Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, August 25, 2003

“We Are Transitioning Towards the Truth”

Henry Srebrnik, Calgary Herald

Anyone who has been a student of politics for any length of time can spot optimistic doublespeak after a while. Calgary Herald readers will immediately recognize some of the most common terms, used time and again by diplomats and by journalists covering news stories from various trouble spots.

When you come across one of these, abandon all hope for that particular country or group of countries. Because the end result will, unfortunately, all too often turn out to be the reverse of the wishful thinking behind the phrase in question:

“International community”: a term that refers to some 200 sovereign states that often are at each others throats and jealously guard their independence

“Peace process”: this phrase is applied when nations or groups within them are in a state of permanent conflict. Examples: Catholics and Protestants in Ireland; Israel and the Palestinians; India and Pakistan

“Conflict resolution”: this refers to unsuccessful attempts by third parties, such as the UN or the European Union, to broker peace in ethnically-divided war-torn countries where there are often irreconcilable “zero-sum” differences. Examples: Burundi, Rwanda, Solomon Islands

“Fragile cease-fire”: this, too, describes continuing hostilities between implacable enemies, usually in a protracted civil war. Examples: northern Arabs and southern Blacks in the Sudan;
Russia and Chechen secessionists; Sri Lanka and Tamil guerrillas

“Peacekeeping force”: these are ineffectual foreign troops inserted between belligerent factions in a volatile country or between hostile states, usually resulting in a semi-permanent cessation of hostilities and a freezing of the status quo, with no final political resolution of the conflict. Examples: Bosnia, Cyprus, Kosovo

“Power-sharing agreement”: this indicates that there are two (or more) inflexible groups within a state, each determined to gain absolute and permanent control of the instruments of government and eliminate all rivals. Examples: Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Madagascar

“Transitional government”: used to identify a powerless regime located in the capital of a failed state with strong warring factions that have created a political vacuum at the center. Examples: Afghanistan, Cambodia, Somalia.

“In transition to democracy”: this signifies that a country will forever be subject to dictatorial or military rule. Examples: Guatemala, Indonesia, Nigeria

“Nation-building”: this term is used in reference to failed states that never were, and never will be, viable nations. Examples: Lebanon, Liberia, Sierra Leone

I hate to seem cynical. Regrettably, though, when trying to make sense of these and other complex political disputes, a sense of pessimism will usually far better serve readers as a realistic guide than if they were to heed the optimistic mantras that so often pass for political analysis in the media.