence of a ‘freedom fighter’, this new term adds further distance between any legitimate concept or action and the actions of the homicide bombers. The new term helps the Bush administration put further pressure on the Palestinian authorities to do more than simply denounce violence; it puts pressure on them to actively stop the lawless action of criminals who have no legitimate political claims. (‘Homicide Bombers’ Further Delegitimizes Violence‘, Rhetorica Network, April 14, 2002)

Peter Beinart writes:

The extraordinary thing about American foreign policy since September 11 is the extent to which it has been shaped by language. In the terrible days after the World Trade Center fell, the Bush administration grasped for words that would capture America’s resolve. And it came up with ‘war on terrorism’. […] ‘Terrorism’ meant violence by individuals or groups (but not governments) against civilians, no matter what the cause. ‘War’ didn’t connote a merely military effort, but it suggested a broad struggle with the urgency, and Manichaean clarity, of a battlefield campaign.

The phrase soon caught on overseas, and other governments began to use it in order to invest their own conflicts with the same moral authority. Russian called its struggle in Chechnya a ‘war on terrorism’, as did India with Kashmir, Israel with Palestine, and many others. Beinart points out that partly due to their use of this phrase, US policy swung towards support of the government forces: Russian, India and Israel. However, there are significant differences between the conflicts in these countries and the US fight against Al-Queda. He explains:

The critical difference is that the wars in Kashmir, Palestine, and Chechnya are wars of national liberation. The terrorists seek to end a foreign occupation and create an independent state on a defined piece of land. That doesn’t make their demands legitimate: Yasir Arafat’s definition of a Palestinian state is clearly grandiose and dangerous (especially given that Israel is so small–and therefore particularly imperiled by such fantasies); Kashmir and Chechnya probably shouldn’t be independent states at all. And it doesn’t make their methods legitimate either: There’s no excuse for deliberately targeting civilians. But as a practical matter, wars of national liberation are easier (though certainly not easy) to resolve politically and much harder to resolve militarily than the kind we’re fighting against Al Qaeda. (‘Word Play‘, The New Republic, April 12, 2002)

In a February 24, 2002 article in the New York Times, Mark Lilla, professor of social thought at the University of Chicago, describes the negative European reaction to Bush’s phrase ‘axis of evil’ to describe adversary states. He compares Bush’s rhetorical style to that of Ronald Reagan during the cold war era. But while Reagan’s style may have been appropriate at the time, the current situation is quite different:

When Ronald Reagan addressed the Soviet leadership, he was dealing with functionaries of a highly routinized, if sclerotic, empire, a state where the passions of religion and nationalism played almost no role. The American rivalry with the Soviet Union was likened to a chess game where each party understood the moves and feints of the other. Today, however, the United States is facing adversaries that are wholly unlike our cold war rivals. They are not part of an empire or even an axis; they are regimes as different from each other as we are from them, and there is no shared understanding of the rules of the game.

Some are driven by a messianic ideology to seek not temporary advantage or influence, but an impossible transformation of worldly existence. Others are classic tyrannies run by ruthless figures whose moves are wholly unpredictable. And there are states where no one seems in control.

Lilla points out that choosing the right rhetorical style can affect the course of events, suggesting as an example, that Bush’s ‘masterly way of reaching out to Muslims at home and abroad has displayed before the world our principles of tolerance’. (New Rules of Political Rhetoric, New York Times, February 24, 2002)


In 1946, in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘, George Orwell criticised current use of the English language, particularly in politics. He pointed out the general emptiness of political rhetoric and discussed the increasing use of euphemisms to avoid admissions of possibly controversial actions:

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing… Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy…

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Ambiguity in diplomacy

A word, phrase, or sentence is ambiguous if it has more than one meaning. (Kent Bach, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Ambiguity)

…any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language. (William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, London: Hogarth Press, 1927, quoted by Norman Scott, Ambiguity versus Precision: The Changing Role of Terminology in Conference Diplomacy, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

…ambiguities are pieces of language that 1. can be interpreted as meaning A, 2. can be interpreted as meaning B, and 3. cannot be interpreted as A and B simultaneously, but, eventually, as a neutral (re)source, from which, under specific focuses of vision/interpretation, both A and B might at separate times spring… In order to qualify as an ambiguity an expression must generate not only ‘at least two different meanings’, but also two incompatible and unrelated meanings. It is only then that an expression is truly ambiguous (Drazen Pehar, Use of Ambiguities in Peace Agreements, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

…ambiguity is a one-many relation between syntax and sense. (Geoffrey Leech, Semantics, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987, quoted by Pehar).

