It was July, 1990. US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie, in a meeting with Saddam Hussein, stated: “We have no opinion on your Arab – Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary of State Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960′s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.”
In August 1990, eight days later, Iraq–believing they had the tacit concurrence of the U.S.–rolled into and conquered Kuwait. To their shock, they did not have the tacit concurrence of the U.S., and Gulf War I began. Now, 25 years later, the death toll from the ensuing wars has numbered approximately half a million Iraqis and four thousand U.S. soldiers.
Words matter. People’s lives depend on the proper use of words. Nations thrive or perish based on the proper use of words. We’re about learn how true that is.
Words Don’t Matter
We now have a president-elect who believes that words don’t matter.
— During the election campaign, Mr. Trump advocated for the imprisonment of Ms. Clinton. As the president-elect, he now states that is not now, nor ever was, important.
— During the election campaign, Mr. Trump advocated for diminishing the impact of Wall Street billionaires on the economy–the so-called ‘drain the swamp’ philosophy. As the president-elect, he has named many Wall Street billionaires to his proposed cabinet.
… and the list goes on.
The credible media reports that pretty much every principle on which Mr. Trump ran for president is not in keeping with how he actually plans to govern, based on his selections for top-level cabinet positions.
But Words have Consequences
The U.S. relationship with China is one of many that depend on the meaning and understanding of words. Over the period from WWII to now, we have established a delicate balance of national interests with China. For example, we acknowledge that they have an ongoing territorial dispute over Taiwan and the Spratly Islands, which we mutually agree to do nothing about; and in return we depend on China to control North Korea in order to maintain peace on the Korean peninsula.
Benefits of that include trade agreements that enable inexpensive Chinese labor to enhance the lives of U.S. consumers. It’s an extremely delicate balance, which just a few poorly chosen words could undo, and result in misunderstandings and the disintegration of the entire balance.
Enter Mr. Trump. He has, knowingly or unknowingly, violated long-standing agreements and protocols with China by engaging in a conversation with the President of Taiwan, which opened the possibility of the Chinese military conquering and reclaiming Taiwan in retribution.
We’re not quite at that stage. In the Iraq-Kuwait example, Iraq went directly to invasion. They didn’t communicate further because they didn’t think they needed to. In retrospect, their reaction to the language they misunderstood was juvenile–yet it still resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.
International Relations Communication
China is communicating further in the language of international relations and diplomacy, in hopes they can avoid a conflict that no one wants. Their communication to date consists of seizing an underwater drone research vessel owned by the U.S. that was operating in the South China Sea, and establishing a military position in the disputed Spratly Islands.
To those who understand the conventions of international relations communications, these actions are no big deal. They are tit-for-tat: the U.S. makes a change in the status quo, and China makes a change in response. Nothing as extreme as a rationale for war should be read into that.
But our danger right now, as noted above, is that we have a president-elect who does not understand the importance of using words precisely. He apparently has no appreciation of how the misuse of a few unwise words–as with the Gulf War–can result in unimaginable death and suffering.
As a profession that is dedicated to the protection of life, health, and safety, the requirement to overcome the use of unwise words is on us–and it needs to make its way onto our checklists and everyday operations. Lives depend on it.