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A word, phrase, or sentence is ambiguous if it has more than one meaning. (Kent Bach, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Ambiguity)

…any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language. (William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, London: Hogarth Press, 1927, quoted by Norman Scott, "Ambiguity versus Precision: The Changing Role of Terminology in Conference Diplomacy," Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

…ambiguities are pieces of language that 1. can be interpreted as meaning A, 2. can be interpreted as meaning B, and 3. cannot be interpreted as A and B simultaneously, but, eventually, as a neutral (re)source, from which, under specific focuses of vision/interpretation, both A and B might at separate times spring…In order to qualify as an ambiguity an expression must generate not only “at least two different meanings”, but also two incompatible and unrelated meanings. It is only then that an expression is truly ambiguous (Drazen Pehar, "Use of Ambiguities in Peace Agreements," Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

…ambiguity is a one-many relation between syntax and sense. (Geoffrey Leech, Semantics, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987, quoted by Pehar).

A good visual model of ambiguity is the well-known “duck-rabbit” picture, a drawing which can be seen as either a duck or a rabbit, but not both at the same time. This picture thus includes two separate and incompatible possibilities.


Most sources differentiate between two types of ambiguity: lexical and syntactic or structural.
A third type of ambiguity, textual ambiguity, is also of relevance in diplomacy. 

Lexical (also known as referential)

The comedian Dick Gregory tells of walking up to a lunch counter in Mississippi during the days of racial segregation. The waitress said to him, “We don’t serve colored people.” “That’s fine,” he replied, “I don’t eat colored people. I’d like a piece of chicken.” (Quoted by Stephen Pinker, The Language Instinct, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1994)

Lexical ambiguity is ambiguity based on a single word. In many cases, a single word in a language corresponds to more than one thought, for example, the adjective light (not dark vs. not heavy); the noun bank (financial institution vs. the edge of a river); and the verb run (to move fast vs. to direct or manage). Words may also have more than one meaning through their unrelated use in more than one category of speech, for example, can (a container of food – noun vs. to be able to – verb).

Inattentive use of ambiguous words can lead to humorous, or even awkward situations, as shown by these newspaper headlines collected by Stephen Pinker. 

  • Iraqi Head Seeks Arms
  • Child’s Stool Great for Use in Garden
  • Stud Tires Out
  • Stiff Opposition Expected to Casketless Funeral Plan
  • Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case

Syntactic (also known as structural or sentence)

In the movie Animal Crackers Groucho  Marx says “I once shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas I’ll never know.” (Quoted by Stephen Pinker)

Sometimes an entire sentence has more than one different and incompatible interpretations, even if none of the words are ambiguous. This happens when one part of the sentence may grammatical specify in more than one direction.

Drazen Pehar provides the following example: I am prepared to give the sum of one million dollars to you and your husband. This can be understood as I am prepared to give the sum of (1 million $) (to you) and (your husband) – making a total of two million dollars; or as I am prepared to give the sum of (1 million $) to (you and your husband) – making a total of only one million dollars.

Lexical ambiguity can also lead to humorous sentences, for example, the following collected from newspapers by Stephen Pinker.

  • Yoko Ono will talk about her husband John Lennon who was killed in an interview with Barbara Walters.
  • Two cars were reported stolen by the Groveton police yesterday.
  • The judge sentenced the killer to die in the electric chair for the second time.
  • The summary of information contains totals of the number of students broken down by sex, marital status and age.
  • No one was injured in the blast, which was attributed to a buildup of gas by one town official. 
  • One witness told the commissioners that she had seen sexual intercourse taking place between two parked cars in front of her house.

Cross-Textual Ambiguity

Drazen Pehar describes a third type of ambiguity which is based on incompatibilities between different parts of a text, or specifications in multiple directions, across a text. Pehar writes: “This kind of ambiguity is best exemplified with so-called 'open-ended sentences' which can be found in legal texts. For example, a chapter in a peace treaty may begin with a precise enumeration of the powers that one entity, for example, a central federal authority, may exercise. But at the end of the chapter an open-ended provision is inserted, which may, for instance, state that 'the central federal authority may exercise some other duties as well.'” ("Use of Ambiguities in Peace Agreements," Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)


We often hear the phrase “diplomatic ambiguity” used to describe a special type of language    used by diplomats. Professor Norman Scott, director of Diplomatic Training Programmes at the    Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, writes: “In common parlance the skill of    finding formulations which avoid giving offence and are at the same time acceptable to all sides is    treated with justifiable respect and often referred to as a 'diplomatic' form of expression. This    usage probably reflects an accurate perception of language and diplomacy down the years.” ("Ambiguity versus Precision: The Changing Role of Terminology in Conference    Diplomacy," Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploFoundation, 2001)

Why is ambiguity used in diplomacy?