Illustration depicting the concept of ambiguity as it could be interpreted either as a duck or as a rabbit, depending on the angle of viewingA good visual model of ambiguity is the well-known ‘duck-rabbit’ picture, a drawing which can be seen as either a duck or a rabbit, but not both at the same time. This picture thus includes two separate and incompatible possibilities.

Types of ambiguity

Most sources differentiate between two types of ambiguity:

  1. lexical (referential)
  2. syntactic (structural)

 A third type of ambiguity, textual ambiguity, is also of relevance in diplomacy.

1. Lexical ambiguity (also known as referential)

The comedian Dick Gregory tells of walking up to a lunch counter in Mississippi during the days of racial segregation. The waitress said to him, ‘We don’t serve colored people.’ ‘That’s fine’, he replied, ‘I don’t eat colored people. I’d like a piece of chicken.’ (Quoted by Stephen Pinker, The Language Instinct, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1994)

Lexical ambiguity is ambiguity based on a single word. In many cases, a single word in a language corresponds to more than one thought, for example, the adjective light (not dark vs. not heavy); the noun bank (financial institution vs. the edge of a river); and the verb run (to move fast vs. to direct or manage). Words may also have more than one meaning through their unrelated use in more than one category of speech, for example, can (a container of food – noun vs. to be able to – verb).

Inattentive use of ambiguous words can lead to humorous, or even awkward situations, as shown by these newspaper headlines collected by Stephen Pinker.

  • Iraqi Head Seeks Arms
  • Child’s Stool Great for Use in Garden
  • Stud Tires Out
  • Stiff Opposition Expected to Casketless Funeral Plan
  • Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case

2. Syntactic ambiguity (also known as structural or sentence)

In the movie Animal Crackers Groucho  Marx says ‘I once shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas I’ll never know.'(Quoted by Stephen Pinker)

Sometimes an entire sentence has more than one different and incompatible interpretations, even if none of the words are ambiguous. This happens when one part of the sentence may grammatical specify in more than one direction.

Drazen Pehar provides the following example: I am prepared to give the sum of one million dollars to you and your husband. This can be understood as I am prepared to give the sum of (1 million $) (to you) and (your husband) – making a total of two million dollars; or as I am prepared to give the sum of (1 million $) to (you and your husband) – making a total of only one million dollars.

Lexical ambiguity can also lead to humorous sentences, for example, the following collected from newspapers by Stephen Pinker.

  • Yoko Ono will talk about her husband John Lennon who was killed in an interview with Barbara Walters.
  • Two cars were reported stolen by the Groveton police yesterday.
  • The judge sentenced the killer to die in the electric chair for the second time.
  • The summary of information contains totals of the number of students broken down by sex, marital status and age.
  • No one was injured in the blast, which was attributed to a buildup of gas by one town official.
  • One witness told the commissioners that she had seen sexual intercourse taking place between two parked cars in front of her house.

3. Cross-textual ambiguity

Drazen Pehar describes a third type of ambiguity which is based on incompatibilities between different parts of a text, or specifications in multiple directions, across a text. Pehar writes: ‘This kind of ambiguity is best exemplified with so-called ‘open-ended sentences’ which can be found in legal texts. For example, a chapter in a peace treaty may begin with a precise enumeration of the powers that one entity, for example, a central federal authority, may exercise. But at the end of the chapter an open-ended provision is inserted, which may, for instance, state that ‘the central federal authority may exercise some other duties as well’. (Use of Ambiguities in Peace Agreements, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Ambiguity in diplomacy

We often hear the phrase ‘diplomatic ambiguity’ used to describe a special type of language used by diplomats. Professor Norman Scott, director of Diplomatic Training Programmes at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, wrote: ‘In common parlance the skill of finding formulations which avoid giving offence and are at the same time acceptable to all sides is treated with justifiable respect and often referred to as a ‘diplomatic’ form of expression. This usage probably reflects an accurate perception of language and diplomacy down the years.’ (Ambiguity versus Precision: The Changing Role of Terminology in Conference  Diplomacy, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploFoundation, 2001)

Why is ambiguity used in diplomacy?

