Political Wordsmithing: The Art of Preserving Options

Photo via National Review podcasts, The Bookmonger, Episode 32: Barton Swaim.

One review of Barton Swaim’s book, The Speechwriter, called it a future “classic on political communication” due to its consideration of off-camera (informal) communication, as well as the high-sounding rhetoric we expect to hear.

In crafting and selling policy in an organization or multi-party setting, leaders must walk a line between offering insight and substance and pinning themselves down with specifics. Going too far in either direction creates problems. In the WaPo review, Carlos Lozada writes:

The nature of politics is to subtract meaning from language, Swaim understands, but he develops a relatively benign philosophy about political speech: “Using vague, slippery or just meaningless language is not the same as lying: it’s not intended to deceive so much as to preserve options, buy time, distance oneself from others, or just to sound like you’re saying something instead of nothing.” And politicians resort to such devices not out of deviousness but simply because every day they must weigh in “on things of which they have little or no reliable knowledge or about which they just don’t care.”

Take that, George Orwell.

via “What it’s like to write speeches for a rude, rambling and disgraced politician.” WaPo

How The Middle East Got That Way: Fromkin Used History to Explain Politics

If you haven’t read A Peace to End All Peace, add it to your summer reading list immediately. David Fromkin, a professor of International Relations at Boston University is a prolific author and scholar whose book provides a historical look at the creation of the modern Middle East–with an eye toward geography, conflict, and the decisions taken post-WWI the shaped the regions storied history.

In a Foreign Affairs review of the book, John C. Campbell writes that “Fromkin’s history is made by men rather than impersonal forces.”


Fromkin wrote about other seminal issues in 20th century international relations, such as the origins of the Great War, post-war relations and reconstruction, and the fate of key theoretical constructs such as idealism and realism, as embodied in institutions and programs:

In 1995, he wrote “In the Time of the Americans: F.D.R., Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur — the Generation That Changed America’s Role in the World,” in which he argued that after World War II Americans were given a rare second chance to correct the shortcomings of Woodrow Wilson’s one-world idealism.

As Richard Reeves wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “The United Nations is Wilsonian; NATO represents the kind of big-power peace enforcement envisioned by T.R.”Among Professor Fromkin’s other books were “Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?” (2004), which the journalist Avedis Hadjian, writing for CNN.com, called “a fast-paced, gripping guide through the complex set of reasons and emotions that led to the 20th century’s seminal conflict”; and “The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners” (2008).

Advising Someone You Hate


What do you do when you disagree with your boss? What about when your supervisor plays an important policy role? OK, keep going here…what if your boss is POTUS….President Trump? (And you despise him?)

This intellectual exercise-cum-mindgame played out here, outlining two paths that can be followed by smart people who disagree with their superiors–the inside or the outside path:

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote an interesting essay in Middle East Law and Governance about what Syria experts should do when it’s obvious that the current administration does not share their assumptions that indirectly touches on this quandry. In essence, he notes that there are inside and outside paths. The inside path is all about having a direct “policy impact” on the policymaker. But if the people in power do not share one’s basic assumptions, then the outside path — op-eds, essays, media appearances — might be the proper course of action:

Because there are so many different paths to influencing policy and so much uncertainty over the exact nature of that influence (to say nothing of lag time effects), policy researchers shouldn’t necessarily make policy impact into an all-consuming objective. In this respect, influencing policy is a bit like love: you hope it happens, but you also don’t want to try too hard. We should write with a mind to helping shape, broaden, and enrich a public conversation (in the implicit hope that, over time, innovative outside-the-box ideas – assuming they’re good – will be recognized by someone, somewhere in government and at the right time).


State Dept. Calls Group in Nigeria Terrorists – NYTimes.com

What can a label do?  In the case of an African group the answer is, “a lot.”  The back and forth internal government discussions result in Boko Haram being labeled a “terrorist group” with numerous implications.  From the dissenting view:

But other officials cautioned that Boko Haram did not pose an immediate threat to the United States, and that Americans and American interests could be targeted by the group as a result of the designation.The designation “would internationalize Boko Haram, legitimize abuses by Nigeria’s security services, limit the State Department’s latitude in shaping a long-term strategy and undermine the U.S. government’s ability to receive effective independent analysis from the region,” a group of 25 scholars wrote in a letter sent last year to Hillary Rodham Clinton, then secretary of state.

via State Dept. Calls Group in Nigeria Terrorists – NYTimes.com.

