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A Post-mortem on the Language and Reality of Diplomacy

Things that start can also be stopped. This includes fire, and notably the fire produced or provoked by firearms and bombs. Our language has a term for that: a ceasefire. In Gaza, we are now witnessing a three-way debate between those who seek a ceasefire, those who refuse it and those who think it would be a wonderful thing, but are willing to let the fire burn itself out.

Military vector illustration, Army background. © iamseki /

February 14, 2024 05:17 EDT

To be or not to be, that is indeed the question, at least as far as a ceasefire in Gaza is concerned. The combatants observed a momentary ceasefire a few months ago, but all the parties concerned agreed it was designed only to last for a few days.

Once that brief period was over, the violence and destruction became so extreme and persistent that a literally burning question emerged in the form of speculation about whether there might be another one, hopefully of longer duration and — why not? — the prospect of a resolution of the conflict.

Hamas put together a plan that for a few days last week appeared to have some chance of success. US diplomats, led by both Antony Blinken and CIA Director William Burns, appeared to be assiduously mobilizing interested parties in the region to provoke a negotiated version of the proposal. The problem was that the warring sides — Israel and Hamas — had fundamental objections to what the other side was proposing. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu simply termed the proposal “delusional.”

Just as in the case of the Ukraine war, where the two warring parties — Russia and Ukraine — were joined in the fray by a third, non-combatant but thoroughly engaged party located thousands of kilometers away in Washington, the role of the third party was likely to be pivotal. Thanks to the testimony of multiple players in the negotiation round that took place in March 2022 between Ukraine and Russia, we now know that the third party, represented by its messenger British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, stepped in to make the decision to scotch an agreement that had been thrashed out and even initialed by the Russian and Ukrainian negotiators.

The Gaza situation contrasts with Ukraine in one significant way. The third party, again the US, appears to be promoting negotiations instead of seeking to prevent them from taking place. But rather than interfere in the decision-making and dictate the outcome, as Johnson did in Ukraine, the US has preferred the less engaged role of offering friendly advice rather than laying down the law. This attitude appeared in a The New York Times article reporting US Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s reading of the situation. “It will be up to Israelis to decide what they want to do, when they want to do it, how they want to do it.” 

The article added this significant comment. “Shortly after that, Mr. Blinken delivered his own, much more measured, assessment of the Hamas offer at a news conference in Jerusalem, saying that while it had ‘clear nonstarters,’ it also left space for an agreement to be reached.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Clear non-starter:

The statement of a position whose rhetoric not only dispenses from the obligation of explore solutions through negotiation to avoid the effects of war but also limpidly explains the aptitude of the US government to justify the pursuance of genocide. 

Contextual note

A year ago our Devil’s Dictionary defined the term “non-starter” as used by Tony Blinken in the runup to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Secretary of State felt it necessary to explain why he felt it was useless to negotiate with Russia if the only trivial goal of such negotiations might be avoiding a war. The war, as we all know, not only was not avoided but has been prolonged, leading to an estimated death toll of 500,000 Ukrainians, whose interests the US claimed to be representing when it opposed negotiations.

Here is our definition of “non-starter” a year ago:

“A convenient term of dismissal of an adversary’s negotiating position as a reason to avoid engaging in negotiating. A particularly useful technique for anyone who seeks to aggravate a problem rather than solve it.”

The language adopted by the US State Department should not only surprise, but startle, anyone familiar with the traditions, rules and laws of diplomacy and more broadly in conflict resolution. In instances of hostage-taking, for example, negotiation is the required procedure. It has the status of what German philosopher Immanuel Kant would call a categorical imperative: “an objective, rationally necessary and unconditional principle that we must follow despite any natural desires we may have to the contrary.” Every police department on the face of the earth knows that, at least in so-called enlightened democracies.

Israel clearly does not follow the rules of enlightened democratic police departments. It has notoriously formulated a military tactic called “the Hannibal Directive.” In the words of former senior US defense official and ambassador Chas Freeman this doctrine “basically says that rather than get into bargaining over a hostage exchange, you should just kill the Israeli hostages along with their captors.”

Tony Blinken’s repeated insistence on refusing to negotiate to avoid or resolve a conflict because of the subjective perception that an announced position is a “non-starter” can legitimately be compared to the Hannibal Directive. It says, “If we don’t like what you’re suggesting, we prefer seeing the situation worsen, but in all cases, we refuse to consider your point of view, even in the hope of modifying it.” 

Historical note

Future historians will most likely note that Washington’s qualification of Russia’s proposals for negotiations in December 2021 as a “non-starter” made Russia’s invasion two months later more likely, if not inevitable. That doesn’t remove responsibility from Russia for the invasion, but it clearly implicates the US, who cannot pretend to be an innocent observer. The “non-starting” position of the US is a key element in the reasoning that led international relations expert John Mearsheimer to assert that the US was directly responsible for the war.

Historians will also note that the same logic that consisted of refusing negotiations in December 2021, prior to the invasion, applied three months later. There was a slight difference, however. In March 2022, negotiations had not only “started” without the US intervening to abort them; the two warring parties had reached what appeared to be an acceptable conclusion for both. At that point, the new diplomatic logic that gave us the term “non-starter” seemed to generate a new idea: non-finisher. Boris Johnson’s instructions to pursue the war and his promise of Western backing ended any hope of a lasting or even temporary peace.

The real tragedy here goes beyond the unspeakable human, political and geopolitical catastrophe visited upon Ukraine over the past two years and more recently on Gaza, with no end in sight for either conflict. A nation and a people’s homeland are being reduced to a rump state in Ukraine and, according to some, a parking lot in Gaza.

The more general problem, the one that has made these recent wars possible, is the failure of diplomatic ideas and language. The retired French diplomat, Gérard Araud, published an entire book on the history of that decline and transformation in 2022, Histoires Diplomatiques. His respect for language appears in the book’s title itself, where he plays on words, since histoire in French means both “history” and “story.” Araud tells multiple stories that define the history of diplomacy and trace its current decline.

In his concluding chapters, Araud explains that “in every conflict both parties are intimately convinced they are ‘right’ or acting within their rights. History,” he writes, “is a cemetery of lost causes that nevertheless represented the ‘right thing to do’ (“le bon droit”) or, to use a related bromide in contemporary English, ‘being on the right side of history.’”

When the language of diplomacy becomes indistinguishable from the language of propaganda, we enter into a world of forever wars. History generates its own organic laws that rarely conform to the kinds of abstract principles that enable a faux diplomat to invoke “non-starters.”

I’ll finish with another quote from Araud’s book. “History is a far more powerful force than all the virtuous sentiments or mercantile interests in the determination of a foreign policy.”

Refusing to listen to history is the ultimate “non-starter.”

*[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. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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