Ambiguous formulations are used in diplomacy to allow for a degree of consensus when parties to a negotiation cannot come to an agreement. Drazen Pehar explains:

If two parties have strong and contradictory interests, and if it seems that neither side is ready to concede a part of its maximum demand, and/or if the negotiations are running short of time and the parties can not discuss such concessions in more detail, then the issue of conflicting interests can be resolved by, so to speak, simulating a compromise in a very rudimentary form. The mediators may come up with a formula which is open to at least two different interpretations; which can carry at least two meanings, A and B, one to gratify the interests of party A and another to gratify the interests of party B… ambiguities make sure that, on the one hand, the parties retain their own individual perceptions as to ‘how things should proceed’ and that, on the other, one common language is adopted, which both parties may later equally use. (Use of Ambiguities in Peace Agreements, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploFoundation, 2001) 

Norman Scott, in his paper on ambiguity in conference diplomacy, points out that while a party may push for precise language to ‘serve the purposes of his own side in stipulating claims or limits to commitments’ it may seek ambiguity ‘to allay anxieties on either side or to secure a margin for subsequent interpretation’.

Is ambiguity an effective diplomatic tool?

Arguments can be found both against and for the use of ambiguity in diplomacy. Opponents point out that an ambiguous formulation in a treaty or agreement does not actually resolve a problem but simply puts it off until a later time, or allows the parties to the agreement a means of avoiding their obligations. Proponents respond that in a conflict, any tactic that brings an end to actually physical violence is useful and valuable.

Scott reminds us that in conference diplomacy ambiguity is usually used by parties seeking to avoid obligations, and that ‘in the drafting of legal documents such as contracts strenuous efforts are usually made to eschew ambiguity because their survival in the document improves the chances of one or other of the parties raising a successful challenge in court and thereby escaping fulfilment of ambiguous provisions […] it is easier to hold a party to an agreement to a specific commitment than to a vague or ambiguous one’.

According to Pehar, opponents of the use of ambiguities in peace agreements consider ambiguities a deceptive device which brings only temporary satisfaction. ‘Such satisfaction is deceptive because both parties have the right to interpret ambiguities in their own irreconcilable ways and that is a right they will certainly, sooner or later, start exploiting. That is also why ambiguous agreements may quickly lead to arguments, and turn into disagreements, as, precisely due to ambiguities, conflicts in interpretation will necessarily break out […] For that reason implementation of an ambiguous agreement is very likely to fail.’ Furthermore, ‘Just as, prior to an outbreak of war, the crucial terms of political vocabulary become ambiguous and generate misunderstandings and disagreements that then lead to war, an ambiguous peace agreement will itself generate new misunderstandings and add more heat to the parties’ already hostile feelings.’

However, Pehar draws our attention to several factors in favour of the use of ambiguities, despite the fact that ambiguous agreements do pose a risk. First, ‘if an ambiguity makes it easier for negotiating parties to accept an agreement and therewith put a close to a war, or to a situation of increased friction or hostility, this should be taken as an argument supporting the use of ambiguities. Even if an ambiguous provision may later generate a conflict in opinion, the fact that the relationship of physical hostility gave way to the relationship of merely verbal conflict must be taken as a sign of progress.

Second, ambiguity offers great potential for cooperative conflict resolution. It generates further conflict only when ‘parties insist on their own, unilateral interpretation of an ambiguous provision and do not recognise ambiguity qua ambiguity. If they recognise an ambiguous provision for what it actually is, a sentence or a text open to several incompatible interpretations, the argument over interpretations would in all likelihood give way to the relationship of a joint cooperative effort in the search for a third impartial reading of the provision.’

Third, ‘they make the conflict of interpretation predictable. In other words, start from the premise that the parties to an agreement will continue fighting politically even after they sign a treaty. However, this process of political fight will be more channelled, more orderly and predictable if one knows in advance which provisions of the jointly adopted text will give rise to a conflict in opinion or interpretation.’

Pehar concludes that ambiguous peace agreements should be ‘tolerated in an ambiguous fashion, used as a last resort and employed to the best of their capacity, with all the caution they deserve.’ Finally, Pehar points out, as a final point in favour of the use of ambiguities in peace agreements, that ‘…societies whose members display an ability to tolerate an ambiguous state of affairs fare both economically and psychologically much better than societies whose members are lacking in such ability. Individuals tolerating ambiguity also tend to tolerate risks, to cope more easily with emotional or intellectual friction and conflict, and to refrain from jumping to premature conclusions when evidence is inconclusive…Those tolerant of ambiguity do not believe in a black and white image of human affairs, but find shades of grey more attractive and enjoyable. That is why one will hardly ever find them caught in the dangerous logic of zero-sum games. If tolerance of ambiguity represents a value worth striving for, then why would one oppose the use of ambiguous wording in peace agreements?’