Ambiguous formulations are used in diplomacy to allow for a degree of consensus when parties to a negotiation cannot come to an agreement. Drazen Pehar explains

If two parties have strong and contradictory interests, and if it seems that neither side is ready to concede a part of its maximum demand, and/or if the negotiations are running short of time and the parties can not discuss such concessions in more detail, then the issue of conflicting interests can be resolved by, so to speak, simulating a compromise in a very rudimentary form. The mediators may come up with a formula which is open to at least two different interpretations; which can carry at least two meanings, A and B, one to gratify the interests of party A and another to gratify the interests of party B…ambiguities make sure that, on the one hand, the parties retain their own individual perceptions as to “how things should proceed” and that, on the other, one common language is adopted, which both parties may later equally use. ("Use of Ambiguities in Peace Agreements," Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploFoundation, 2001) 

Norman Scott, in his paper on ambiguity in conference diplomacy, points out that while a party may push for precise language to “serve the purposes of his own side in stipulating claims or limits to commitments” it may seek ambiguity “to allay anxieties on either side or to secure a margin for subsequent interpretation.”  

Is ambiguity an effective diplomatic tool?

Arguments can be found both against and for the use of ambiguity in diplomacy. Opponents point out that an ambiguous formulation in a treaty or agreement does not actually resolve a problem but simply puts it off until a later time, or allows the parties to the agreement a means of avoiding their obligations. Proponents respond that in a conflict, any tactic that brings an end to actually physical violence is useful and valuable. 

Scott reminds us that in conference diplomacy ambiguity is usually used by parties seeking to avoid obligations, and that “in the drafting of legal documents such as contracts strenuous efforts are usually made to eschew ambiguity because their survival in the document improves the chances of one or other of the parties raising a successful challenge in court and thereby escaping fulfilment of ambiguous provisions…it is easier to hold a party to an agreement to a specific commitment than to a vague or ambiguous one.” 

According to Pehar, opponents of the use of ambiguities in peace agreements consider ambiguities a deceptive device which brings only temporary satisfaction. “Such satisfaction is deceptive because both parties have the right to interpret ambiguities in their own irreconcilable ways and that is a right they will certainly, sooner or later, start exploiting. That is also why ambiguous agreements may quickly lead to arguments, and turn into disagreements, as, precisely due to ambiguities, conflicts in interpretation will necessarily break out…For that reason implementation of an ambiguous agreement is very likely to fail.” Furthermore, “Just as, prior to an outbreak of war, the crucial terms of political vocabulary become ambiguous and generate misunderstandings and disagreements that then lead to war, an ambiguous peace agreement will itself generate new misunderstandings and add more heat to the parties’ already hostile feelings.” 

However, Pehar draws our attention to several factors in favour of the use of ambiguities, despite the fact that ambiguous agreements do pose a risk. First, “if an ambiguity makes it easier for negotiating parties to accept an agreement and therewith put a close to a war, or to a situation of increased friction or hostility, this should be taken as an argument supporting the use of ambiguities. Even if an ambiguous provision may later generate a conflict in opinion, the fact that the relationship of physical hostility gave way to the relationship of merely verbal conflict must be taken as a sign of progress. 

Second, ambiguity offers great potential for cooperative conflict resolution. It generates further conflict only when “parties insist on their own, unilateral interpretation of an ambiguous provision and do not recognise ambiguity qua ambiguity. If they recognise an ambiguous provision for what it actually is, a sentence or a text open to several incompatible interpretations, the argument over interpretations would in all likelihood give way to the relationship of a joint cooperative effort in the search for a third impartial reading of the provision.” 

Third, “they make the conflict of interpretation predictable. In other words, start from the premise that the parties to an agreement will continue fighting politically even after they sign a treaty. However, this process of political fight will be more channelled, more orderly and predictable if one knows in advance which provisions of the jointly adopted text will give rise to a conflict in opinion or interpretation.” 

