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The End of References and the Last Cliché

The End of References and the Last Cliché

ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

About halfway through a mostly fascinating piece on McCain’s foreign policy in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, author Matt Bai goes into a fairly unnecessary analysis of Francis Fukuyama’s seminal article, The End of History and the Last Man. The reference caught my eye because just two days ago, I attended a mostly fascinating discussion here at Carnegie between senior associate Robert Kagan and Times columnist David Brooks on Kagan’s new book The Return of History and the End of Dreams, whose very title is a reference to Fukuyama’s often-mocked, 19-year-old National Interest piece. Both Kagan and Bai are talented, original writers, which made me wonder: Why does it seem as thought every big-think piece on the last two decades of foreign policy must include at least one instance where the author trots out Fukuyama just to kick him in the teeth? Is there really no other way to describe early-90s, capitalist triumphalism than using this one phrase?

But “The End of History” is hardly alone. There are a number of convenient phrases and quotes that seem to pop up again and again as convenient shorthand for writers discussing big, complex foreign policy ideas. It’s for this very reason that FP has a blanket ban on article submissions begining “Since the end of the cold war…” or “In the wake of Sept. 11…” 

Here, in no particular order, are five of the most clichéd foreign policy quotations and references that journalists and academics love to abuse:

Winston Churchill: “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Also, any use of matrioshka dolls as a metaphor.

The Marshall Plan: As in, “A new Marshall plan for…”

My boss, Moisés Naím, has already skewered this one nicely.

Carl von Clausewitz:
“War is a continuation of politics by other means.”

Using this line is a continuation of your word count by any means.

“Flat world”

At this point, Tom Friedman surely deserves some sort of lifetime achievement award for inventing overquoted catchphrases.

Napoleon Bonaparte: Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.”

Journalist James Kynge got a whole book out of this tired line. (And yes, it was mostly fascinating.)

Can you think of some others? Have at it in the comments.