13 International Relations Buzzwords That Need to Get Taken to the Woodshed

From “smart power” to “surgical strike,” the world would be a better place if these phrases were never said again.

The United Nations headquarters in New York is shown in this photo taken 12 August 2003.       AFP PHOTO DON EMMERT  (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
The United Nations headquarters in New York is shown in this photo taken 12 August 2003. AFP PHOTO DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

The renowned Prussian military historian and analyst Carl von Clausewitz is widely held to be the author of the phrase “the fog of war,” although what he actually wrote was: “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.”

There was nothing foggy about Clausewitz’s prose, however, which remains a model of clarity. It is thus ironic that so many who speak and write about similar matters operate in a fog largely of their own making. There is little correlation between length and clarity; fog can permeate a tweet just as easily as a thesis. Many of the words and terms common to conversations and debates over foreign policy and international relations actually mean little; all too many obscure more than they illuminate. So in the cause of sharper thinking and better policy, here is my baker’s dozen of language we would do better without.

Global citizen: People frequently describe themselves as global citizens or call on others to be just that. Citizenship, however, is a national concept, one tied to sovereignty. There is no such thing as a global citizen, despite what the Davos set might profess or worse yet aspire to. More useful would be calls for people to be better informed about global affairs, something that has the potential to make them better citizens of their own country, which in turn could lead to better policy and might even make the world a better place.

International community: The phrase tends to be invoked every time there is a crisis in the world, e.g., the international community must respond to the killing in Syria or North Korea’s latest nuclear provocation or climate change. The problem is that no international community exists. It would require that there be widespread agreement on what needs to be done and a readiness to do it. Banning the term would mean that people and governments assume a greater responsibility for what takes place in the world.

Smart power: First, there was just power, then hard power, then (thanks to Joe Nye) soft power. Finally, there was smart power, which is supposedly an amalgam of all of the above. But the problem is that smart power is not that smart. It does not tell you how to mix various forms of power (be it military, diplomatic, economic, or whatever) in order to achieve a desired outcome. It is akin to a recipe that lists the ingredients without telling you how many cups or teaspoons. Try baking a cake that way.

Right to self-determination: The idea was originally associated with the decolonization era, when people living under foreign rule and occupation were thought to have the right to their own country. But now that colonies are a thing of the past, it is far from clear who if anyone has a right to declare his or her own country, in no small part because it would have to come out of somebody else’s. This includes, for example, the Basques, Quebecois, Palestinians, and Kurds. What is more, carving out a new country would affect not only those living there and the existing country but also its neighbors. To decide such things unilaterally is asking for trouble. This right is wrong.

Freedom fighter: A freedom fighter is not some romantic figure but rather an individual who uses violence to advance his or her political cause. A freedom fighter is thus much the same thing as a terrorist, most of whom want to kill and destroy in order to create a political alternative that has little to do with freedom of any sort. So let’s agree to just call terrorists what they are.

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Superpower: The term was in vogue during the Cold War and applied to both the United States and the Soviet Union. But it was something of an exaggeration. Even though both had large nuclear arsenals that could destroy the world many times over, neither was actually super. The United States lost a war in Vietnam; the Soviets failed in Afghanistan. The fact that there is no longer a Soviet Union suggests that it was not all that super to begin with. And even now there are limits to what the United States can accomplish. Power is not the same thing as influence. Superpower is best retired.

Surgical strike: Many armchair generals call for “surgical strikes,” by which they mean precision attacks on some target in a way that destroys it at little cost and causes limited damage. Such an option is rarely available, and to argue that it is makes attacks appear to have greater benefits and fewer costs than tends to be the case. The phrase also neglects the reality that no matter how carefully conducted, an attack of any sort could lead to retaliation, which could lead to something messy and expensive by every measure — be it human, political, and financial. What begins as surgery can all too easily end as quagmire.

Engagement: This word is among the vaguest nouns in diplospeak. It seems to mean to talk to or deal with or just about anything — except attack or ignore. Everybody calls for it, and virtually no one spells out just what it means. Much better to describe what is being recommended and leave engagement to refer to the phase before marriage.

Boots on the ground: This is a widely used phrase to refer to sending soldiers somewhere. What is rarely clear is the mission. Boots touch the ground whenever a soldier is sent anywhere for any purpose. But the phrase “boots on the ground” usually only refers to soldiers in traditional wars or other combat situations, not when American soldiers act as advisors or trainers — as thousands are now doing in Iraq and hundreds in Syria. Not only does the phrase fail to distinguish among these scenarios, but even if a deployment begins in one role, it can quickly morph into another. Better to leave these boots at home.

Middle East peace process: This almost always refers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and as such has been around for a long time now. The phrase is misleading, as it suggests that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would bring peace to the Middle East when, in fact, it would not affect the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere. More to the point, there is no overall peace process in the region and arguably cannot be, given the many conflicts and the multiple reasons for them.

Fair trade: This is the oft-cited alternative by critics of free trade who tend to oppose any trade agreement that can be negotiated and that is not one-sided in their country’s favor or seems to favor the other side. It is hard to be against fair trade, in that fair is good, except for the awkward reality that fair trade is often a euphemism for protectionism, which is the enemy of trade. Making matters more complicated is that free trade at its best is fair trade — in that both sides compromise on certain specifics but benefit overall.

Strategic dialogue: The bureaucracy uses this phrase to describe what were intended to be sensitive, high-level dialogues between two governments on matters of national security. The problem is that by the time such dialogues are established, there are so many people in the room that sensitive issues cannot be raised or, if they are, only in a shallow way. A real strategic dialogue tends to be an old-fashioned conversation between the most senior officials with few if any lower-ranking aides present. And don’t even get me started on strategic and economic dialogues…

Liberal democratic order: This is a common description used by academics and wonks to describe the post-World War II world. What comes to mind is the Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages, which, as Voltaire put it, was “in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” Alas, the liberal democratic order is no longer liberal, democratic, or orderly, if only because the world is not.

There you have it. I doubt relegating these words and phrases to the dustbin of history would result in world peace (another phrase that should be abolished), but it would be a useful start.

Photo credit: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

Richard Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The World: A Brief Introduction. Twitter: @RichardHaass