Public Diplomacy and Political Warfare White Paper No. 3
The Institute of World Politics
by J. Michael Waller
Words and images are the most powerful weapons in a war of ideas. Used skillfully, they can serve the cause well. Used carelessly, they cause collateral damage and the equivalent of death by friendly fire.
Effective messages require understanding, development and deployment of the proper words – not only as Americans understand them in English, but as the rest of the world understands them in many cultural contexts.
Message-making requires sophisticated understanding of both friend and enemy. It requires confident self-knowledge. It requires instinct about how information works today. Most of all, successful message-making requires personal courage against critics abroad and at home.
Inexpert use of words undermines the mission and inadvertently aids the enemy every bit as much as the careless dropping of bombs or the military indiscipline that made Abu Ghraib a metaphor for America’s presence in Iraq.
In this white paper:
- We study how words are used as instruments of conflict and weapons of warfare.
- We look at how the meanings of words differ among languages and cultures, and often within the same language and culture.
- We examine how the nation’s adversaries and enemies have used our own understandings of words against us, and how we accepted those hostile definitions as our own.
- Finally, we discuss how we can take the language back from the enemy and make it work for the wartime and long-term interests of civilized society.
Words as weapons
The human mind is the battlespace of the war of ideas. Words and images create, define and elaborate ideas, and are used to popularize or destroy their appeal. They require relentless repetition. Words are not static objects. The written and spoken word, as George Orwell said, can be used “as an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.”
In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell explained the relationship between language and thought: “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.” 
Deliberate and unwitting corruption of language and thought applies as much to law, literature, love, marketing and politics as it does to diplomacy and warfare. Men have been using words to fight wars since the beginning of recorded history. Like iron, words can be forged from plowshares into swords and back again. Thucydides, in his monumental history of the Peloponnesian Wars, noted how the upturning of society during the Corcycrean civil war of 427 B.C. was paralleled by distortion of language on the part of the combatants:
To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man. . . .
Terms of moral judgment were used to describe actions and events wholly alien to their true meanings, so that men could better justify deeds that would have been deemed reprehensible in times of peace.The chaos that resulted from the devious political manipulation of words did much to exacerbate the conflict and serves an early example of the power of rhetoric in conflict.
Niccolò Machiavelli, the 15th century Florentine political philosopher and strategist, revolutionized statecraft in the western Christian world with his cynical, often amoral guidebook The Prince. His plays on words, invented definitions and purposeful distortions of language were part of his craft, yet most translators of his works, according to Angelo Codevilla of Boston University, attempted to fix what they saw as Machiavelli’s errors of syntax and usage, and inadvertently denied readers of English an accurate understanding of the use of words as weapons.
Codevilla translated The Prince with as faithful a preservation possible of Machiavelli’s word games, making heavy annotations throughout. The result was a livelier if less smooth-sounding translation that offered a deeper understanding of Machiavelli’s devious mind.
The idealistic architects of American independence two-and-a-half centuries after Machiavelli saw word meanings change with their own ideas. They viewed themselves as patriotic Englishmen living in America, loyal to king and empire. Their grievance was that in America, the crown was denying them their rights as Englishmen.
By 1769, Samuel Adams in Boston began successfully changing public opinion so that the loyal English patriot in America seeking his just rights was now an American patriot. One by one, over the years, other colonial leaders underwent the same transformation. Words and political organization were Adams’ sole weapons, and the incendiary political strategist used them well. More than most, Adams recognized and worried about the enemy’s distortion of language: "How strangely will the Tools of a Tyrant pervert the plain Meaning of Words!"
Free people must safeguard their languages. They must jealously protect the true meanings of words. Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel, just as the Soviet bloc was collapsing in 1989, warned the Western democracies about words and their double-edged power to corrode and demoralize the good.
“Alongside words that electrify society with their freedom and truthfulness, we have words that mesmerize, deceive, inflame, madden, beguile, words that are harmful – lethal even,” Havel said. Giving example after example, the former political prisoner-playwright-turned-president noted, “The same word can, at one moment, radiate great hope; at another, it can emit lethal rays. The same word can be true at one moment and false the next, at one moment illuminating, at another deceptive.”
Havel’s strongest example was the word peace: “For forty years, an allergy to that beautiful word has been engendered in me, as it has in every one of my fellow citizens, because I know what the word has meant here for all those forty years: ever mightier armies ostensibly to defend peace.”