Analogies: effects and functions

An analogy is a systematic comparison between structures that uses properties of and relations between objects of a source structure to infer properties of and relations between objects of a target structure. (Dictionary of the Philosophy of Mind)

  1. Inference that if two or more things agree with one another in some respects they will prob. agree in others
  2. Resemblance in some particulars between things otherwise unlike: similarity b: comparison based on such resemblance
  3. Correspondence between the members of pairs or sets of linguistic forms that serves as a basis for the creation of another form
  4. Correspondence in function between anatomical parts of different structure and origin (Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online)

Analogy is a basic human reasoning process used in science, literature, art, education, and politics. Analogy can be used to make predictions, provide explanations, and restructure our knowledge. Analogy is also used to influence public opinion, fight battles, win wars, start and finish relationships, and advertise laundry detergent. (Kevin Dunbar)

Dr Kevin Dunbar, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Dartmouth college, provides the following information on terminology for analogies:

Different researchers on analogy use different terminologies, however most researchers distinguish between two main components of an analogy — the Source and the Target. The Source is the piece of knowledge that one is familiar with. The Target is usually the less familiar piece of knowledge. When one makes an analogy, one Maps features of the Source onto the Target. In the case of the Earth-Mars analogy, the Source is the Earth and the Target is Mars. By Mapping features known about the earth onto mars it is possible to make predictions about the types of features that will be found on Mars, such as water and life. Thus, analogy is a very powerful mental tool to discover new things. As well as distinguishing between the Source and the Target researchers in analogical reasoning often distinguish between Superficial and Structural feature. Superficial features are things such as Mars being round or having a red hue. Thus, making an analogy between Mars and a red Stop sign would be an analogy based upon the feature red, which is a superficial attribute. Structural (or Relational features) refer to the underlying sets of relations between features (first order relations), or relations among relations (second and third order relations). In the case of Mars, structural relations might be the Seasonal movement of dark streaks across the surface of the planet and the presence of dust devils. Noting these attributes and relations led to the hypothesis that these are the same as dust devils on earth and that the same mechanisms that produce dust devil trails on earth are what is happening on Mars (As you can see analogy can be complicated). The major virtue of analogy is that it allows a person to go beyond the superficial. (Kevin Dunbar)

For a history of the use of term analogy by logicians and theologicians, consult the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Effects of analogies

The Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldoun points out the risk of analogies:

Analogical reasoning and comparison are well known to human nature. They are not safe from error. Together with forgetfulness and negligence, they sway man from his purpose and    divert him from his goal. Often, someone who has learned a good deal of past history remains* unaware of the changes that conditions have undergone. Without a moment’s    hesitation, he applies his knowledge (of the present) to historical information, and measures    such information by the things he has observed with his own eye, although the difference    between the  two is  great. Consequently, he  falls into an  abyss of error. (Quoted  by Abba Eban, Diplomacy for the Next Century, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998)

The use of historical rhetoric may lead to false conclusions about the likely outcome of current or future events, and in some cases this may lead to unnecessary conflict. Drazen Pehar discusses several ways in which historical rhetoric generates conflict: ‘historical analogising sometimes leads to an overly offensive, self-confident posture. It sometimes leads to a significant lowering of the threshold of tolerance as it negatively affects self-image, i.e. sense of honour. And last but not least it sometimes plays the role of a deterrent to deterrence and makes leaders too restrained, too cautious in acting, which then gives an opportunity to belligerent leaders of this world to pursue their own policies. For instance, French leaders were reluctant to make an offensive move against Hitler because a) their image of World War I implied that offensive equals disaster; and b) because they did nothing to question the applicability of that source-analogue to the future developments they expected in their relations with Hitler.’

While these dangers suggest that historical rhetoric should not be used by politicians and diplomats, Pehar suggests that it would be difficult to eliminate it from political rhetoric: ‘the human mind has a biological inclination to reason inductively; that is, to reason about future happenings through the prism of past experiences. We reason via analogies. By instinct we set expectations on the basis of our past experience and nothing may be changed with that.’ Furthermore, ‘the world community is divided into nations with each nation measuring the time of its existence along the historical line of its evolution. And each nation considers its historical traumas and recoveries especially important; something like milestones on the path leading from its past to its present. Nations thus treat their particular histories as stores of their collective memory, which serve both the purpose of maintaining their particular identities and the purpose of providing answers to challenges of the present time. Diplomats are still their nations’ humble servants and therefore cannot avoid using historical analogies in presenting their nation’s views or interests.”’