Pehar concludes that ambiguous peace agreements should be “tolerated in an ambiguous fashion, used as a last resort and employed to the best of their capacity, with all the caution they deserve.” Finally, Pehar points out, as a final point in favour of the use of ambiguities in peace agreements, that “…societies whose members display an ability to tolerate an ambiguous state of affairs fare both economically and psychologically much better than societies whose members are lacking in such ability. Individuals tolerating ambiguity also tend to tolerate risks, to cope more easily with emotional or intellectual friction and conflict, and to refrain from jumping to premature conclusions when evidence is inconclusive…Those tolerant of ambiguity do not believe in a black and white image of human affairs, but find shades of grey more attractive and enjoyable. That is why one will hardly ever find them caught in the dangerous logic of 'zero-sum' games. If tolerance of ambiguity represents a value worth striving for, then why would one oppose the use of ambiguous wording in peace agreements?”


1994 Cairo Conference on Population, clause on abortion
Louise Lassonde (Coping with Population Challenges, London: Earthscan Publications Limited, 1996, 7) provides the following example: "In the Cairo Programme, various formulations which were contradictory a priori were worded in such a way as to satisfy all parties. This is what happened in the controversy over abortion, which was circumvented by means of a wording that satisfied all groups. It reads as follows:
"In those circumstances where abortion is not against the law, such abortion should be safe".
In other words, safety (and therefore the possibility of an abortion) is not relevant where a government regards abortion as unthinkable.Safety is recommended, however, where abortion is not unthinkable. Consequently, since all positions on abortion are given equal weight, the wording agreed upon satisfies both those who wish abortion to be safe and those who do not want to acknowledge their legitimacy except in specific circumstances spelt out in their domestic legislation. Although these wordings are sometimes convoluted and disconcerting for those not participating in the negotiations, they are of vital importance. This is becase they express a concept which is particularly effective since it is deliberately charged with a multiplicity of meanings, and so makes it possible to break a deadlock in negotiations."
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija
; Date entered: 10/8/2002 1:45:27 AM

Croesus at Delphi - Referential Ambiguity
Croesus, an ancient king of Lydia, asked the oracle at Delphi to foresee the outcome of his attempt to conquer the Persian Empire. The oracle, as clever as always, issued the following prophesy: "If you attack the Persians, you will destroy a mighty empire." In this sentence, the expression "mighty empire" was used in an ambiguous way. The way Croesus understood the expression was not even close to the way the oracle of Delphi intended it. What the oracle meant by "mighty empire" was the empire of Lydia whose king was Croesus himself, not the empire of Persia, as Croesus understood. So, Croesus, acting on his mistaken understanding of the expression "a mighty empire", did destroy a mighty empire, but it was his own. I also believe that Croesus understood the term "destroy" from the prophetic message too narrowly, because the oracle intended it to mean both "destroy" and "self-destroy".
Source: The History of Herodotus (Chicago/London/Toronto: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1952), 11.
Contribution by: Drazen Pehar
; Date entered: 4/16/2002 8:28:49 PM

Delphi Oracle - Syntactic Ambiguity
A famous Latin translation of one of the prophecies of the oracle at Delphi reads "Ibis, redibis numquam peribis in bello." Two different translations and interpretations may be provided for this sentence. 1. "You'll leave, and you shall never return as you will perish in the war." 2. "You'll leave and return, and you shall not perish in the war." "Numquam" here specifies in too many directions; prima facie it can specify both "redibis" and "peribis", but it cannot specify both simultaneously. However, nothing in the sentence indicates to which verbal phrase the "numquam" qualifier should be allocated.
Contribution by: Drazen Pehar
; Date entered: 4/5/2002 2:16:01 AM