Semantics and rhetoric
Semantics, derived from the Greek semantikos, for “significant” or “significant meaning,” is “the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning,” according to the Oxford dictionary. Webster gives semantics a more operational definition: “the language used (as in advertising or political propaganda) to achieve a desired effect on an audience especially through the use of words with novel or dual meanings.”
The first cousin of semantics is rhetoric, the ancient art of using expression and language effectively in order to persuade.
Even Aristotle, who produced the first systematic treatment of rhetoric and invented the idea of logic, saw the dark side of the art as well as the bright. To Aristotle, rhetoric consisted of three “proofs” of persuasion: logos (words), ethos (character of the speaker), and pathos (the psychological element).
A competent rhetorician could argue through use of words in a logical form to move popular passion, explain complicated ideas simply, whip up emotions and calm down hatred and fear.
Aristotle discussed how rhetoric fits in a democratic society. He seemed torn by his own idea. Among his concerns about the use of rhetoric was the danger that in the hands of the wrong people, the art could be a destructive weapon.
We can conclude from Aristotle that, like any weapon, rhetoric is a danger when used by the enemy, and when used carelessly, by ourselves. Democratic forces must not be unilaterally disarmed. They must be thoroughly trained, enculturated and mobilized to be as adept with words as they are with precision arms.
Americans in government have lost the art of rhetoric as an instrument of statecraft, though many of the Founding Fathers, including Samuel Adams, were devoted students of Aristotle. Sixty years ago Orwell saw a sharp decline in the skillful use of language among English-speaking politicians and journalists. He warned after World War II that if the trend continued, the societies and leaders of the English-speaking world would find that poor use of language would corrupt their thought processes and alter their perceptions of their own civilizations. Critics of today’s “political correctness” movement would agree.
Twenty-first century Americans have demonstrated little inclination or ability to use language effectively in the war of ideas abroad, showing much greater facility and ease with destroying fellow human beings physically as a first option, instead of trying to “destroy” the pernicious ideologies that motivate their hostile will.
Yet they use semantics and rhetoric instinctively and skillfully in fighting political wars against one another at home, with politicians of all stripes routinely using military jargon in their civil discourse and action. One can see how the political lines are drawn about any one issue by picking out the wording that a faction consciously or unconsciously uses. Each side employs idealistic or distorted language to promote one’s own views while demonizing or otherwise de-legitimizing the positions of the other.
Complications of culture
Cross-linguistic and cross-cultural factors complicate semantics and rhetoric, especially where there is no Webster to standardize definitions, and where meaning is in the beholder’s mind.
To demonstrate how even some of the most successful communicators can fail by misunderstanding semantics, many marketing and business texts and seminars point to a disastrous faux pas that General Motors is said to have made in the 1960s when it sold one of its most successful U.S. models, the Chevrolet Nova, in Latin America. To a Spanish-speaker, some textbooks say, the English word Nova sounds similar to the Spanish expression no va, which means “won’t go.”
Understandably, despite a reversed syllabic order, the unintended slogan “Chevy won’t go” helped explain the car’s poor regional sales and why GM changed the name for Spanish-speaking markets.
Or so the storytellers said. The tale is an urban legend. The Chevy Nova, in fact, sold well in Latin America as the Nova. In trying to show how ignorant the world’s largest automaker could be despite its army of Spanish-speaking marketers and dealers, the legend’s purveyors and believers display their own lack of cultural awareness. They presume that English words and phrases have exactly the same meaning when translated literally to or from other languages.
The Nova/no va blunder simply does not translate. Cars might “go” in English, but not in Spanish. Depending on regional word usage and the age of the speaker, automobiles “walk” (caminar), “march” (marchar), “function” (funcionar) or “serve” (servir). Cars that “go” and “run” sound as absurd to the Spanish speaker’s ear as cars that walk and march sound to the ear of the native speaker of English.
The entirety of the Nova myth, from the false story itself to its almost unquestioned repetition, illustrates how misunderstanding of even the most familiar foreign languages and cultures can affect our perceptions of the rest of the world, both as we see other peoples and as we attempt to deliver messages to change perceptions, attitudes and behavior abroad.
