Foreign Policy Blogs

Airing Out the Situation Room

White House Spokesman Jay Carney and the power of ambiguity. (credit:

White House Spokesman Jay Carney and the power of ambiguity.

Can we clear the air? Foreign policy — like domestic policy and, say, physics — has its own vocabulary that obscures meanings and is often in the eye of the beholder. As with the ultimate nebulo-phrase, “affirmative action,” language that appears neutral can either be deceptive or interpreted across a spectrum. A handful of these dissected:

national interests – U.S. officials often present “interests” as government wants, when they should be needs. In recent congressional testimony one witness listed no less than 10 “core interests” of the US in Central Asia, including “balancing Russia and China” and “ensuring European energy security.”  Certainly thinner budgets should prioritize more imminent threats. Secure European access to energy is nice but it’s less of a priority (to Americans) than domestic drilling or a pipeline from Canada. The next time you hear “x is in our national interest,” ask yourself, is it a want or a need?

sphere of influence – From the Monroe Doctrine, through the Cold War, to the new pivot to Asia, U.S. foreign policy has defined and reacted to spheres of influence. “Realist” theorists believe states act according to defined interests and seek alliances for security. U.S. officials have stated “there is no such thing as a sphere of influence” in response to Russian sway in its neighboring states. If that is so, why was the U.S. lit up about Central America in the 1980s, and why does the U.S. military divide up the globe into six separate commands?

Peace Process – That is, the on-again, off-again, talks-about-talking (and even occasional meetings) between Israel and the Palestinians. That this regional conflict (out of dozens currently fuming) is presented in Capital Letters, and referred to as “The,” presumes pre-eminence. Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Sudanese, and many others likely beg to differ.

structural reform – Not about construction (unless you’re selling a state firm). Hailing from the 1990s “Washington consensus” World Bank / IMF credo of slashing emerging countries’ expenses and privatizing state industry, the blandness of this phrase belies its intent of tariff eradication and opening markets to international players. Long debated, now even post-2007 austerity is under popular review as pundits re-think recent data. Time for another euphemistic phrase, but please something better than “quantitative easing,” which sounds like a laxative.



extraordinary rendition – Old news but just as antiseptic as when news broke about the U.S. flying around terror suspects in 2005. “Rendition” is a legal term describing movement of an individual among jurisdictions; as it turned out, extraordinary indeed. The root “render” emasculates the concept; my Word lookup has 13 definitions, from “give help” to “return something.” Horses are sent to a rendering plant; or, a person is rendered unconscious. Which one (or from several other examples) applies? The word saps the phrase of emotion, or, better yet to a wide audience, makes it ambiguous.

rent-seeking behavior – Usually bandied about by PhDs, this wins the Huh? Award. You can be forgiven for thinking this describes a U.N. officer looking for Manhattan digs. The term actually refers to state officials who accept bribes, or “rents,” in return for favors. As a grad student I perused poli sci journals, amazed at all the seeming housing shortages! The ability to obscure amazes: three words for 10 letters that spell corruption.

shape-shift – Not so much unclear as an example of efficient expression, morphing into disparate areas of society. Recently popular with analysts describing a fundamental change in thinking or conditions (“the election marked a shape-shift in the city”), “shape-shift” has spawned a puzzle app, game, consulting firm, and music site (jazz, of course). A prevalent historic meaning denotes creatures that shape-shift from human to animal and back again. In sum, an altering of real or figurative DNA.



Jason Anderson
Jason Anderson

Jason has lived and worked for over five years in Russian-speaking countries. He spent April-May 2014 researching religious extremist groups in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. He previously served as a trainer for U.S. military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks conversational Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.

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