Political Science Fail

Quoting the research from a new ISQ article on what academic training best informs global policymaking, Henry Farrell quotes the work of Paul Avey and Michael Desch:

Aside from Economics, the scholarly disciplines that policymakers found of greatest use were Area Studies and History. … compared to the other disciplines, Political Science did rather poorly (see figure 10. This lower ranking may reflect the fact that in recent years the discipline has become dominated by more complex methodologies such as formal modeling and statistics. Policymakers tend to eschew, in the words of one respondent, “all formulaic academic, as opposed to historically based temperamental, realist projects,” preferring, in the words of another, “historical analysis, case studies, theoretical writings that illustrate theory with case studies and concrete examples.” … the higher the rank of the government official, the less likely he or she was to think that formal models were useful for policymaking.

Farrell observes: “There are a number of possible responses that international relations scholars could make to this e.g. to argue that political science is in the business of finding out about the world, not helping policy makers, or to argue that it’s not US policy makers who international relations scholars should be trying to help. Or scholars could argue as many have that we should reform political science to move away from quantitative techniques and formal modeling towards more policy relevant work.”

via The Monkey Cage.

Is ‘Triplomacy’ the New Diplomacy?

Do we need to think about a new mode of global dealmaking? Roger Cohen wrote in the NYT last January that global changes in the nature and structure of conflict–for example, non-state actors as terrorists, internal civil strive in Syria and Egypt–as well as a myopic American electorate where foreign policy issues are viewed as political footballs rather than ends in themselves–have created a new dynamic.

Is diplomacy outdated? The Fletcher School’s Deborah Winslow Nutter explains:

But a number of factors these days make it difficult to undertake old-fashioned diplomacy. My colleague, Daniel Drezner, says the opening up of internal politics throughout the world has made doing diplomacy today more complex. You can add to this the rise of non-state actors in international security issues, the effect current American domestic politics has on the ability of the United States to punch its weight internationally, and the multiplication and amplification of voices outside governments. All this means that it is becoming increasingly difficult to solve global issues state-to-state.

After all, it is not just diplomats that now engage in diplomacy; business and non-profit leaders are getting in on the act as well. And the diplomacy required of these sectors influences the diplomacy that can be done by governments. Even within governments, there are an increasing number of actors whose interests come to bear upon the choices diplomats face and the outcomes they can achieve. Traditional diplomats are joined by, among others, representatives of security, intelligence, development, human rights, environmental, and regulatory agencies.

So, is diplomacy dead? No, but perhaps it could do with a name change – think triplomacy. Governments today can no longer rely solely on “diplomats” in the traditional sense. They need to harness the participation of multiple government agencies, private industries, NGOs and international institutions – specialists from various fields of expertise who as a group view issues through a triplomatic lens and who can collaborate in cross-cutting alliances.

via Why ‘triplomacy’ is the new diplomacy – Global Public Square – CNN.com Blogs.

Booklist | ‘The Dispensable Nation,’ by Vali Nasr – NYTimes.com

In the NYT review of Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS, Michiko Kakutani gives a longer treatment of this foreign policy insider critique of the Obama foreign policy process.

In this book Mr. Nasr contends that “the White House campaign against the State Department, and especially Holbrooke, was at times a theater of the absurd. Holbrooke was not included in Obama’s video conferences” with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, “and was cut out of the presidential retinue when Obama went to Afghanistan.”“The White House,” Mr. Nasr says, “resented losing AfPak to the State Department,” and “that was one big reason” it was “on a warpath with Holbrooke — he was in their way and kept the State Department in the mix on an important foreign policy area.”

Mr. Holbrooke, he goes on, “would not cede ground to the White House, not when he thought those who wanted to wrest control of Afghanistan were out of their depth and not up to the job.”Mr. Nasr describes Mr. Holbrooke who oversaw the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia as “a brilliant strategic thinker in the same league as such giants of American diplomacy as Averell Harriman and Henry Kissinger.”

And he uses his own in-depth knowledge of the geopolitics of the Middle East to make an impassioned case for many of Mr. Holbrooke’s diplomatic initiatives and ideas, which often failed to find traction within the White House.

via ‘The Dispensable Nation,’ by Vali Nasr – NYTimes.com.