As a solution Pehar proposes the ‘ambiguation’ of analogies:

Diplomats should choose a ‘golden mean’, and try to balance and combine certain aspects of both historical rhetoric and ambiguous language in order to satisfy their instincts but also to make this satisfaction less dangerous, less capable of generating first mental and then armed conflict. In other words, diplomats may continue using historical analogies but they should be made more ambiguous and less suggestive.

The idea is very simple. All we have to do is to loosen the link between a source of historical metaphor and its target. In that way a diplomat could still retain a historic image, an idea of historic precedents, using language which would also retain the flavour of national identity or national narrative. By using ambiguated historical analogies, though, diplomats could, with the same stroke, raise their awareness of the fact that the final decision is theirs to make, as the ‘loose’ historical analogising would leave enough elbow room for them to act as individual and adaptable thinkers or decision-makers. Namely, ambiguated historical analogies do not deduce from the past a straightforward or rigid image of the future.

For more on Pehar’s suggestions for a ‘diplomatic’ style of historical analogy read Historical Rhetoric and Diplomacy: An Uneasy Cohabitation (Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001).

Historical analogies and their functions

Historical analogies are a variety of analogy often used by politicians and diplomats to explain or make a prediction about a current or future event based on events in the past. The past event is used as a source, while the present or future situation is the target of the analogy.

Drazen Pehar, researcher on language and diplomacy, suggests several reasons that historical analogies are used by politicians and have such a strong effect on public opinion: ‘historical analogising is an essential part of national narrative and national identity. Nations tend to group around their most central and deeply rooted memories. Over time many of those memories acquire the status of lasting symbols that nations use to describe their contemporary concerns or fears as well. [Analogies] […] help people symbolically transcend the limitations of time and space. […] the need for spiritual transcendence is one of the main sources of motivation for the use of historical analogies in dealing with international affairs’.

A second function is ‘identity maintenance. Historical rhetoric not only provides nations with the sense of worldly immortality; a surrogate of religion, but also with an answer to the question “Who are we?” Historical rhetoric explains the lasting origins of a nation. Typically, when a crisis occurs in the life of nation, responses to it are couched in a language of past models, of past dealings with a crisis similar in shape if not in essence. When a president says that the nation must look to its past for a vision and inspiration to guide its present choice, he actually says that if applied to the present, models from the past will help the nation maintain its spirit and sense of specific identity.’

A third function ‘is simply to provide a sense of cognitive orientation in international affairs. The future is always open and undetermined, and the number of international actors and the complexity of their relations are too high to give a straight clue about future developments’. Historical analogies ‘indicate a direction for actions in this world, which would otherwise remain too complex to allow for an intellectual grasp. Historical analogy simply projects an image of past developments into the future and thus makes the future cognitively manageable.’

A fourth function of historical analogies is as an ‘anti-depressant; a colourful imagery which neutralises a boring and non-dramatic kind of political reality. Historical analogies make international relations intriguing, interesting, worth watching and participating in, which without such a drama-producing imagery would not be case. They put things and relations, as it is said, into perspective and make them tastier, less boring and more purposeful. Historical rhetoric sets a scenery or stage linking the past with the present and the future into the chapters of single drama to offset the bad feeling that nothing important or big is happening. (Historical Rhetoric and Diplomacy: An Uneasy Cohabitation, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Diplomatic signalling

Diplomatic signallingOur day-to-day verbal communication includes a sub-text of signals: some verbal and others non-verbal, some deliberate and others unintended, some subtle and others obvious.

Unknown Object

Methods of signalling range from physical gestures and facial expressions to choices such the order in which topics in a conversation are raised, what other people are present to overhear a conversation, and the tone or volume of voice used when talking about a certain topic.

Signalling may be used to reinforce a message or to contradict it. For example, compare an invitation to dinner mentioned at the beginning of a conversation with a smile and a welcoming tone of voice with an invitation mentioned at the end of a conversation as an afterthought, in a hesitant tone. In the first case the signals reinforce the message, in the second, the listener may feel that her presence is not really desired.

Raymond Cohen writes ‘States have become adept at extra-linguistic forms of communication […] [these] do not replace language, rather they complement, illuminate and supplement it.’ (Theatre of Power: The Art of Diplomatic Signalling, London and New York: 1987) In diplomatic communication, as in communication between individuals, signals are frequently used to transmit messages. Actors of diplomacy often choose to use signals rather than direct communication for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is inappropriate for one actor to make too direct a suggestion or demand of another, or to transmit a message in person. A message passed through signals rather than directly also saves face for the receiving party, which can comply without seeming weak or refuse to comply without creating confrontation by simply ignoring the signals.

