Diplomacy & language

Print edition : November 22, 2019

October 2, 1959: Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, and Nikita S. Khrushchev, first Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, holding talks in Peking (Beijing). Also present are Liu Shao-Chi (left), Vice Chairman of the Central Committee of the CPC and M.A. Suslov (right), member of the presidium of the Central Committee of the CPSU. Photo: XINHUA

Sir Nevile Henderson about to leave Heston for Berlin, bearing with him the British Cabinet’s reply to Hitler’s proposals. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Germany signing non-aggression pacts with Estonia and Latvia. German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop is in the centre. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Lapses from civility are rare in diplomacy, but the diplomat’s reputation for care in the use of language has at times landed him in trouble.

DIPLOMACY is conducted through words. Policy is shaped by thoughts. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man of culture and strong character, reacted with devastating silence to American President Donald J. Trump’s bad language, which reflects the level to which he has brought the United States’ policy and diplomacy.

The British diplomat Harold Nicolson’s enduring classic on Diplomacy has an entire chapter (X) on diplomatic language. He referred to a paper currency of conventional phrases in place of the hard coins of ordinary human converse. “These phrases, affable though they may appear, possess a known currency value. Thus, if a statesman or a diplomatist informs another government that his own government ‘cannot remain indifferent to’ some international controversy, he is clearly understood to imply that the controversy is one in which his government will certainly intervene. If in his communication or speech he uses some such phrases as ‘His Majesty’s government view with concern’ or ‘view with grave concern’, then it is evident to all that the matter is one in which the British government intend to adopt a strong line. By cautious gradations such as these, a statesman is enabled, without using threatening language, to convey a serious warning to a foreign government. If these warnings pass unheeded, he can raise his voice while still remaining courteous and conciliatory. If he says, ‘In such an event His Majesty’s government would feel bound carefully to reconsider their position,’ he is implying that friendship is about to turn into hostility. If he says, ‘His Majesty’s government feel obliged to formulate express reservations regarding…’, he is, in fact, saying ‘His Majesty’s government will not allow….’ The expression ‘in that event, my government will be obliged to consider their own interests’, or ‘to claim a free hand’, indicates that a rupture of relations is being considered. If he warns a foreign government that certain action on their part will be regarded ‘as an unfriendly act’, that government interpret his words as implying a threat of war. If he says that ‘he must decline to be responsible for the consequences’, it means that he is about to provoke an incident which will lead to war. And if he demands, even in terms of exquisite politeness, a reply before ‘six o’clock on the evening of the 25th’, then his communication is rightly regarded as an ultimatum.

“The advantage of this conventional form of communication is that it maintains an atmosphere of calm, while enabling statesmen to convey serious warnings to each other which will not be misunderstood. The disadvantage is that the public and sometimes even the statesmen themselves are not acquainted with the actual value, in diplomatic currency, of the expressions used. On the one hand, an ignorant or incautious use of one of these phrases may give to a given situation a gravity which it does not possess. On the other hand, when a really serious crisis arises, the public is apt to assume from the mildness of the language used that the crisis cannot be as grave as ‘the alarmists’ had given them to suppose.

“In extreme cases, moreover, the habit of diplomatic ambiguity, or of diplomatic understatement, leads to actual misunderstanding. I remember before the war reading a despatch from some Consul General in which he informed the Foreign Office that one of the Vice-Consuls under his charge ‘does not, I much regret to report, take the care of his health which his medical advisers would recommend’. The poor man was, in fact, in the last stages of delirium tremens.”

Lapses from civility are rare in diplomacy. But they were not unheard of even in ancient times. Sparta’s leaders gave rude short shrift to the verbosity of the leader of a mission from the island of Samoa. “We have forgotten the beginning of your harangue; we paid no heed to the middle of it, and nothing has given us pleasure in it except the end.”

The diplomat’s reputation for care in the use of language has at times landed him in trouble. “He also produced with pride drawings of the tapestries, mostly representing naked ladies labelled with the names of various virtues, such as Goodness, Mercy, Purity, etc. I told him that they looked at least pacific, but that I failed to see Patience among them.” Sir Nevile Henderson, the British Ambassador in Berlin, reported to the Foreign Secretary on his interview with Hermann Goering before the Second World War at the latter’s country house. The dispatch was published in the Blue Book on the outbreak of the war.

Yet, the British public found time to ask what business His Majesty’s Ambassador had to see drawings of “naked ladies”. Sir Nevile blushingly explained that the expression meant no more than mere drawings of nudes and not known women. Blushingly, because Sir Nevile was quite a prude himself.

Dr Paul Schmidt, Hitler’s renowned interpreter, records in his memoirs Henderson’s final interview with Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop on the eve of the War. “‘I can tell you, Herr Henderson,’ Ribbentrop remarked, ‘that the position is damned serious.’ Henderson lost his temper and, lifting a forefinger in admonition, he shouted: ‘You have just said “dammed”. That’s no word for a statesman to use in so grave a situation.’

