14 07 2010

Diplo-speak – the public language of diplomacy –  is a particular sub-set of language (I hesitate to use the term dialect) that operates on at least two fronts: for those in-the-know; and for the rest of us.  In many ways, it resembles a code, able to be deciphered by some; closed to others. As I’m not in-the-know, I can speculate only on what the terms of diplo-speak might mean.

For example, when relations are said to be “cool”, that’s very different to their being “warm”. Similarly, relations might be said to be “thawing”, and this suggests that earlier, they’d been very much colder. “Chilly” fits in there somewhere, as does “cordial”. I’m not quite at the point of drawing up a gradient with the various terms notched onto it. I’m a little confused about the extreme ends of the gradient for they seem to suggest similarly bad relations – very “chilly”, and very “heated” both seem to be one or two steps from calling off diplomatic relations.

The Middle East is a great site (not exclusively so, of course) for the exploration of these and related terms. Remember when they used to refer to being “on track to peace talks”? And later, those same peace talks were placed “on the horizon”, which is a good deal further away than on the “track”.

It probably bespeaks the current temperature that now the language has moved from cold/chilly/warm to more geological terms like “rift”, “shift” and “fissure”. Recent talks between Obama and Netanyahu appear to be warm-ish, but the very effort displayed by both parties to give this impression somewhat undercuts the impact. Apparently, the meeting between the two heads of state was “almost tainted” in the lead-up by a leak that claimed a “tectonic rift”  separated the two countries. “Rift” was later adjusted to “shift”. Subsequently, US officials added:  “there is no fissure”.

So, we’re out of temperature metaphors for the moment and into geological ones. It would seem, from the gradient implied above, that a “rift” is more serious than a “shift” which is more serious than a “fissure”.

Does any of it matter? Only in so far as we all deploy and react to language to mediate our understandings of events.

Even apparently minor features – such as the seeming disfluency  of a momentary self-correction – may have more significance than we know. Obama is on record as having said:

“We strongly believe that given its size, its history, the region that it’s in and the threats that are leveled against us — against it — that Israel has unique security requirements. .. It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region. And that’s why we remain unwavering in our commitment to Israel’s security.”

The disfluency occurs in the first sentence:  “.. threats that are levelled against us – against it -…”. This “us” revised into “it” seems like a slip that might suggest that Obama aligns his country’s interests with Israel’s. As such, it’s reminiscent of the famous Kennedy Ich Bin ein Berliner speech. Such a reading would have the amendment – “against it” – serving as a phrase in apposition, adjectival in function, adding non-essential information.

On the other hand, is it in fact what it appears to be – a self-correction? Meaning – don’t think we’re aligned, because we’re not.

Can we know? Do those in-the-know know?

If there’s one abiding feature of diplo-speak, it is its slipperiness,  the wiggle-room factor. Essential for later deniability.