According to Christer Johnsson and Karin Aggestam, ‘the classic diplomatic dialogue can be seen as a system of signals, based on a code shared by the members of the profession’. They point out that diplomatic signalling is characterised by ‘constructive ambiguity’ for the following reasons:

First, it may be a deliberate means to retain flexibility and make signals disclaimable. Ambiguous signals allow the sender to argue ‘I never said that’, ‘that is not what I meant’ and the like, if the situation calls for it.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, ambiguity is often promoted by the need to take multiple audiences into account. ….In diplomatic signalling the potential audiences may be both international and domestic.

A third factor contributing to the ambiguity of diplomatic signals is the prevalence of non-verbal messages and ‘body language’ in communication between states. Diplomatic ‘body language’ has come to encompass everything from personal gestures to the manipulation of military forces. (‘Trends in Diplomatic Signalling’, Innovation in Diplomatic Practice (ed. Jan Melissen), London: Macmillan Press, 1999, 151)

Types of diplomatic signalling

Diplomatic signalling is carried out through a wide variety of methods and means. A few commonly used methods are described here.


One of the most widely used methods of conveying signals is the media—newspapers, television or radio news, and now, increasingly, the Internet—as an intermediary. Christian Kaschuba of the University of Washington writes that ‘the media are frequently used to send messages to other governments. This allows for an informal exchange of information between leaders, indicating for example a willingness to talk or a pending military action against the other country. These messages are generally (and primarily) not intended for the general public in either country.’ He provides as an example the following newspaper headline: ‘Iraq Issues Threat to Hit Turkish Base Used by U.S.’ (NYT 2/16/99: A4)

The article reports that Iraqi Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan is threatening to hit a Turkish military base used by the US. While Iraq has not communicated this threat directly to the US government, a diplomatic message has been sent to the US with the assistance of the media. (Communications in International Relations course materials, Spring 2000)

Drazen Pehar, researcher on language and diplomacy, provides the following scenario of signalling through the media in the Balkans: Imagine that the prime minister of Serbia, Zoran Djindjic, speaks to his Macedonian counterpart, and in the course of the conversation he says: ‘We have had too many divisions in the Balkans. We would regret it if Macedonia was divided into Macedonian and Albanian territories.’ While this comment was directed by Djindjic to his Macedonian counterpart, Djindjic knows that the conversation will be televised or published in full in a newspaper that the prime minister of Montenegro, Djukanovic, usually reads. Then Djindjic’s message to the Macedonian prime minister has meaning for Djukanovic and the government of Montenegro as well: approximately, that ‘Serbia and Montenegro should remain together. We would regret it if Montenegro was to declare independence and secede from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.’ In other words, Djindjic sent a message carrying a diplomatic signal to Djukanovic.

Another example is provided by David Wigston in a study of international radio news coverage of South Africa elections in 1987, 1989 and 1994. Wigston writes:

A Comparative Analysis of South African Election Coverage by International News Radio,’ Communicatio: South African Journal for Communication Theory and Research, Vol. 21 (2), 1995)


A third person, or intermediary, may be used for diplomatic signalling, with or without her knowledge. The sender of the message tells something to the intermediary assuming that the intermediary will pass on the information to the desired recipient of the message. The content of the message may have one meaning which the intermediary understands, and another which is comprehensible to the intended recipient. The intermediary may not even know that she is being used as a messenger.

Drazen Pehar and Dietrich Kappeler, former director of the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, point out an example of signalling through intermediaries in Abba Eban’s book Diplomacy for the Next Century (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, 4-7). Eban recalls that when in September 1950 he presented his credentials as Israeli Ambassador to the United States, US President Truman mentioned to him twice that ‘the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima had caused him no anguish or discomfort.’ Eban spoke to the next ambassador to present his credentials, Hermann Van Roijen of the Netherlands, and found that President Truman had also told him ‘that he had never lost any sleep over the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan.’ Eban interpreted Truman’s preoccupation as a sign of his actual anguish and discomfort with his actions.

