Daniel W. Drezner

A just war on foreign policy neologisms

A just war on foreign policy neologisms

In the world of international relations and foreign policy, if you can coin a new phrase or neologism, you’ve hit the big time.  Think "containment," "clash of civilizations," "end of history," "Washington Consensus," and so forth.  How this happens is some weird alchemy of the term itself, the idea it encapsulates, and the receptivity of the foreign affairs community.  Once it happens, it can’t be undone — and this isn’t always a good thing:  Joseph Nye has spent decades trying to rebrand "soft power" as "smart power" to little avail (possibly because someone else popularized the latter term first).  I’m sure whichever Obama administration official said "leading from behind" wishes that Ryan Lizza had never used the quote.  Still, if you suggest a new term of art and it catches on, you’ve secured speaking engagements for the rest of your days. 

This assumes, however, that your neologism will catch on — and most of them don’t.  This is a good thing, I might add, because most of them are dreadful.  For example, Zalmay Khalilzad has a new essay in The Washington Quarterly entitled, "A Strategy of ‘Congagement’ toward Pakistan."  If you’re wondering what "congagement" means, it’s "applying a mixed arsenal of methods to contain Pakistan’s dangerous and destabilizing policies but also to engage Islamabad to sustain existing cooperation and incentivize it to move toward more."  Now, this just sounds awful, which is why it hasn’t caught on despite the attempts of Khalilzad and others to incept it into the foreign policy community’s collective subconscious. 

I don’t mean to pick on Khalilzad — he’s hardly the only offender.  James Rosenau tried to introduce "fragmegration" — blech.  The term "glocalization" has had a somewhat more successful run, but that’s only by comparison to "fragmegration."  For my money, "slacktivism" is the only example of this genre of fusing two words together that sounds even remotely good.  Just as bad were the raft of grand strategy terms that came out in the middle of last decade that attempted to fuse realism and liberalism together:  progressive realism, realistic Wilsonianism, ethical realism, liberal realism, etc.  None of them really took off.* 

In the interest of improving foreign policy writing and reducing the pain one encounters when reading these awful neologisms, there needs to be a flexible freeze on these efforts.  Even if most phrases of this kind are accurate in what they are describing, the neologisms are so painful to the eyes and grating to the ears that they leech away any force that exists in the underlying argument.  

Instead, I hereby offer a humble suggestion:  embrace the metaphor.  The problem with most efforts to brand a term is that they’re too literal:  a fusion of two nouns, or an adjective and a noun, to explain a concept.  Metaphors, because they make the intangible more tangible, stick in the brain better.  This is one reason why "leading from behind" worked, as has "the pivot."

The danger of course, is that metaphors don’t always perfectly capture the  foreign policy concepts one wants to describe (such as the pivot).  It’s a dangerous game — but so is world politics.  As someone who’s had to wade through this crap for well over a decade now, failed metaphors will at least entertain the reader better than God-awful neologisms.  So give the literary device a try, members of the foreign policy community — and please, for the love of God, stop trying to fuse words together!! 

Full disclosure:  I’ve haven’t really succeeded in this task either, although the only time I think I ever tried was "counterpunching."