Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Be Careful in How You Use Language

Bryan Whitman, the Pentagon spokesman, described Kyrgyzstan as a "good ally" in expressing regret at the announcement that Bishkek intends to close the U.S. airbase at Manas.

We need to be careful. Last time I checked, we had no binding treaty with Kyrgyzstan, a defense pact, mutual assistance accord, etc. We had and still have until it is terminated an agreement for the lease of a base and for associated rights to move personnel and equipment.

"Ally" is a strong word. Many in Georgia heard Americans throw that word around and assumed that when push came to shove with Russia, they would have the support of their American "ally." It didn't happen.

We have the equivalent these days of grade inflation in diplomacy. Everyone is now a "strategic partner" of the United States so to distinguish "partners" we start throwing the term "ally" around to signify a greater level of cooperation.

We have to go back to being crystal clear. An "ally" for America is a country that has a treaty relationship with us--either via an organization (NATO) or via a bilateral pact (Japan). Perhaps other states can be termed "associates" of America--and perhaps this is the better term for Kyrgyzstan vis-a-vis our efforts in Afghanistan. But don't throw the word "ally" around lightly--and certainly not in Eurasia.

You make a good point. Language and audience are only going to become more complicated as the line between foreign and domestic audiences becomes more blurred.
I don’t appreciate this point of view. There is America, and there are “associates of America.” It’s like looking at others from above. To be my friend you have to have a membership card (NATO membership) or another written authorization.

The world is changing. This change could be extremely hard for us if we continue with our superciliousness.
I thin that Nik's point, anonymous 6:05, is not that the U.S. should be lording it above others but that the U.S. shouldn't throw around language implying committments it doesn't plan to keep.
Well, a major power's military base has always been viewed as a proof of at least a soft commitment to a host nation's security. You cannot place a base to a country next to a dangerous place like Afghanistan without promising to protect it if anything happens.

Regarding the possibility to mislead, I think the choice of partners is probably more important than the choice of language. Saakashvili's government wanted to be misled so much that Americans would probably need to avoid showing up in any vicinity of the country and prohibit using its name in order to prevent being wrongly interpreted.
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