Our main sources of public information, political leaders and journalists, use foreign words and expressions in their own daily written and verbal communication, and inject them into public discourse. Satisfied with popular usage or Webster’s American English definition, few double-check with linguists or scholars about the precise or varied meanings, and many occasionally repeat “new” words, readily accepting them at face value without regard to the source, and pass them and the distortions of their meanings to the public and decision makers.
Those distortions, a form of shorthand that become unprovable “known facts,” affect the new users’ perceptions and can adversely influence policy. Unquestioned acceptance or repetition of the distorted words can cause fundamental misunderstandings, and not only at home. By their cumulative repetition in the press and in public statements they can be politically or diplomatically damaging abroad as well. Our adversaries can and do exploit this weakness with relative ease and without our awareness.
We in the United States have no institutional defense against our own misinterpretations of true meanings, or against the conscious efforts of adversaries to induce or reinforce our own misunderstandings.
Concerned about the problem during the heated years of the Cold War, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy reported,
We believe that the times require a conscious effort to improve the accuracy and political impact of words and terms used by our leaders in speaking to the world. By so doing, they can help disclose the hypocrisy and distortions of hostile propaganda. This is not a problem that will go away, and we must be prepared to deal with it on a systematic and continuing basis.
The commissioners recommended:
that a task force be created, under the National Security Council and including representatives of the Departments of State and Defense and USIA [US Information Agency], to assess the problem and propose an institutionalized means to respond to inaccurate or misleading terminology in international political discourse.
The recommendation was not to form a task force to counter disinformation; the White House National Security Council already had an interagency working group and USIA had established a new office for that purpose.
Nor would the task force craft positive messages about the United States, which was one of the decades-long public diplomacy missions of the USIA as a whole. The commissioners were referring specifically to words and terms that, through misuse or abuse, had the unintended consequence of aiding the enemy.
A war of ideas is well-fought when a skilled or persistent semanticist can persuade an opponent to accept his terms of debate, especially when the words are those that form the ideas that motivate the will. The opponent thus unwittingly, even willingly, adopts the semanticist’s usage of words and by extension, the ideas, perceptions and policies that accompany them.
Fred Charles Iklé, in a 1970s Rand Corporation study on the difficulties the United States faced in negotiating with Communist regimes, called the phenomenon “semantic infiltration.” According to Iklé,
Paradoxically, despite the fact that the State Department and other government agencies bestow so much care on the vast verbal output of Communist governments, we have been careless in adopting the language of our opponents and their definitions of conflict issues in many cases where this is clearly to our disadvantage.
Or perhaps this is not so paradoxical. It might be precisely because our officials spend so much time on the opponents’ rhetoric that they eventually use his words – first in quotation marks, later without.
Commenting on Iklé’s paper, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called semantic infiltration “the systematic distortion of the meaning of certain words to confuse or mislead.” Semantic infiltration, said Moynihan,
is the process whereby we come to adopt the language of our adversaries in describing political reality. The most brutal totalitarian regimes in the world call themselves ‘liberation movements.’ It is perfectly predictable that they should misuse words to conceal their real nature. But must we aid them in that effort by repeating those words? Worse, do we begin to influence our own perceptions by using them? 
By adopting communist labels, the senator and former U.N. ambassador argued, the State Department bought into the enemy’s rhetoric and adversely affected U.S. attitudes toward a particular conflict. In Moynihan’s words,
Even though the State Department proclaimed its neutrality in the conflict there, its very choice of words – its use of the vocabulary of groups opposed to our values – undermined the legitimacy of the pro-Western political forces in the area. We pay for small concessions at the level of language with large setbacks at the level of practical politics.
That “totalitarians will seek to seize control of the language of politics is obvious; that our own foreign affairs establishment should remain blind to what is happening is dangerous,” Moynihan said. Soft-line foreign service officers weren’t the only culprits. Even some of the staunchest hard-liners proved susceptible in Moynihan’s time, as they can today, to semantic infiltration.
The worst totalitarians of Moynihan’s time, the Soviets, mastered the use of semantics in political warfare, corrupting positive words like “democratic,” “fraternal,” “liberation,” “progressive,” “people” and, as Havel noted, “peace,” and applying them to totalitarian and terrorist regimes and movements.