Kappeler provides another interpretation for Truman’s statements that he felt no remorse over using the atomic bomb. The ambassadors were presenting their credentials in late 1950, at the peak of the Korean War. Kappeler believe that Truman was probably sending a diplomatic signal via the newly appointed ambassadors to the leaders of North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, or perhaps even the Soviet Union, that he would not hesitate to drop an atomic bomb again. Truman probably hoped that by mentioning his lack of remorse to enough people the message would eventually be transmitted to the intended recipient.

Diplomatic relations

Signalling can take the form of the cutting or establishing of diplomatic ties between countries. For example, an article by Jawed Naqvi describes how on November 21, 2001, India sent a diplomatic mission to reopen its embassy in Kabul which had been closed since the Taliban takeover, in September 1996. The author writes: ‘By re-establishing diplomatic ties with Kabul, India is signalling its commitment to political and economic reconstruction of Afghanistan.’ (‘Indian Diplomats Arrive in Kabul,’ Dawn (Pakistani English language newspaper), November 22, 2001)

Kishan Rana, former Indian ambassador to Germany, discusses one of the classical signals of diplomacy:

Language, Signaling and Diplomacy,’ Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Diplomatic visits

An article on the Center for Defense Organisation’s website examines the use of diplomatic visits for signalling. Senior Analyst Nicholas Berry writes that diplomatic visits are commonly recognised as symbols of the closeness of relations between two countries, but less recognised ‘is the signaling function of visits. Signals focus on future behavior.’

Using the example of the visit in September, 2000, of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to US President Clinton, and Clinton’s earlier visit to India, Berry writes that:

Clinton’s exchange of visits with India signaled to New Delhi that its nuclear weapon program and failure to sign both the Non-Proliferation and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaties will not impede closer ties. These subjects were mostly unmentioned during Vajpayee’s Washington visit. The U.S.-Indian visits also signaled to China that any aggressiveness, such as toward Taiwan, in the South China Sea, or over the disputed border with India, would drive the United States and India into a closer security relationship. 

President Clinton, after departing from New Delhi, made a notably brief stop in Pakistan to talk to Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, signalling to Islamabad that its continued support of Kashmiri guerrillas in their incursions into Indian-controlled Kashmir and its support of the Taliban in Afghanistan who harbor the international terrorist Osama bin Laden will continue to erode U.S. relations. It also signaled to Islamabad, by including the stopover at the last minute, that relations could improve with its return to democracy and its resumption of dialogue with India.

At the same time the White House announced that the President would visit Vietnam in November after attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Brunei, ‘signalling to China once again that upsetting the status quo in East Asia would recruit willing partners for U.S. efforts to check such behavior.’

Berry elaborates that the political efficacy of signaling via visits is that nothing has to be explicitly stated, thereby avoiding bruising nationalistic feelings and eliciting hostile responses. The subtlety of this mode of signaling has been valued historically, especially through multilateral summitry. One is reminded of the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic wars that signaled that radical political change in Europe would not be tolerated. The Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin wartime summits signaled to Hitler that the Allied coalition could not be broken. The various Camp David summits to broker Middle East peace sent signals that U.S. interest in Middle East oil is a high priority. The just-concluded Millennium Summit at the UN, where 154 government leaders gathered, signaled that globalization has virtually unanimous acceptance (if not enjoying unanimous enthusiasm).

In addition, the volume of foreign visits – Clinton has traveled abroad more than any other president – signals to the world that America has many international commitments and worldwide interests, and so American world power is here to stay. (‘Diplomatic Visits: Signaling As Well As Symbolism,’ Center for Defense Organisation Website, September 20, 2000)


Even the attire chosen for a particular event or visit can project signals. Kishan Rana writes that ‘The wearing of a particular kind of attire at an event of significance, when images are captured and broadcast around the world, may signify a hidden intent, for positive projection or for negative reasons. When national leaders visit their troops in the field, like President Bush in Kosovo in July 2001, they don ordinary combat outerwear, to underscore identification with the ordinary soldier.’ (Diplomatic Signalling)

Economic sanctions 

In a 1989 article in Policy Analysis Joseph G. Gavin re-examines the common perception of economic sanctions. He concludes that ‘the chief purpose of foreign policy sanctions is to send signals and not, as is commonly perceived, to exert economic leverage.’ He writes that the ‘questions and arguments about sanctions that consume the most time and energy usually center on whether they work. The answer is a matter of judgment, which depends critically on how one defines their purpose.’ If the purpose of sanctions is understood to be signalling, then ‘sanctions can be said to work merely by application unless the signal is garbled.’

