The world is not just threatened by threats — it is submerged in them. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.
Ever since Donald Trump entered the White House, the question of whether a “rules-based” international order still exists has been evoked on numerous occasion and its passing lamented. The fact that for some 70 years, nations were expected to play by the rules didn’t mean that bullying, intimidation and threats of various kinds didn’t exist. They did and often played a prominent role, alongside bribes. But there was a kind of general, unstated etiquette that kept them within bounds, if only to maintain the public’s belief that the rules were still in force.
We are now seeing a trend, which some call a return to realpolitik, in which referring to supposed rules is seen as both hypocritical and a waste of time. If it’s all about power, why play games? When the rules are left by the roadside, the power of the players becomes more apparent. The players then believe in and cultivate their own power, or at least the image of their power.
One such power game, where we can see the rules consciously tossed aside, is occurring at this moment concerning the disappearance and expected murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist. Nearly every outside observer is convinced that auditive if not ocular proof exists of his wanton murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. But the Saudis continue to deny it all.
Since their denial has allayed no one’s suspicions, they must use everything in their power not just to deny the facts, but also to reject the rules that apply to governments’ behaviors in a rules-based system. Thus, for the Saudis, “the kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats or attempts to undermine it whether through threats to impose economic sanctions or the use of political pressure.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A convenient label to put on a credible accusation of a crime with the purpose of justifying the subsequent assumption of an aggressive posture of defense that will most likely compound the crime
If there’s a second trend that characterizes our epoch, alongside that of growing income inequality, it’s the fact that governments increasingly prefer the exercise of power to that of justice. The Saudis have made it savagely clear with this assertion: “The kingdom also affirms that it will respond to any action with a bigger one. The Saudi economy has vital and influential roles for the global economy.” If in doubt when faced with threats, promise bigger ones in retaliation. And with the same clarity Trump favors, they tell us, in no uncertain terms: You want our oil? You want our cash? Come and beg for it.
At the United Nations in 2017, President Trump explained, “We are guided by outcomes, not ideology.” In 2018, he proclaimed, “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” What better way to convey his message than by saying: There are no rules, just naked power? One commentator described the Saudi threat as a violation of “an essential oil market taboo.”
In the rules-based world order, lying was of course permitted, but, as with everything else, it took place within the bounds of credibility. For example, in August 1964, the US government stretched the truth about a confused incident concerning a destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin and turned it into a casus belli, leading to a permanent escalation of the US engagement in Vietnam that effectively turned it into a disastrous, unwinnable war.
George W. Bush clearly lied about both the state of intelligence concerning Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s supposed ties with al-Qaeda to justify launching a war that has never ended. But many people thought that those assertions were “credible,” not because of preponderant evidence, but because they corresponded to real fears. Both Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush clearly lied to advance their agenda, but they understood that the media would see their actions as somehow consistent with the rules and support their decisions in the name of making the world safe for democracy.
Trump the innovator has taken us into a new era. Other than Fox News, the media refused to echo his lies when he bowed out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, canceled the Iran deal or when he claimed his tax cuts were a gift to the middle class. Instead they sighed, complained that it made no sense and then rolled with the punches. Trump established his right to lie and continue governing.
Lying is the new truth. Trump has taught us that if lying works, there’s no reason to be ashamed of it. Lying preserves power and has even become a proof of power. Some analysts say that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was emboldened by Trump’s facility for lying, but also his success at designating the press as the enemy of the people when it called out his lies. In that light, sacrificing a journalist made sense. But even Trump doesn’t go as far as MBS, who has mobilized his entire media to play the role Fox News plays for Trump and has effectively squelched all domestic criticism.
So there is the new world order: Fight fire with fire, fury with fury, lies with lies and threats with bigger threats.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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