Speaking foreign policy: Six terms to reconsider, redefine or retire

Careful, precise and considerate language is important.
By: /
January 19, 2015
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Muslim or jihadist? If there was any previous understanding of the clear distinction between these two words, the first few weeks of January have made it clear — we still have a long way to go. Since the Kouachi brothers stormed the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7 — masked and reportedly shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ — more than 25 mosques in France have been subjected to attack, and anti-Islam protests in Germany saw a surge in attendance. Meanwhile, a debate over the difference between free speech and hate speech continues to grow.

With fresh evidence that phrasing can risk further dividing us by religion, class and race, there is no better time for a call to action to policymakers, journalists, scholars and the general public to be as careful, precise and considerate with their choice of words. For, overnight they can become a hashtag, a slogan, a cause of confusion, or far worse — an incitement of action with life-or-death consequences.

Some of the following terms continue to have fair use, but let this serve as a reminder and a reason to be as conscientious as possible when it comes to word choice as new agendas are set for security measures, millennium goals, inclusion policies, and digital diplomacy.

Here are the top six foreign policy terms to reconsider, redefine or simply retire:

New World Order

While this term certainly has been helpful to mark changes in society — from the use of technology, to economic winners and losers to the growth of non-state threats —it is a dead give-away as a flashy headline or book title to over-sell the weight of its finer-print content. Even Henry Kissinger’s World Order (the ‘new’ is simply implied) was likely an attempt, as his last book, to review his life’s work more than it was to mark the start of a new global dynamic. So, should we keep expecting a ‘New World Order’ every year or couple of years, if declared by the press or experts? Is it simply another way to ‘declare’ that United States is no longer the world’s greatest superpower and that China, the BRICS, or another rising star is about to take over (the prediction that keeps on giving)? Not to say the world hasn’t changed drastically since the Second World War and the idea of HG Wells’ ‘world government’, but this term, one of the most overused, is either a red herring or at the very least a marketing tactic — the world is always evolving, and the marker of a new era is subjective.

Responsibility to Protect

Does the current Canadian military mission in Iraq fall under the R2P doctrine, or is it simply war? In September, Minister Jason Kenney framed the campaign clearly as a “moral obligation to defend human dignity.” A piece on OpenCanada, published shortly after his statement, explored the tricky territory of invoking R2P and the word ‘genocide’ and ultimately argued in this case it was important to act. But another piece earlier in 2014 pointed out that R2P was also used to help justify the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, showing how the term can be easily misused. There is no easy answer in this debate. It is likely harmful to declare R2P as a failure and abandoning its purpose — to prompt action toward the protection of the vulnerable — but it is always worth questioning the use of the term used in pro-war rhetoric and worth seeking other protective measures such as refugee resettlement.

Middle Power

Heinbecker: Canada not a Middle Power. Term hasn't meant anything since 1945. We're a country w a lot of capability but choose not to use it

— Stephanie Carvin (@StephanieCarvin) October 30, 2013


Is Canada still a “bridge between weak and powerful states”? Or, does the term reinforce the belief that global power is still centralized to handful of state governments, when in fact power is much more decentralized? Perhaps, as OpenCanada contributor Adam Chapnick argues, it is a way for Canada and other states to promote the idea of a “national self-worth” and the “illusion of international influence.” But while Canadians may still see themselves as liberal internationalists, the use of the once-popular “middle power” label likely has its days numbered.

Terrorist/terrorism

This one is not going to retire any time soon, but here is a call for a replacement, or better yet, for more lag-time and consideration when labelling crimes and criminals. This word can be so arbitrarily used and often with a specific purpose — certain security measures can be approved or legal rights waived if terrorism is invoked. Meaning years of detention in Guantanamo Bay prison without charges for some men, or for the Mapuche in southern Chile convicted under Pinochet-era terrorism legislation, it means the loss of the right to appeal. In 2013, journalist Glenn Greenwald asked if it is ever truly possible know the motive of violence, and therefore why was the Boston marathon attack declared terrorism, but the horrific Sandy Hook school shooting was not? There has been increasing debate on the mental health factor of lone-wolf gunmen, which prompted hesitation by some in calling the Ottawa shooting an act of terrorism. The term easily gets emotions flaring, sets security measures in motion, and can lead to immediate consequences, such as the execution of seven prisoners in Pakistan just last week, as the country upped its antiterrorism act since the school massacre in Peshawar in December. More caution with this word is necessary.

Global South

Clearly this is the winner over the older Third World and Developing Country terms, but does the Global South have a similar inferior implication and divisive consequences? Does that relate to why so many marched in solidarity with the victims in France but have not done so for the students in Mexico or Pakistan? What about geographic exceptions such as Australia and Haiti? In a column exploring alternative terms on NPR, writer Marc Silver suggested to just “aim for specificity: naming the country in question.” Guardian writer Deborah Doane argues there are poor and rich pockets in both the Global North and South, so why the differentiating term? “The concept of a ‘global south’ creates an unnecessary conflict that masks a different reality,” she says — another great reason to be as specific and thoughtful when labelling.

Globalization

For evidence of its overuse, see, more specifically, “in a globalized world.” We cannot quite decide whether our world is in fact globalized on all levels — we are connected with people around the world more than ever thanks to the internet, we are travelling more than ever thanks to advances in transportation and have freer trade, but are there not more border checks, security walls and clashes of cultures? Is inequality not at a peak globally? The debates surrounding this word — when globalization began, whether the trend is good or bad or whether the term is overly general — continues, but at least we have come a long way since the anti-globalization movement, at its height during the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. It is now common to hear more specific terms: anti-capitalism, anti-free trade, anti-cyber espionage, anti-immigration, etc. Let’s continue to be more specific with this one; there are many sides to the coin.