As an example, Gavin suggests that economic sanctions against South Africa have value if their purpose is seen as sending a message to non-white South Africans living under apartheid, and he reminds us that in fact, ‘clarifying U.S. policy on apartheid is a declared purpose of the legislation implementing the sanctions. In general, economic sanctions can send signals to any or all of three receivers: the target country, allies, and domestic audiences. (‘Economic Sanctions: Foreign Policy Levers or Signals,’ Policy Analysis No. 124, November 7, 1989)

Departures from protocol 

A signal can be conveyed by a departure from diplomatic protocol, in a positive or negative way. Kishan Rana suggests that actions such as the ‘level at which a foreign dignitary is met at the airport, or who receives the foreign visitor for a meeting […] a social gesture honoring the visitor, like a lunch, or some other function […] especially when it is not mandatory under local custom’ can all be used to convey positive or negative signals. He provides the example of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was a master of the ‘symbolic gesture; there was a clear but subtle distinction between the foreign visitors she received at the office table and those who were offered the sofa seat!’ Rana provides a further example with the issue of punctuality: ‘Some years back, during a state visit to Morocco, the late King Hassan kept Queen Elizabeth waiting for some ten minutes, surely not by accident, but to assert a notion of ‘royal prerogative’ of his ancient monarchy, and indirectly assert equality with a major power.’ Rana also discusses the ‘inconvenience display’ as a powerful form of signal, ‘when a host goes out of his way to do something for the visitor at the cost of personal inconvenience, like coming to the front entrance steps to receive him […]’ (Diplomatic Signalling)

Signalling and intercultural issues

While diplomatic messages transmitted through signals offer some advantages to both sender    and receiver, as nothing need be explicitly stated, they also present some risks. Foremost is the    risk that a message might not be received, or more seriously, that it might be misinterpreted. Kishan Rana provides the following example:

At the May Day parade at Tienanmen Square in 1970, Chairman Mao conveyed a conciliatory signal to the Indian Charge d’Affaires, shaking hands with him and remarking    that the two countries should not go on quarrelling. It was the first personal bilateral gesture    from Mao in over a decade. Barely days later, while the move was under evaluation,    someone in Delhi, perhaps with pro-Soviet tendencies, leaked the news to the media where it was trivialised in headlines as a ‘Mao smile’, and the value of the signal was lost. It took some years of quiet effort by both sides to move even to the first step to normalisation, through the return of ambassadors in the two capitals in 1976. (Language, Signaling and Diplomacy, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

As this example shows, misinterpretation of signals often happens when a signal is interpreted differently in a different cultural setting. As Rana points out, the same signal may carry different meanings in different cultures. This problem is becoming more and more prevalent due to a change in the nature of the setting in which foreign policy and diplomacy operate.

The setting in which foreign policy and diplomacy operate in countries has changed drastically, first, through the entry of multiple state entities into the diplomatic process in each country, overcoming the former exclusive role of the foreign ministry, and second, by the entry of non-state actors into the external relationships of each country […] This means that there are many new players, who do not know the old syntax or style, using less subtlety and more direct language than before.

Unlike the classic age of diplomacy, the period up to and immediately after World War II, when the number of nation states was barely one fourth of today, and most of the players had similar upbringing and mindsets, there is infinitely greater diversity now. Even while a single vehicular language dominates as the medium of discourse, the levels of language competence, both in the spoken word and comprehension, vary greatly. There is no certitude that direct communication will always be understood as intended, much less a subtle signal. This demands greater care over how one uses language, and greater sensitivity on how one is perceived by the other side. (Language, Signaling and Diplomacy, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Rana suggests with today’s diversity of cultures, diplomatic practitioners need to be more direct and resort to the use of signals less.

Because signalling is an integral part of communication of all kinds it seems unlikely that its use can or should be avoided in diplomacy. However, as diplomatic communication deals at times with matters of high importance and the outcomes of diplomatic decisions effect vast numbers of people, misinterpretation of signals can have serious consequences. Awareness of cultural differences and conscious and considered use of signals is necessary now more than ever.

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Theories of persuasion and psychology: the power of situations

Throughout its history, humankind has been motivated to war, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, racist hysteria, religious intolerance and extremism, mass suicide and many other forms of irrational and pathological behaviour. The problem arises as Milan Kundera def... Read more...


The origins – where is the connection between persuasion and rhetoric?

As ancient rhetoricians believed that language was a potent force for persuasion, they insisted that their students develop copia in all spheres of their art. Copia denotes an abundant and ready supply of language in any situation that arises. Why did ancient teachers ... Read more...

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