It was as if the West had stopped believing in its own values. American officials often shied away from using those words in defense of U.S. policy. Worse, they sometimes applied them in ways that benefited Soviet propaganda. They even were reluctant to turn Soviet jargon against Moscow, shying from calling the USSR a dictatorship or empire. “Soviet imperialism” was almost never a term of U.S. public diplomacy; the State Department ceded the words – and thus the ideas – to the politburo to dominate.
For example, many in the American media and politics referred to Soviet-backed terrorist groups as “liberation movements,” idealistic and selfless manifestations of oppressed people’s democratic aspirations. Radical protests in Europe against the U.S. and NATO were led by “peace activists,” when in reality they were always anti-American and never anti-Soviet, under the influence or control of the KGB and Soviet-controlled fronts.
Some Americans denounced their government’s efforts to halt Soviet expansionism as “American imperialism,” a made-in-Moscow epithet that has long outlived the USSR. Few in the mainstream ever referred to Soviet expansionism in an imperialistic light until after the Soviet collapse in 1991.
Meanwhile, the Soviets raged against American “imperialism” while U.S. officials cringed and sneered at calling the USSR an empire, even after their president did. Though few really believed that the Soviets were committed to “peace,” these critics considered the U.S. and NATO the more clear and present dangers. Most of the world completely accepted and unwittingly helped to spread misleading communist jargon like “German Democratic Republic” and “People’s Republic of China,” validating totalitarian propaganda that suggested these regimes were republics of the people.
Indeed, during the Cold War, Soviet use of peace propaganda had made many in the West so cynical that those who understood the Soviet danger best, from the center-left Havel to Reaganite conservatives, had difficulty using the word “peace” constructively or even with a straight face. Such was the noxiousness of Soviet political warfare: civilized society lost control of the ideas that peace animated, and the Soviets hijacked naïve western hopes and fears by infiltrating, funding and manipulating the peace movements in the democracies.
Those who saw through the propaganda were usually ideologically hostile to the Soviets and communism. However, they generally responded not by taking back the word but by declaring the “peace” movement to be nothing more than a sham of dupes and fools, hippies and sellouts. Some proudly proclaimed their militancy against the Soviet threat with statements and actions that reasonable but ill-informed people could perceive as being truly anti-peace.
Until a communicator like Reagan arrived to lead, many anti-Soviet intellectuals used rhetoric and policies that alarmed the soft middle-of-the-roaders who found the KGB line so soothing.
Havel noted the difference: “The same word can be humble at one moment and arrogant the next. And a humble word can be transformed easily and imperceptibly into an arrogant one, whereas it is a difficult and protracted process to transform an arrogant word into one that is humble.”
Welcome others’ definition – and lose the language
We willingly embraced terminology that others applied to us with calculated and hostile intent. Most Americans like, or at least fully accept, the idea that their nation is a superpower. The word was not invented as a compliment.
The late Chinese communist leader Chou En-lai coined the term “superpower,” pejoratively against the USSR and the United States. He did so in a 1970 interview with French journalists, as part of an effort to show developing nations a third way between America and the Soviet bloc. The name stuck.
Both the Soviets and the Americans identified with the term and applied it proudly to themselves, though the idea helped crystallize fear and resentment around the world – sentiments that remain against the United States and complicate the current war effort. The term also helped solidify a global attitude of moral equivalence between the U.S. and the USSR.
This easy, unchallenged acceptance of the adversaries’ terms of debate showed a lack of national confidence and conviction, almost an admission that we thought we were on the losing side of history. It appeared to show an abandonment in some quarters of the exceptionalism that had given the U.S. its moral standing in the world.
Many Americans – shapers of opinion and policy among them – actually believed it, resigning the world to permanent “peaceful coexistence,” at best, with the USSR, and rejecting as dangerous the idea that the U.S. could nudge the decayed and overextended Soviet system to collapse from within.
The peaceful coexistence and détente advocates made it all the more difficult to resist or combat the infiltration of the adversaries’ semantics into the American lexicon.
Some recognized the problem and tried to change it. Early in his presidency, Ronald Reagan issued a directive to: “prevent the Soviet propaganda machine from seizing the semantic high-ground in the battle of ideas through the appropriation of such terms as ‘peace.’”
For three years in a row, the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy under Edwin Feulner repeated its recommendation to institutionalize a means to challenge inaccurate or misleading terminology. The government ignored it.