Rambouillet Agreement
Rambouillet mediators started with the premise that interests of Serb and Kosovar-Albanian delegations to the Rambouillet negotiations contradicted one another. The Serb delegation, for instance, wanted to maintain the status of Kosovo as a province with very little, or no, competence in foreign relations, among other things. The Kosovar-Albanian delegation had different interests; to turn Kosovo into at least a fully-fledged republic on equal footing with the other two republics of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: Serbia and Montenegro. This status, of course, entails the capacity to run certain aspects of foreign relations independently from the central federal authority. Secondly, the Serb delegation wanted the Rambouillet draft agreement, such as it was presented in Rambouillet, to remain binding in the foreseeable future. The Kosovar delegation had an opposing interest which was not envisaged by the Rambouillet draft: to turn Kosovo one day into a fully independent entity. They therefore wanted to see a revision of the agreement as soon as possible as well as to organise a referendum to check the will of the people of Kosovo vis-à-vis the status of Kosovo within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Mediators to the Rambouillet process decided to use an ambiguous wording to bridge the gap between the aforementioned interests. The constitution, as the key part of the Rambouillet Draft agreement, stipulated that "Kosovo shall have authority to conduct foreign relations within its areas of responsibility equivalent to the power provided to Republics under Article 7 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." So, the mediators made use of a referentially ambiguous adjective "equivalent", which is not the same as equal, but could be. As to the interim character of the agreement, the mediators used both referential and cross-textual ambiguities to meet the demands of both delegations. First, the draft agreement itself was called "Interim-agreement", to the liking of the Albanian delegation. However, Chapter 8, Article I, 1-3, stipulated that amendments to this agreement should be adopted by agreement of all parties. That meant that without Serb consent the interim agreement could not be changed; and that thereby it would turn into a permanent arrangement. However, in Article I, 3, mediators emphasised that "three years after the entry into force of this Agreement, an international meeting shall be convened to determine a mechanism for a final settlement for Kosovo" which seemed to tilt the balance of the wording again in favor of the Albanian demands…

To remind readers, the Serb delegation did not accept the Rambouillet draft agreement, whereas the Albanian delegation accepted it in such an ambiguous fashion that its acceptance was just a bit better than the Serb refusal.
Contribution by: Drazen Pehar; Date entered: 4/6/2002 1:12:46 AM

Athenian Constitution
In the sixth century B.C. the Greek poet and statesman Solon wrote a constitution for Athens that was considered a revolutionary turn in organisation of both Athenian social and political life. As Aristotle explains in his book "Athenian Constitution", Solon provided a framework for the resolution of the inter-group conflicts inherent in sixth century Athenian society, leaving an important part of his constitution deliberately ambiguous; open to free interpretation. As Aristotle says, some have interpreted Solon's strange decision to do this as implying that Solon primarily wanted to extend the powers of Athenian courts and by implication to strengthen the political position of the "demos"; of the common people of the middle strata of Athenian society. Namely, Solon had opened the possibility for the "demos" to play a larger role at the Athenian courts than they played before. Unfortunately, today it is very difficult to reconstruct the precise differences in interpretation of the ambiguous parts of the constitution by the different strata of Athenian society of that time. Nonetheless, it is clear that there was a conflict of interests and that Solon intended to strike a balance between those interests by including provisions in his constitution that were open to several equally valid interpretations. Source: Aristotle, "Athenaion Politeia, 9 2, p. VIII," in Aristotelis Atheniensum Respublica, recognovit brevique adnotatione critica instruxit, ed. F.G. Kenyon (Oxford: Oxonii, 1958).
Contribution by: Drazen Pehar
; Date entered: 4/5/2002 2:29:25 AM

Sri Lanka - Tamils - the word "eelam" (homeland)
The Economist (13.04.2002, 15) points out that the success of the peace-process in Sri Lanka is linked the interpretation of one ambiguous word: "Whether or not that happens [peace process] will mainly revolve around that word 'eelam', which means 'homeland' but is silent about just what a homeland should be. Is an eelam 'a fully independent state for Sri Lanka's Tamil' or something less that could provide some chance for negotiations.
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija
; Date entered: 4/16/2002 8:40:47 PM

Consensus and Ambiguity: Buzan on the Law of the Sea Negotiations
"...given the large amount of negative power implicit in consensus procedures, it is reasonable to fear that their product might contain more than the usual amount of vague and ambiguous drafting. Such drafting commonly indicates a failure to resolve political differences and a consequent decision either to blur the meaning or else to formulate the provision in such away as to contain the disputes. The principal danger arising here is that while ambiguity may be politically useful in the negotiations, it may lead to ineffective law shot through with implementation problems, especially if the objective of the negotiation is a hard level of agreement. Buzan provides some examples: "the 200 meters or limits of exploitation criteria for the edge of the continental shelf in the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf, the use of the undefined term "peaceful purposes" in the 1970 Declaration of Principles resulting from the work of the Sea-bed Committee, and the more recent attempt in Negotiating Group 7 at UNCLOS to contain competing positions on principles for delimiting sea boundaries between states..."
Source: Barry Buzan, "Negotiating by Consensus: Developments in Technique at the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea," American Journal of International Law, 75.2 (1981): 345.
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija
; Date entered: 4/28/2002 9:18:16 PM

