What Are You Reading…On Diplomacy

President Obama is on what will likely be his last tour of Asia as President. Most recently, this has taken him to China for the G20 summit. Given the increasing role Asia has played in US foreign policy (the Trans Pacific Partnership, the Asia pivot, and the growing presence of the US military in the Pacific to ensure “security,” among other things), it is perhaps not surprising that the visit would be difficult to manage. However, I was surprised to read that the Chinese Government carried out what numerous individuals describe as a deliberate slight by not giving the president the red carpet welcome other leaders received (this is a claim that Chinese officials deny).

While—short of a document coming forth indicating a slight was planned—it may never be known with certainty whether this snub was deliberate, the incident does reveal how there is a whole semiotics at play in every diplomatic encounter. This semiotics functions in an interesting way as it must be culturally sensitive while still allowing for communication, and also be vague enough for leaders put a positive spin on any series of events. Thus the incident at the G20 (which was most likely meant for the public at large, and not for the Obama administration) gives the Chinese government deniability and Obama the freedom to call the event a “kerfuffle.” At the same time, the event helps shore up nationalist support within both countries, as China can project the source of the misunderstanding onto the hype of the Western media, while the West can project it onto China’s more intolerant public sphere.

Examining the roots of diplomacy in certain philosophical visions of society is helpful, as it reveals how the language of diplomacy developed over time in favor of certain practices over others. Here are some works that trace parts of that development.

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