In his compelling essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell links the decline of civilizations to a self-reinforcing relationship between muddy thinking and bad writing. “If thought corrupts language,” he writes, “language can also corrupt thought.” In that spirit, I encourage all to think carefully before employing any of the following five phrases, which tend to obscure rather than enlighten.
5. Vital national interests
Writers and speakers should refer to America’s “vital national interests” only in connection to something that is truly vital, meaning “concerned with or necessary to the maintenance of life” or, more loosely, “of the utmost importance.” In foreign policy terms, one good definition of vital national interests is those “conditions that are strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance the well-being of Americans in a free and secure nation.” They are beyond even important interests and eclipse mere preferences.
Strict definition makes clear that avoiding a nuclear attack on the United States is a vital national interest but ending Syria’s civil war is not. Likewise, it makes clear that preventing China from invading a U.S. ally like Japan is a vital national interest—a China that did so would pose an unacceptable threat to our security and prosperity—but perfecting Afghanistan’s governance is not. Politicians’ excessive invocation of “vital national interests” to justify their varied aims diminishes their persuasiveness by breeding public skepticism. Precise definition of vital national interest, and thoughtful use of the term, strengthens its meaning, impact and utility.
“Isolationism” is one of the most abused words in foreign-policy discourse today because it is so often deliberately misused. Public-opinion polling demonstrates clearly that the number of true isolationists in the United States is vanishingly small. Nevertheless, America’s restless rhetorical paladins—who sense waning popular enthusiasm for wars of choice—are alarmed at its purported advances.
What proponents of an activist (as opposed to a necessarily active) foreign policy are trying to conceal is how they have thoroughly warped the definition of another word—leadership—to make it nearly synonymous with the use of force. Thus, they argue, America is a leader when it is prepared to use force and is isolationist when it isn’t. Fixing U.S. foreign policy requires not only dispensing with theatrical critiques of isolationist straw men, but building a sophisticated understanding of international leadership in its diverse forms.
3. Someone “must” do something
American presidents, secretaries of state, and senators (especially those who want to sound presidential) love to say what others “must” do. “Assad must go” is perhaps the most memorable recent example. Unfortunately, as has become clear, the objects of this musty phrase often don’t comply. If “must” precedes a credible and achievable “or else,” then so be it. If not, ask your speechwriter for a new draft, minus the meaningless declarations. Far better to avoid these empty demands than to be humiliated when you find your target has a mind of his own.
2. The international community
Everybody loves “the international community.” After all, in listening to America’s leaders and reading U.S. newspaper editorials, it is immediately apparent that the international community is America’s most loyal ally, supporting each and every of our aspirations, preferences, complaints or demands. Even when major European governments object to one policy or another, and especially when the United Nations Security Council is divided, the international community’s strong support is deeply comforting.
Of course, the reason that the international community is always so reliable is that it is never quite clear exactly who is included. Sometimes (though extremely rarely) the phrase might actually refer to a consensus among major powers and substantial majority of the world’s governments, as the phrase implies. Much of the time, however, it means the United States, the European Union, some of our grateful clients, and right-thinking comrades among the world’s international organizations and NGOs. Occasionally, it is a much more exclusive coalition of the willing. Yet even then, the international community is behind us!
Claiming the support of “the international community” is especially dangerous not only because it misleads others, but also because it too often misleads those who invoke it as well. Far better to avoid such illusions by specifying precisely who supports us and acknowledging, at least to ourselves, who doesn’t.
1. On the right/wrong side of history
Though often deployed in support of a “must”, the assertion that leaders or governments are on the right or wrong side of history deserves separate treatment. And it merits first place on this list because it is more confused, self-deceptive and damaging than any of the phrases above.
To start, history is not binary. Many who may have avoided losing out by being on its so-called wrong side never made it to the “right” side. Russia’s deeply flawed first president, Boris Yeltsin, has been one of the most consequential, in that he created the foundations upon which his country’s present government rests. Our urge to believe that anyone who resists a wrong is inherently right has led to countless costly disappointments.
Moreover, despite our increasingly confident judgments, history remains quite capable of producing surprising outcomes for America’s foreign-policy elites—including analysts, commentators and (most important) decision-makers. Egypt is the most obvious current case, but there are many others. The continuing desire to render history’s final judgment in real time, while knowing our own limitations, is among the highest forms of intellectual and moral arrogance in a world where there is far more grey than black or white. When such judgment is wedded to unrivalled power, it becomes an awesome and terrifying force—and one that leads many of the spectators to ask their own questions about history’s rights and wrongs. And guess what? Looking backward, those who provoked such thinking usually came to regret it—after ending up on the wrong side of history.
A final note
Readers and listeners should take special note when leaders use one or more of these phrases together. Of greatest significance are variations on the following, the foreign policy equivalent of a five-alarm fire.
My fellow Americans, I come to you tonight to discuss the crisis in Faroffistan. President Imjust Badenov has done things that we don’t like for too long. Now, he has begun to threaten our vital national interests as well. He and his regime are on the wrong side of history—they must go. We cannot yield to isolationism; the international community expects America to lead. Accordingly, I have…
Should you enjoy hearing this, get your favorite drink, sit in a comfortable chair, and turn on your television—the bombs are about to fall. If not, you may need the drink even more.
Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.