Maltese and EU membership
"While there is a specific and unambiguous translation for 'member' (“Malta issir membru tal-EU”) there is no such translation for “membership”. We must make do with the ambiguous shubija, which can also mean “partnership”. This is very confusing: “membership of the EU” translates as shubija fl-UE and “partnership with the EU” (a thoroughly different and unquantifiable kettle of fish) translates as shubija mal-UE. Yet a member is a membru and a partner is a shab.
...In their aim to swirl the muddy waters of the less educated public mind, they have the best possible weapon at hand: language. While the government chats away about shubija fl-UE, they hammer on about shubija mal-UE as opposed to shubija shiha. They use the linguistic soufflé to sell as fact the notion that there is some form of partial membership in the EU (silver, say, instead of gold), by which Malta can obtain all the advantages while protecting itself against the disadvantages. In other words, it will allow us to stay exactly as we are, in our bubble, but better.
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija
; Date entered: 5/26/2002 2:18:06 AM

Homoousia and the First Nicean Council
The First Nicean Ecumenical Council that concluded with the adoption of the Nicean Creed aimed first at refutation of the Aryan heresy and then at bridging the gaps between various interpretations of the Holy Scripture, and thus at reconciling the differences between various Christian schools and doctrines. So, in a way, the First Nicean Council was an arena of negotiations aimed at producing a mechanism for resolution of an intellectual conflict. One of the most controversial issues that the Council discussed was the issue of interpretation of the relationship between Jesus Christ and his Father, God. The Aryan heresy taught that their relation was one of heterousia, of difference in substance. The Council decided by an intellectual fiat that their relationship was in fact one of homoousia. Now, interpretation of this Greek formula is not an easy matter, since it can be understood in two different ways. Homoousia can mean "identity of substance", but it also means "similarity of substance". The fathers of the Nicean Council deliberately avoided the stronger version of synousia, which means full and complete identity of substance. So, they actually selected a weaker version of the word describing the relationship between the Father and his Son Jesus, to leave the door of their creed open to those who had certain difficulties with the belief in total identity between the divine and the human substance.
Contribution by: Drazen Pehar
; Date entered: 5/28/2002 1:00:38 AM

Woodrow Wilson's 14 Points
Wilson's 14 Points for an international settlement to World War I were subject to a variety of interpretations from different national standpoints. For example, point 4 on "arms reduction to the levels consistent with domestic safety" is clearly ambiguous, as is point 10 on "autonomy for the peoples of Austria-Hungary". Lippman (Public Opinion, New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997, 133-138) pays special attention to the ambiguities of Wilson's point 8, which speaks about the issues that plagued the then Franco-German relations. This point stipulates that "all French territory should be freed and the invaded portions restored, and the wrong done to France by Prussia in 1871 in the matter of Alsace-Lorraine, which has unsettled the peace of the world for nearly fifty years, should be righted." As Lippmann sharply notes, Wilson did not say that the Alsace-Lorraine region would be simply returned to France. He did not say that because at that time it was unclear whether the French would have continued to fight had they been offered a plebiscite in this matter. The purpose of the sensitive wording of this point however was to leave the possibility of such an interpretation open. Besides, Wilson has loaded this point with another meaning. Approximately at the same time France had made a secret agreement with Russia to demand that Germany return Alsace-Lorraine under the wider 1814 concept of the region. Wilson happened to know about this secret arrangement, and he did not agree with it. In other words, Wilson left the methods of exact implementation of the "rectification" provision to be worked out in more detail later in the process, leaving enough elbowroom for French interpretation of the methods as well as for its secret ambitions. However, he also clearly pointed out that rectification should aim at the injustice done to France in 1871 and not in 1814. He thus opened quite enough room for his own reading to eventually oppose the wider French interpretation of "Alsace-Lorraine" following from France's secret agreement with Russia.
Contribution by: Drazen Pehar
; Date entered: 5/28/2002 1:00:23 AM

