Saturday, April 26, 2014

2014 Shades of Grey

In this centennial year of the Great War, we are bound to hear much about the lessons of that gruesome accident. Hear, but not necessarily take to heart. Take the matter of clarity.

In the days leading up to World War I, the Germans sought clarification from the British over whether they would enter a war if Belgian neutrality were violated or if they would stay out if it wasn’t. Berlin failed to get any response more definite than “maybe.” Austrian academic Rudolf Steiner might have been wrong when he lectured in 1916, “A single sentence and the war in the West would not have taken place.” It is entirely possible that everything would have blown up anyway. The UK wasn’t responsible for WWI: the fundamental issues were all on the mainland, and it was, after all, Germany seeking a green light to invade a neighbor. One can’t help wondering, however, if a less fuzzy response might have halted the slide toward war – folks wondered then and we still do today. The Germans chose to interpret “maybe” as “maybe we won’t,” which, if not a green light, was at least a yellow one.

Foreign Secretary Edward Grey’s own description of his exchange with Prince Lichnowsky (German ambassador in London) in a letter to the British ambassador in Berlin:  “He asked me whether, if Germany gave a promise not to violate Belgian neutrality we would engage to remain neutral. I replied that I could not say that: our hands were still free, and we were considering what our attitude should be....I did not think that we could give a promise on that condition alone. The ambassador pressed me as to whether I could formulate conditions on which we would remain neutral. He even suggested that the integrity of France and her colonies might be guaranteed. I said that I felt obliged to refuse definitely any promise to remain neutral on similar terms, and I could only say that we must keep our hands free.”

Instead of “we must keep our hands free,” would a simple yes or no have made a difference? Maybe not, but we’ll never know. It was not the last time such a question would be asked.

A few decades later in January 1950 US Secretary of State Dean Acheson defined the “defense perimeter” of the US in Asia to the National Press Club. Within the perimeter were the offshore islands including Japan and the Philippines but excluding Formosa (Taiwan); he didn’t mention the Republic of Korea at all. After June 25, 1950, Acheson took much heat for effectively having put an “Invade Me” sign on South Korea, but he merely had stated what was in fact the policy of the Truman Administration at that time. (I’m not a fan of the Truman Administration in general, but I have a good deal of respect for Dean Acheson.)  He didn’t say specifically that the US wouldn’t intervene in Korea were the South invaded, but Kim Il-Sung (and Stalin) interpreted the remarks as “maybe we won’t.” Until faced with the reality, it seems Truman Administration officials themselves weren’t sure. Not only did the US and numerous allies intervene, but Truman sent the 7th Fleet into the Taiwan Strait, as though this had something to do with Korea, thereby creating a confusing commitment that persists to this day to a territorial entity (define as one will) that the US does not recognize as independent from China.

The point? Fuzziness can be hazardous. To be sure, clarity cannot by itself solve every diplomatic dilemma. Some are simply insoluble. Sometimes the very problem is that the parties understand each other all too clearly. Sometimes, useful treaties deliberately fudge over areas of disagreement, though this works only when both sides are fully aware of the fudge. We have seen plenty of instances in recent history of policies that were both clear and foolish. But failure to convey one’s meaning properly – assuming we ourselves know what we mean – rarely helps matters.

Fuzziness tempts the ambitious to overstep and the mistrustful to overreact; it can create de facto “commitments” to which no legislature (or electorate) ever agreed – or would have agreed if asked. Is there a present day insufficiency of clarity in US diplomacy?  Is there a lack of realism about the actual balance of forces on the ground? Are there too many useless gestures intended to “send a message”? Are those messages fuzzy?  Decide for yourself, but I always liked the advice of Sam Goldwyn in another context: “If you have a message, use Western Union.”

Bill admits he overreacted. Clarity comes a bit late.


  1. You make a great point about WWI. From what I've read, a great deal of that war occurred because of unclear diplomacy, unclear ideals and unclear goals. It was a mess to begin with and it ended up creating a greater mess by the time it was all over.

    Playing close to the vest is an important skill, but some people have it as their default setting. This usually ends up creating problems. It is a strange world we live in where people will tell everyone everything about themselves online, but our governments and corporations won't give a clear stance on international politics or even internal policies.

    Any time you quote "Kill Bill" is a good time. :)

    1. A common joke in the 1930s was that WWI "made the world safe for fascism." By the end of the decade no one laughed at it.