Ask Mint | Learning the words of diplomacy

Ask Mint | Learning the words of diplomacy
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First Published: Sun, Dec 21 2008. 10 58 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Dec 21 2008. 10 58 PM IST
In 2000, George Abraham Thampy, a 12-year-old of Indian origin from Maryland Heights, Missouri, won the top place in America’s national spelling bee contest. He beat 247 contestants over 15 rounds. The “winning word” that brought him the prize was “demarche”. This was a rather simple word compared with the winning words of succeeding years: succedaneum (2001), prospiscience, pococurante, autochthonous, and appoggiatura (2005). If I had not seen some of them in print, I would not have believed that such words existed.
Demarche is a word that is commonly used in diplomatic circles. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records its occurrence in 1658 and defines it as “walk, step, proceeding”. In 1678, it came to mean a political step, a diplomatic initiative.
What is the purpose of a demarche? In its earlier uses, a demarche could be made for the purpose of seeking information, providing information, or persuading the host country to take action. International tensions of the present time have shifted the focus of its meaning.
The common perception of the word today matches Duhaime’s definition of demarche: “word coined by the diplomatic community and referring to a strongly worded warning by one country to another and often, either explicitly or implicitly, with the threat of military consequence”.
There are also examples of demarche used in less belligerent and more constructive contexts. In February 2000, the European Union (EU) presented a demarche to the US, urging the latter to abolish the death penalty. Another example of a non-belligerent demarche was the diplomatic protest delivered by 25 nations, led by the UK, concerning the resumption of commercial whaling by Iceland.
Public perception of demarche often confuses it with ultimatum. An ultimatum expresses a government’s displeasure at developments in its relations with another government, and can be seen as a final warning and a precursor to the initiation of serious steps such as the breaking of diplomatic relations and military action. The history of the 20th century provides us with two examples of ultimatums that directly led to mighty military confrontations.
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist. Austria presented Serbia with a series of demands concerning an investigation into the Sarajevo killing. Serbia accepted all but one of the demands, but Austria was in no mood for a compromise. This led to World War I. Although military action was not mentioned in the message, Austria did declare war and historians therefore see it as an ultimatum.
The OED defines ultimatum as: “in diplomacy, the final terms presented by one power (or group of powers) to another, the rejection of which may lead to the severing of diplomatic relations, and eventually to a declaration of war”.
In modern diplomacy, a demarche can be seen as an incipient form of an ultimatum.
The 20th century has given us another example of an ultimatum that carried a lesson in diplomatic misreading. This happened just before Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In July 1945, the Potsdam declaration defining terms for Japanese surrender was issued by the Allies. The Japanese cabinet considered how to respond to this ultimatum, and decided that it would be best to just “mokusatsu” it. Literally mokusatsu means “kill with silence”. The intended meaning was probably “withhold comment until a decision has been made”. But in the press, the word got translated as “ignore”; this meant that in effect Japan was rejecting the ultimatum. US President Truman then decided to use the atomic bomb against Japan. The story of mokusatsu is the story of history’s deadliest mistranslation.
Diplomatic communication is a subject of great importance, and our ministers and foreign service personnel need to be trained in the niceties of such communication.
Several diplomatic blunders have been reported in the press. The wrong national anthem has been played on more than one occasion: at the inauguration of the Grenada stadium which was China’s gift to the Caribbean, the band played the national anthem of Taiwan. President Bush’s call for a “crusade against terrorism” caused alarm bells to ring in Europe.
In the coming years international relations will become much more intricate and responses will be novel and unpredictable.
India, too, needs to rethink and reshape the training that is given to people who speak and act for us in international forums. We need a diplomatic corps with a thorough and sensitive understanding of language, cultural differences and human psychology.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Dec 21 2008. 10 58 PM IST