Yalta Declaration
The Yalta Declaration contains a number of ambiguous formulas that served to bridge the gap between the positions of the US, Britain, and the Soviet Union vis-à-vis the post-World War II global order. Its chapter dealing with the Polish question is notorious for ambiguities that Stalin later put to his advantage, for which he was strongly criticised by Churchill, who accused him of violating the Yalta spirit. However, all Stalin later did in regard to Poland was simply to implement the Soviet interpretation of the ambiguously worded Yalta Declaration chapter on Poland. While the British and American interest was to see a free Poland with a democratically elected government, truly representative of the will of its people, Stalin wanted to see an obedient and controllable Poland, which could not be used by another great power as a corridor against the Soviet Union. As the two interests were obviously incompatible, the Big Three were unable to agree on anything but an ambiguous text which allowed for a number of interpretations. For instance, as to the issue of reorganisation of the then Polish "Lublin" government, which was Moscow's puppet, the Three agreed that it would be reorganised "on a broader democratic basis", and include both democratic leaders from Poland itself and from Poles abroad. The text did not literally state that the Polish leaders from abroad should come from the Polish government in exile in London, but Churchill's reading of the text probably assumed that would be the case. As to the holding of free elections in Poland, the Yalta declaration stated that the Polish Provisional Government of National Unity "shall be pledged to the holding of free and unfettered elections as soon as possible". It seems that Roosevelt and Churchill missed one important thing: the text assigned the responsibility for the holding of free elections not to any of the Big Three, but to a yet to be established Provisional Government. This left enough room for Stalin to evade this provision without having to take any blame. Finally, the Poland chapter stipulated that in "these elections all democratic and anti-Nazi parties shall have the right to take part". "Democratic and anti-Nazi parties" is a term vague enough to generate considerable argument over the parties eligible to run in elections.
Contribution by: Drazen Pehar
; Date entered: 5/28/2002 1:01:11 AM

UNSC Resolution 242
After the crushing defeat that Israel inflicted on joint Arab forces during the Six Day War in 1967, the UN Security Council agreed on the text of the famous resolution 242. What should be emphasised is that the resolution was a result of bargaining between the powers sitting in the Security Council and that it reflected the deeply polarised political opinion at the United Nations in the period following the war. The ambiguous provision is the following: "establishment of just and lasting peace in the Middle East should include the application of both the following principles:
- withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in recent conflict;
- termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for...territorial integrity...of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries."
This resolution uses the English construction "territories occupied in recent conflict", from which the definite article "the" has been omitted. That is why it was possible to raise the question as to whether Israel was actually asked to withdraw from all the territories occupied in the recent conflict, or to withdraw from some, but not all, territories. Another controversy that followed this resolution was due to the French translation of the document, which unlike the English original used the definite article: "Retrait...des territoires occupes lors du recent conflit". So the French version, which together with the English version is an official UN version of the document, suggested that Israel must withdraw from exactly those territories that it occupied during the Six Day War. It is clear that such an interpretation was in harmony with the demands of Arab countries and they did their best to prove its validity. Israel, of course, opposed such an interpretation and it seems that the sponsor of the resolution, Lord Caradon, had no intention of inserting the definite article either. Caradon also emphasised that the fact that the second part of the first provision sheds additional and clarifying light on the first part must be given uppermost consideration. Actually, the second part generates what I called a "cross-textual ambiguity", as it says that all states have the right to live within secure and recognised boundaries, which the boundary before the Six Day War was not, according to Lord Caradon. By implication Israel did not have to withdraw to its pre-Six Day War borders. It seems that the second part of the first provision opened even more room for Israel to interpret UN SC Resolution 242 to its own advantage.
Contribution by: Drazen Pehar
; Date entered: 5/28/2002 1:01:25 AM

Six Point Agreement
After the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt the very first problem both negotiators and parties to the war encountered was the issue of the status of the Egyptian Third Army, surrounded by the Israeli Defense Force on the eastern side of Suez. After the first phase of peace talks held in October, almost no progress was achieved. The talks continued in Washington in November, while in parallel the UN Security Council issued Resolution 340, which demanded that the Israeli Force withdraw to the lines occupied on October 22, 1973, at 1650 GMT. In that way encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army would end. However, Israel refused to comply with the UN SC Resolution 340. Thereafter negotiations fortunately continued and resulted in an agreement called the "6-Point Agreement", signed on November 11 at Kilometer 101 of the Cairo-Suez road. One of the chief mediators to the agreement was Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State, who during the negotiations frequently used the term "constructive ambiguity" to explain his negotiating strategy as well as the key purpose of the 6-Point Agreement. For instance, provision B of the agreement contains an ambiguity which served the purpose of making it easier for Israeli negotiators to engage in further talks leading to Israel's compliance with SC Resolution 340. The ambiguous provision was thus the only possible way to ensure that talks continue and arrive at a solution that would save the face of one of the two parties, which would not have been possible if the solution had been arrived at by a quick jump or a fiat.
Provision B says: "Both sides agree that discussions between them will begin immediately to settle the question of the return to the October 22 positions in the framework of agreement on the disengagement and separation of forces under the auspices of the UN." This provision is a shining example of a "syntactical ambiguity" that Egyptian and Israeli negotiators could interpret in diametrically opposite ways, depending on which syntactical links between the parts of the provision they saw fit. Egyptian negotiators interpreted this provision as a clear demand that Israel withdraw its armed force in accordance with UN SC Resolution 340. The syntactical link they saw fit was the one between "return to the October 22 positions" and "under the auspices of the UN". Israeli negotiators however understood the provision simply as calling on the parties to negotiate a "separation of forces" agreement without any specific request to return to the October 22 lines. The syntactical link they saw fit was the one between " settle the question" and "under the auspices of the UN".
Contribution by: Drazen Pehar
; Date entered: 5/28/2002 1:02:05 AM