Then came the Soviet collapse. The United States entered into a period of drift and withdrawal in the early 1990s. It abolished the highly successful U.S. Information Agency, folding USIA’s remains into the State Department where the agency lost its independent culture and mission, and degrading the nation’s public diplomacy capabilities. When faced with a new enemy, U.S. leaders found themselves groping for the right words in the new war of ideas, wondering why it was so difficult to get the world to support or understand our cause.
“The costs of inattention seem to escape even those among us who pride ourselves on their ‘hardheadedness’ in matters of geopolitics and military strategy,” Moynihan wrote in 1979.Neither political party was immune: “This is not a phenomenon of one administration, but almost, I think, of our political culture.”
The words could have been written today. The more receptive the United States and the world become to enemy terminology, Moynihan warned, “the more will the nations of the world begin to accommodate themselves” to the adversary’s strategic aspirations.
This maxim was so during the height of the Cold War when a Soviet collapse was furthest from the minds of almost everyone, except those few who believed it could and must happen – and who took action to make it occur. And it is true today in the “Global War on Terror,” not only among Americans or in the West, but in the ummah of Islam itself.
In the next White Paper, we explore how words from the Arabic language and Islamic culture are used and abused, how semantic infiltration has warped the United States’ understanding of key Muslim concepts, how that misunderstanding worldwide has allowed extremists to dominate language and ideas in Islam, and what the forces of civilization can do about it.
Knowing and dominating the definitions of words is key to winning the international war of ideas.
Public diplomacy, public affairs, information operations, psychological operations, political warfare, and other aspects of strategic communication will be effective only if their practitioners fearlessly exploit the wealth of words that culture offers to define ideas and shape understanding of them.
Those practitioners must lead: not at the presidential level or cabinet level, but at every level in the bureaucracy of every government agency involved with communication. They need not wait for bureaucratic reorganizations, legal reviews and congressional appropriations cycles.
Fundamental shifts can begin with a single speech and skillful follow-up work. Successful shifts require leadership and relentless repetition at all levels. But the war of ideas will continue to suffer setbacks as long as those at the top continue to misunderstand or abuse words without regard for their best meanings.
 What passes for proficiency in foreign languages in the U.S. government shows that we are unlikely to understand the cultures with which we hope to communicate.
 Edwin J. Feulner, Jr., Chairman, United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, The Role of USIA and Public Diplomacy, January 1984.
 The USIA unit was the two-man Office to Counter Soviet Disinformation and Active Measures, which existed from 1983 to 1989. Its former director, Herbert Romerstein, authored a chapter on counterpropaganda for a forthcoming companion volume to this monograph.
 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Further Thoughts on Words and Foreign Policy,” Policy Review, Spring 1979.
 Ibid., p. 53.
 See Georgi Arbatov, The War of Ideas in Contemporary International Relations (Moscow, USSR: Progress Publishers, 1973); and Graham D. Vernon, ed., Soviet Perceptions of War and Peace (Washington: National Defense University Press, 1981).
 Vladimir Bukovsky, “The Peace Movement and the Soviet Union,” Commentary, May 1982; and U.S. Information Agency, Soviet Active Measures in the ‘Post-Cold War Era,’ 1988-1991 (Report for the Committee on Appropriations of the U.S. House of Representatives, June 1992);
 Not that some didn’t try. Hugh Seton-Watson’s The New Imperialism (Dufor Editions, 1961) is an example. The bitter controversy surrounding President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 denunciation of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” shows how unacceptable such truth-telling was even in the Cold War’s final years.
 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Further Thoughts on Words and Foreign Policy,” Policy Review, Spring 1979, p. 57.
 At home, seeking convenient labels as shorthand to explain foreign issues to a domestic audience, the prestige press routinely and inaccurately referred to the KGB as the Russian “equivalent” to the FBI at home and CIA abroad, as if it was a legitimate law enforcement and intelligence service. And so on.
 The Reagan administration laid out the strategy to bring down the Soviet Union, as one of the architects, Norman Bailey, describes in his monograph. Norman A. Bailey, The Strategic Plan that Won the Cold War – National Security Decision Directive 75 (McLean: Potomac Foundation, 1998).
 Ronald Reagan, “U.S. Relations with the USSR,” National Security Decision Directive No. 75, January 17, 1983.
 Ibid., pp. 58-59.
 Ibid., p. 55.