The Verbosity of Power
Needed: a cure for global glossolalia.
Today's globalized world lacks many things, but official pronouncements are not one of them. Indeed, governments have never been as talkative as they are now, and the chief talking heads are the heads of governments themselves. Not a month goes by without another chance for them to practice what they seem to like most. Presidents, prime ministers, and chancellors get together in pleasant places around the globe to produce documents as long-winded as any seminar of 1968 sociologists. Instead of making decisions, they prefer to present visions not just for the next decade but, of course, for the next century.
Today’s globalized world lacks many things, but official pronouncements are not one of them. Indeed, governments have never been as talkative as they are now, and the chief talking heads are the heads of governments themselves. Not a month goes by without another chance for them to practice what they seem to like most. Presidents, prime ministers, and chancellors get together in pleasant places around the globe to produce documents as long-winded as any seminar of 1968 sociologists. Instead of making decisions, they prefer to present visions not just for the next decade but, of course, for the next century.
Just savor what the most powerful representatives of the richest countries delivered on the occasion of the last Group of Eight Summit (G8) in beautiful Okinawa: "Increased encounters between different cultures foster creative cultural interaction. IT [information technology] opens up unprecedented opportunities for individuals to create and share cultural content and ideas inexpensively and worldwide. Experience shows that diversity can arouse interest, engender initiative and be a positive factor in communities seeking to improve their economies… We shall strive to promote the digitalisation of cultural heritage through, for example, fostering international links between national museum systems, with a view to enhancing public access."
Somehow, these mighty people always strive, encourage, recognize and respect, reaffirm, and note with encouragement. Rarely, if ever, do they actually decide to do anything. And if they do commit themselves to anything, they do not seem to have any sense of real obligation.
The "Millennium Summit," called by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York City in early September, is the latest case in point. Did the 150-plus world leaders do anything at this "mother of all summits," as one enthusiastic delegate called it? Yes, they produced yet another bumper crop of five-minute homilies: Freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature, and a shared sense of responsibility are now officially certified as being fundamental values of international relations.
They should have added verbosity. Every summit worth its salt now produces documents of such length that not even the advisors of the illustrious signatories can have read them all. Afraid to leave out anything and anybody, the drafters include everything and everybody. Their most frequent, and often most precise, commitment is to promise more words — in reports and recommendations to be prepared for the next meeting.
It is a puzzling sight: Like nervous freshmen facing their first exam, our most powerful leaders want to cover every subject, fearful of being found wanting by the examiners. And the men and women appointed by their countries to do something and not just sit there in fact just sit there and talk as if others, not they, were in charge.
Perhaps our leaders are trying to find their way in a strange new world, and their summits are thus intended for reflection, not action. They explore, as recently in Berlin or New York, recipes for "good governance"; they really are sincere when putting forward all those high-sounding terms. Uncertain of the role of the nation-state in a borderless world, unsure of the role of political as opposed to economic and financial power, and hence strangely defensive, they whistle loudly in the dark. Call it learning by talking.
Other explanations are less benign. Mighty powers hide behind lofty words because they do not want to exert their power. Perhaps the assembled leaders share deep doubts about whether anything serious can be done to resolve the problems they so eloquently depict, or perhaps they do not want to pay the price that action demands. Take their latest fashionable phrase: "conflict prevention." Never before have so many leaders spoken so often about it — the G8 even called for a " ‘Culture of Prevention’ … [to] be promoted throughout the global community" — while at the same time cutting the budgets for defusing and, if necessary, suppressing conflict in crisis-ridden regions of the world.
Or could it be that our leaders try to educate their publics and tie their own hands at the same time? After all, open covenants duly signed gradually shape government behavior, however mundane these texts may seem when first formulated. The documents that today’s summiteers so relentlessly produce often do say worthy things. Could it be that through repetition and sheer verbal attrition leaders will ultimately produce the right decisions as well?
Yet if that is our leaders’ objective, they had better think again. To generate international consensus requires not more worthy documents, but leadership in organizations capable of acting to avert and manage crises. To mobilize support for the burdens that rich nations must bear requires clarity about what those burdens are. The camouflage of communiqués signals the opposite: that those who sign them in pompous protocol prefer to sedate their publics, not motivate them.
But perhaps, and this is the most disturbing explanation for all those balloons of hot air our leaders launch, we the public want nothing that really disturbs us, and our chief representatives are only too aware of this fact and merely seek to please us.
In our media democracies, words become a convenient ersatz for deeds. In our virtual world, statements and images replace reality. So our mighty proliferators of words give us what we want while sparing us the sacrifices we do not want. That could explain why journalists still flock in the thousands to cover the summit talk shows, why television gives us the breathlessly live coverage of doors closing and opening for all those top meetings without meat — a great conspiracy uniting viewers and viewed, ruled and rulers. Could it be that our leaders are merely the true representatives of their publics, preferring the pretense of action because we, their publics, are afraid of the real thing?
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