Shanghai Communique
During Nixon's February 1972 visit to China, President Nixon and Chairman Mao adopted the Shanghai Communiqué, 2/3 of which consists of unilateral expressions of each country's specific views of international relations, and the remaining 1/3 of which consists of a number of jointly accepted provisions. Within those joint declarations, the part implicitly addressing the issue of the Soviet Union is ambiguously worded. First, the Communiqué says: "each (referring to the US and the PRC) is opposed to efforts by any other establish such hegemony (meaning "a hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region")." It further says "neither is enter into agreements or understandings with the other directed at other states." Here we have a piece of cross-textual ambiguity as the first sentence says that both China and the US agree to resist possible Soviet attempts to establish a hegemony in the region. The pronoun "each", however, expresses this in an ambiguous way, as if China and the US have their own individual views that accidentally coincided. The second sentence says that neither the US nor China are willing to agree on an action directed at other states, including certainly the Soviet Union, which implies that they did not agree on any concrete preventive measure to counter possible Soviet attempts at establishing hegemony. In other words, the first sentence conveys a soft kind of threat to the Soviet Union, while the second sentence weakens the threat by dismissing the possibility of joint US-China action directed at other states. In this way, the Shanghai Communiqué delivered an ambiguous threat to the Soviet Union, a threat in a sort of embryonic form. Both China and the US are likely to have adopted this kind of language to leave enough diplomatic room for their own unilateral build-up or improvement of relations with the Soviet Union.
The Shanghai Communiqué contains an ambiguous provision in its unilateral parts as well. The US inserted into the document the following sentence: "The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a province of China." This sentence has been interpreted as the very first expression of American support for the "one-China" policy; for a reintegration of Taiwan into the PRC, although that is not how it should be interpreted in its original context. Actually, the inherent ambiguity of the term "one" was fully exploited. The fact that the PRC and Taiwan agree that there is "but one China" does not imply that they agreed on internal arrangements for the "one China". Actually they disagreed on this. From the very opening of the Taiwan issue until well into modern times, China and the US have been unable to find a formula to ensure that the reintegration of Taiwan takes place. The term "one China", however, helped the US itself express a proper balance between its relations with China and its relations with Taiwan without jeopardising either. The term was a clever tactic that the US employed to both maintain its policy of protecting Taiwan, on the one hand, and to promote its new policy of opening to China, on the other. It was probably the only way for the US to symbolically gratify both its own and China's interests in relation to Taiwan.
Contribution by: Drazen Pehar
; Date entered: 5/28/2002 1:02:37 AM

Dayton Peace Accords
The Dayton Peace Accords (DPA) ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, redrawing and decentralising its internal structure. The Dayton Constitution of BiH (Annex 4) is the annex of the DPA in which one finds the most interesting examples of ambiguities. For instance, in article III, provision 1, the Constitution clearly defines responsibilities of BiH institutions by the method of enumeration (foreign policy, foreign trade policy, customs policy, monetary policy, finances of the institutions of BiH, immigration, refugee and asylum policy and regulation, international and inter-entity criminal law enforcement, establishment and operation of common and international communication facilities). All responsibilities not expressly assigned to the central institutions were placed on the entity level. But article III, provision 5.a, introduced a cross-textual ambiguity into this annex. It reads that "Bosnia and Herzegovina shall assume responsibility for such other matters as are agreed by the entities...or are necessary to preserve the sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence, and international personality of BiH, in accordance with the division of responsibilities between the institutions of BiH." Provisions 1 and 5.a together result in an ambiguous text; a cross-textual ambiguity which may be interpreted in two different ways: first, as providing entities with powers that cannot be delegated to the state level unless entities expressly agree to it; and, second, as providing the state with vaguely defined powers that have not been mentioned in the list from article III, provision 1, and for which no express consent by the entities is needed. In other words, while article III, provision 1, seems to reduce the powers of central authorities, provision 5.a seems to open room for a reverse procedure, for the extension of powers in an admittedly less determinate way.
Contribution by: Drazen Pehar
; Date entered: 5/28/2002 1:01:49 AM

