Diplomatic Language

Rhetorical technique is on my mind in this 2016 election season. The “I want to tell it like it is” blunt style of Donald J. Trump impresses many, largely uneducated white males, with its “authenticity.” The perfectly cautious speech of the lawyerly technocrat Hillary Clinton suggests deception to that same audience. For others, the intemperate language of the "short fingered vulgarian" drives them to the polls to pull the lever for the "cerebral, calculated, stripped of all spontaneity and risk," Hillary Clinton because she seems safer, and afterall, “the children are watching."

Addressing the shift in tone and the absence of a common public language, Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times Company argues in his new book:

What we have lost and must strive to regain is a conception of rhetoric that strikes a balance between the demands of reason, character and empathy, and that strives for genuine truthfulness rather than theatrical “authenticity.”

Diplomats have always worked towards balance in their rhetoric. They must manage cross-cultural relationships of enmity as well as friendship and doing so requires professional skill. Diplomats choose words to be precise enough to communicate clearly to diplomatic counterparts yet elastic enough to plausibly suggest the alternative meanings the diplomat’s political masters at home need to manage their increasingly entangled domestic and international politics. 

Diplomatic Language screenshot


Diplomats have to develop a stage voice to complement the clubhouse voice that soothes relationships within the diplomatic community. As I wrote last year before the advent of this election season, "They also need to share the stage, and the clubhouse, with political actors visiting from the domestic realms who have brought culturally contingent styles usually too hot for the cooling saucer of diplomacy.” Little did I imagine how hot that language would become!


sage handbook

Still, rereading my chapter on Diplomatic Language in The  Sage Handbook of Diplomacy, published June 2016, I recognize my work’s felicitous relevance to today’s intense focus on public rhetoric. In researching for the chapter, I became more deeply aware of the history of Diplomatic Language as an instrument of diplomatic society designed to minimize misunderstandings and miscalculations that give rise to conflict. I also became aware that cautious speech can look like deception to those unsympathetic observers unpacking meaning with a jaundiced eye. Investigating the diplomatic habit of using ambiguity to create the space for international agreement and room to maneuver politically at home and abroad, critical scholars, see in Diplomatic Language proof of ‘duplicity and theatrical play.’

Take some time off from the heat of campaign rhetoric this month and contemplate Diplomatic Language. Here is my Chapter 20 abstract:

The chapter Diplomatic Language examines the signals, codes and conventions constructed over time by diplomats to smooth and soothe the process of communication between states and the organizations created by states in the international political realm. It argues that Diplomatic Language is instrumental: it serves the purpose of allowing diplomats to form and maintain relationships with those who manage international relations. The chapter examines the theory and the practice of diplomatic speech acts through various theoretical perspectives. It explores the balance diplomats attempt to achieve between ambiguity and precision in the production of diplomatic texts. And, it considers how the expanded, and increasingly diverse, cast of actors on the diplomatic stage, with their contesting scripts and varied audiences, are changing the discourse patterns.



Given the handbook's institutional pricing, please let me know if you do not have access to my work. I’d love to have your reaction in 140 characters or less @WinnowingFan.


Except where otherwise noted, all original work produced by Donna Oglesby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License