How to translate Western diplomatic jargon

Jun 5, 2023
World economy and economic policies concept : Flags of G7 or group of seven countries e.g Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, USA.

Such terms and phrases as a rules-based system, de-risking, democracy vs autocracy, and coercive behaviour are not exhaustive but still expose obfuscation and double standards.

Politicians campaigning for election love to use buzzwords and catchy phrases to explain what they stand for and what their policies are. They do that because they assume, probably rightly, that most voters have the attention span and intellectual comprehension of children.

Lately though, I notice that Western diplomats are doing the same thing by constantly citing well-worn phrases and words that seem to say something, but probably mean nothing or something else entirely. Think of them as verbal sleights of hand or deliberate misdirection.

Consider these common phrases and words that easily come to mind as Western leaders can’t seem to complete a sentence without them: a rules-based system, de-risking, democracy vs autocracy, and coercive behaviour. They are all usually used against China, though smaller but non-Western-compliant countries may also be cited.

If you think the old Chinese communist phrasing about “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” was tiresome, let’s see if these Western phrases can pass the eye-rolling test.

A rules-based system

Notice a “rules-based system” doesn’t mean international law, rules and norms. If that were the case, Western leaders would simply have said “the international system”, which consists of such institutions as the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, and the World Trade Organisation. One reason is that many US politicians have nothing but contempt for them. Another is that Western nations routinely ignore or breach their rules and rulings, but happily cite them when they are against what I call non-Western-compliant countries.

In February, Human Rights Watch issued a report accusing Britain and the United States of having committed crimes against humanity in forcibly displacing the entire Chagossian people from their homeland in the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean during the 1960s and 1970s. That’s because the US wanted to build a military base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands.

But that’s not just Cold War history. The report followed an advisory issued by the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019 that Britain should return the territories to Mauritius. The advisory, which has no enforcement power but is part of international law, was subsequently endorsed by the UN General Assembly. Needless to say, London and Washington simply ignored the ICJ and the UN.

Obviously, these institutions and their opinions and rulings, which often have the force of international law, are not what is meant by the rules-based system. So, what is the latter?

They are the dictates of the Western powers, usually led by the US, for non-Western and weaker countries to follow, or criticisms – usually duly, faithfully and uncritically repeated by the mainstream news media – of non-compliant non-Western nations when they misbehave.

Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who is so eloquent about these things, explains succinctly why anyone would challenge such a nice-sounding thing as “a rules-based order”:

“I would still like to see a more rules-based world. But when people start pressing you in the name of a rules-based order to give up, to compromise on what are very deep interests, at that stage I’m afraid it’s important to contest that and, if necessary, to call it out.”


The hardcore neoconservatives in the administrations of Donald Trump and Joe Biden made no bones about wanting to pursue “decoupling”, which aimed not only to replace America’s economic reliance on Chinese production and manufacturing but also to undermine China’s economic growth, on which the legitimacy of the Chinese communist state was supposedly dependent.

But decoupling turns out to be a bad joke. Why? Because it is simply impossible in today’s highly integrated and interdependent global economy, at least not without inflicting a great deal of self-harm.

The neocons may know a lot about geopolitics, but very little about international trade, economics and supply chains. Or perhaps they did know but didn’t care initially, because most of the complaints and grievances came from the Europeans. But their abject subservience to Washington, on full display since the start of the Ukraine war, means they can mostly be ignored. Now, Germany is going into a technical recession after suffering a winter of high energy and food prices, with nary a complaint against Uncle Sam.

It’s different when American big businesses complain. So you have Jensen Huang, co-founder and CEO of Nvidia, the star maker of advanced semiconductors that drive the coming artificial intelligence revolution, warning that the US tech industry is at risk of “enormous damage” from the escalating chip war launched by the US against China.

Elon Musk of Tesla and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan visited China within the week, declaring their companies will be in China in both good and bad times. They echo recent statements from Apple’s Tim Cook and General Motors’ Mary Barra.

o come down from the grand strategic ambitions of decoupling, but to save face, both European and US leaders now agree to just say “de-risking”, though no one seems to know exactly what it means or how to go about it.

Democracy vs autocracy

That’s supposed to be the existential struggle of our time, or at least that’s what Biden keeps telling people. It was supposed to be the ideological rationale for the new cold war with China, modelled, no doubt, on the great victory of the West and capitalism over the Soviets and their communism. Biden has had two democracy summits. Unfortunately, all that falls apart rather quickly.

If you look at the fine print, it’s actually just some democracies allied with the US against some autocracies the US is against. Put that way, the simple sloganeering becomes a mouthful and a lot more cumbersome. India’s Narendra Modi, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, are proving to be embarrassingly difficult to classify or to call out.

Meanwhile, Washington turns out to be quite friendly with many autocratic regimes, at least 48 of them, that is, friendly enough to sell them weapons last year.

That’s according to the Regimes of the World classification system developed by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Now, you may question how objective this regime classification is. The Washington-based think tank Freedom House also has a similar classification system. The online magazine Intercept, which specialises in investigative journalism, finds that using the Freedom House system, the US actually sold weapons to 49 non-democracies, or 58 per cent of such regimes in the world.

Need I say more? Next time you hear some US officials claiming we are in the fight of our lives for freedom and democracy, try not to roll your eyes too much and hurt yourself.

Economic coercion

In the latest Group of Seven communique, the Western powers called on China to “play by the rules” – please see the “rules-based system” above – and slammed it for its coercive behaviour; for example, against Australia and Lithuania. Yes, Beijing does engage in such behaviour, but how effective has it been?

Most independent experts think it’s more bark than bite. But sanctions by the West and especially by the US? That’s on an entirely different order of magnitude.

I referred to a study by the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research in this space on May 14. The effects of US or Western-led sanctions have been horrendous on small and underdeveloped countries; China targets mostly the big boys, or developed countries.

A staggering 27 per cent of countries around the world are subjected to US or Western-led sanctions. Severe US sanctions may trigger a decline in income per capita of up to 26 per cent in a country and lead to declines in life expectancy of 1.2 to 1.4 years, which is comparable to the mortality effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on a population.

The West may think sanctions sound nicer, but they are much deadlier.


Republished from the South China Morning Post June 1, 2023

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