“Ribbentrop’s breath was taken away. One of the ‘cowardly’ diplomats, an Ambassador, and an arrogant Englishman at that, had dared to reprimand him as he might a schoolboy. Ribbentrop jumped up from his chair. ‘What did you say?’ he roared.

“Henderson too had risen to his feet. Both men glared at each other. According to diplomatic convention I, too, should have risen; but to be frank I did not quite know how an interpreter should behave when speakers passed from words to deeds—and I really feared they might do so now. I, therefore, remained quietly seated and pretended to be writing in my notebook.” Fortunately, things went no further, and the two sat down and resumed their interrupted dialogue on more consequential matters.

A new dimension to diplomatic intercourse was added by the Soviet Union’s entry into the world arena. Its leaders believed in appealing to the people of an adversary state over the heads of their own leaders and, to this end, employed propagandistic language in diplomatic exchanges. Leon Trotsky’s dialogue with the German negotiators during the peace treaty talks is an instance. In turn, they brought their own Marxist jargon—“concrete proposals”, “positive response” and the like. Andrey Vyshinsky’s fulmination in the United Nations General Assembly introduced a new style. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s needs no description.

Chinese style

The Chinese style is unique. The Chinese Ambassador declaimed to our Foreign Secretary on May 16, 1959, as follows: “You can wait and see, as the Chinese proverb goes, ‘the strength of a horse is borne out by the distance travelled, and the heart of a person is seen with the lapse of time.’ You will ultimately see whether relations within the Tibet region of China and India are friendly or hostile by watching three, five, twenty, a hundred… years. We cannot have two centres of attention nor can we take friend for foe. That is our state policy….

“Our Indian friends! What is your mind? Will you be agreeing to our thinking regarding the view that China can only concentrate its main attention eastward of China, but not south-westward of China, nor is it necessary for it to do so.”

The Ministry of External Affairs returned it with a pompous protest that it was “wholly out of keeping with diplomatic usages and the courtesies due to friendly countries”.

It was sheer folly. For China’s Ambassador spoke with the authority of Mao Zedong and gave India timely warning—two years earlier, in fact—of China’s entente with Pakistan.

Pomposity never pays. Sir Miles Lampson was one of the last great British pre-Consular figures in Egypt. He was notoriously rude and arrogant. After he was made a peer as Lord Killearn, a British Minister visited Egypt and called on him at the British Embassy. He opened the conversation with these words: “I am so glad to find you here, Lord Killearn because I was told that your predecessor Lampson was an awful shit!”

When in the 1960s a Cold War broke out between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, the language used—mostly by the Chinese—was awful. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko remarked that even in the worst of times, the Americans never used the language which Moscow’s former allies did.

On October 2, 1959, Khrushchev held talks with Mao Zedong in Beijing. Each side had assembled a high-power delegation. By then the Sino-India Cold War had erupted. The Soviet Union issued a statement through its news agency TASS, which tilted a bit in favour of India.

As the talks proceeded, China’s Foreign Minister and Marshal of the People’s Liberation Army, Chen Yi, warmed up and accused the Soviet Union of opportunism, precisely, time-servers.

This extract from the record prepared by the Soviet Foreign office reveals a lot in the diplomacy language of that dialogue.

“Chen Yi: I am outraged by your declaration that ‘the aggravation of relationship with India was our fault’.

N.S. Khrushchev: I am also outraged by your declaration that we are time-servers. We should support Nehru, to help him stay in power.

Mao Zedong: The events in the Tibet and the border conflict—these are temporary developments. Better that we end here the discussion of these issues. Could we assess the relationship between us as follows, that on the whole we are united, and some differences do not stand in the way of our friendship?

N.S. Khrushchev: We took and continue to take this view. You must now listen to us. Take back your political accusations; otherwise, we spoil relations between our parties. We are your friends and speak the truth. We never acted as time-servers with regard to anybody, even our friends.

Chen Yi: But you also lay two political accusations at our door, by saying that both the aggravations of relations with India and the escape of Dalai Lama were our fault. I believe that you are still acting as time-servers.

N.S. Khrushchev: These are completely different matters. I drew your attention only to specific oversights and never hurled at your principled political accusations, and you put forth precisely a political accusation. If you consider us time-servers, comrade Chen Yi, then do not offer me your hand. I will not accept it.

Chen Yi: Neither will I. I must tell you I am not afraid of your fury.

N.S. Khrushchev: You should not spit from the height of your Marshal title. You do not have enough spit. We cannot be intimidated. What a pretty situation we have; on one side, you use the formula ‘headed by the Soviet Union’, on the other hand, you do not let me say a word. What kind of equality we can talk about? That is why we raised the question at the 21st Congress of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] about the repeal of the formula ‘the socialist camp headed by the Soviet Union’. We do not want any Party to stand at the head. All communist parties are equal and independent. Otherwise, one is in a false situation.

Mao Zedong (in a conciliatory manner): Chen Yi speaks about particulars, and you should not generalise.

Wang Jiaxiang: The whole matter is about wrong translation. Chen Yi did not speak of time-serving as some kind of doctrine.”

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