Daniel Larison and Ben Denison have pieces up decrying the focus on American “leadership” in foreign affairs commentary. It’s a tendentious and vacuous term that’s annoyed me for years, which got me to thinking: there are lots of tendentious and vacuous foreign-policy terms that have annoyed me for years. In the spirit of Ambrose Bierce, I offer a few selections from the Foreign Policy Pundit’s Dictionary below.
Friends and allies. Countries whose interests we should take as our own.
What’s really notable here is the inclusion of “friends.” Allies are one thing, but do nation-states really have friends? Do they play badminton, or talk about their spouses with one another? On any given day, roughly half the nations on earth could count themselves in this category, which has a crippling effect on both American policy and the discussion of American policy. Further complicating things is that once a country becomes a friend/ally, its status is assured, barring an Iran-1979 style reversal of course.
Interests. Things states ought to want.
In the case of the United States, these are whatever the author says they may be. In the case of foreign countries, again they are whatever the author says they may be. At an off the record colloquium on Afghanistan some years ago, an academic challenged a Washington policy hand’s view of what Pakistan should do to help the U.S. occupation of that country, suggesting that Pakistanis would not believe that doing what the speaker had suggested would benefit Pakistan in the broader scheme of things. Without batting an eye, the Washington policy adviser declared, “Well then, Pakistan doesn’t know what its interests are.” One hears this sort of thing so often it ceases to be shocking.
Isolationist. Person who supports fewer wars than me and might possibly be a Nazi sympathizer, we aren’t sure.
I used to shout myself hoarse about the facts that 1) isolationism/-ist was designed as a smear term, 2) there were no isolationists anywhere near the levers of power in Washington, and 3) that the constant invocations of the America First Committee/Charles Lindbergh/etc proved that people were using the term as a pejorative, not a description.
Nationalism. Dangerous and illiberal love of country that only exists outside the United States.
Patriotism. Honorable and decent love of country that exists only in the United States.
Service to our country. A lifetime of enriching oneself at the public trough at the risk of little more than electoral defeat.
Strength. A state’s willingness to engage in enervating self-destructive behavior.
Related closely to “toughness,” as described in the great American folk singer Roger Alan Wade’s song entitled “If You’re Gonna Be Dumb, You Gotta Be Tough.” Frequently invoked around the time of the invasion of Iraq, when opponents were warned that declining to kill 4,500 of our own people and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis–as well as lighting a trillion dollars on fire–by starting a pointless war would be a sign of weakness to our adversaries.
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