What’s in a word?

Given his loquacious style, it’s probably not a good idea to parse Joe Biden’s words too closely.  Nonetheless, one comment he made during a speech in Tel Aviv yesterday caught my eye.  Among other things, Biden told his audience "The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons" (my emphasis). The interesting ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images)
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images)
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images)

Given his loquacious style, it's probably not a good idea to parse Joe Biden's words too closely.  Nonetheless, one comment he made during a speech in Tel Aviv yesterday caught my eye.  Among other things, Biden told his audience "The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons" (my emphasis).

The interesting word in that otherwise unsurprising sentence is the verb "prevent."   No, I don't think the vice president was signaling that the United States is going to take military action (i.e., to engage in a preventive military strike).  Rather, I thought the use of that word revealed the underlying mindset that still pervades a lot of national-security thinking.  If there's something undesirable happening out there, U.S. foreign policy mavens immediately assume that Washington must to take action to prevent, halt, reverse, negate or stop it.  Implicit in that choice of words is the assumption that it is our responsibility to do this and that our actions are the essential ingredient to success.  We are the "indispensable nation," to use Madeleine Albright's infamous phrase, and nothing good can happen if we don't will it.

This is a rhetoric that takes American exceptionalism for granted, and it conveys a sense of unilateralism that one normally associates with Bush and the neoconservatives. This formulation also marginalizes and discounts Iran's own motivations and decisions: it is up to us to prevent them from getting the bomb and they have no say in the matter.

Given his loquacious style, it’s probably not a good idea to parse Joe Biden’s words too closely.  Nonetheless, one comment he made during a speech in Tel Aviv yesterday caught my eye.  Among other things, Biden told his audience "The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons" (my emphasis).

The interesting word in that otherwise unsurprising sentence is the verb "prevent."   No, I don’t think the vice president was signaling that the United States is going to take military action (i.e., to engage in a preventive military strike).  Rather, I thought the use of that word revealed the underlying mindset that still pervades a lot of national-security thinking.  If there’s something undesirable happening out there, U.S. foreign policy mavens immediately assume that Washington must to take action to prevent, halt, reverse, negate or stop it.  Implicit in that choice of words is the assumption that it is our responsibility to do this and that our actions are the essential ingredient to success.  We are the "indispensable nation," to use Madeleine Albright’s infamous phrase, and nothing good can happen if we don’t will it.

This is a rhetoric that takes American exceptionalism for granted, and it conveys a sense of unilateralism that one normally associates with Bush and the neoconservatives. This formulation also marginalizes and discounts Iran’s own motivations and decisions: it is up to us to prevent them from getting the bomb and they have no say in the matter.

To see this more clearly, consider the other verbs that Biden might have used. He could have said "the United States is determined to persuade Iran not to acquire nuclear weapons." This formulation doesn’t deny the United States an active role or preclude the use of carrots and sticks to achieve the desired outcome. But instead of declaring that we are determined to decide this outcome more-or-less on our own, it leaves open the possibility of convincing Iran that it would be better off forgoing weaponization. (I can make a pretty good case for that option, although I obviously don’t know if Tehran would be convinced by it).  Plenty of other potential nuclear powers have ultimately decided not to join the nuclear club, and we ought to be exploring ways to encourage similar thinking in Tehran. 

And it’s not simply a matter of ramping up pressure, because tightening the screws just increases Tehran’s desire to have a more reliable deterrent.

This slightly different formulation acknowledges that whether Iran eventually gets nuclear weapons or not is at least partly up to them, and it treats diplomacy not as a step we have to take in order to persuade others to support sanctions (or to lay the groundwork for "kinetic action" later on), but as a genuine option that may not work but deserves to be pursued with real purpose. Bottom line: I wish the vice president had used a different verb.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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