Good Friday Agreement
The "Good Friday" Agreement adopted on April 10, 1998, set an institutional framework for resolution of the political conflict in Northern Ireland. Prior to the agreement Northern Ireland was torn between two contradictory political ambitions. Unionists favoured maintenance of links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom whereas the Irish nationalists favoured integration of Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland. A relative compromise that negotiators achieved on Good Friday 1998 brought partial satisfaction to both political ambitions. The "Good Friday" compromise rests on three key institutions: 1. a Northern Ireland Assembly with an executive composed of "up to 12 members"; 2. a North-South Ministerial Council: an all-Irish body which confirms the link between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; and finally, 3. a British-Irish Council, including Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, as well as Britain.
The Good Friday Agreement left certain relations vague, which was the main factor that allowed the parties to put incompatible constructions on the deal. For instance, it is clear that nationalists would welcome an extremely strong, or, even better, a dominant North-South Ministerial Council. On the other hand, unionists would prefer that it be washed off the earth altogether. That is why the Good Friday Agreement left the details of the Council deliberately underdetermined, i.e. ambiguous, and both parties were given enough room to project their own interpretation of the details into the ambiguously worded parts of the deal. Now, the details of the North-South Council are described in "Strand Two" of the agreement, while key ambiguities in the Strand can be identified in provisions 8 and 9, including an annex to the Strand.
Namely, the Good Friday Agreement defines two channels through which the North and the South may cooperate. First, through establishment of "implementation bodies" under direct jurisdiction of the North-South Ministerial Council, and, second, through assignment of "areas of cooperation" in which the North and the South would cooperate through existing separate bodies under their separate jurisdictions, rather than through newly established "cross-border" institutions. The agreement furthermore says that there should be at least twelve "subject-areas" of cooperation between North and South; six in each category, meaning six to be covered by "implementation bodies" and six others to be treated as "areas of cooperation". The agreement also provides an annex containing a list of items that may be included in the twelve "subject-areas". It is thus quite clear that the Good Friday Agreement left open the possibility of more than twelve "subject areas" and more than six items in each of the two categories. Furthermore, the list from the annex could be interpreted as a compulsory list, but also as a noncompulsory one, depending on the way one reads the meaning of the auxiliary verb "may" in this context.
Conflicting interpretations of these provisions placed a considerable burden on the negotiation that in December 1998 resulted in a new and precise agreement on "implementation bodies". Starting from the same Good Friday framework, unionists demanded that the number of bodies be limited to the original six, while nationalists logically demanded that there be at least a few more. On December 18, 1998, on the basis of the aforementioned provisions of Strand Two, the new agreement determined that there would be six implementation bodies to cover the matters of language, trade, EU programs, food-safety, aquaculture and marine, and inland waterways. But one of the most interesting details of the December 1998 deal was the fact that while nationalists gave up their interpretation of the Strand Two provisions 8 and 9, unionists gave up their interpretation of the Strand One provision 14. In that way unionists conceded to the nationalist demand that there be ten ministerial departments in the Northern Ireland executive. This was a perfect case of a balanced trade of interpretations in which unionists let nationalists decide on interpretation of the ambiguous provision 14 of Strand One, while nationalists in turn let unionists decide on interpretation of ambiguous provisions 8 and 9 of Strand Two.
Hence it was through a fair trade that the parties to the Northern Ireland peace process cleared up several key ambiguities of the Good Friday Agreement. However, one must not forget that original ambiguities in the Good Friday framework actually made it easier for both parties to embrace the deal, launch the peace process and, as some have put it, take the gun out of Irish politics.
Contribution by: Drazen Pehar
; Date entered: 5/28/2002 1:00:53 AM

US and RF Arms Treaty
On May 24, 2002, the USA and the Russian Federation agreed on a treaty for arms reductions. The USA calls the treaty “Treaty Between the USA and RF on Strategic Offensive Reductions" while the Russian version of the title translates as “Agreement of the Reduction of Strategic Offensive Potentials." Is this discrepancy between the American and Russian titles deliberate, in order to satisfy both countries? Or is it related merely to language: a Russian translation of the words "strategic offensive reductions" demands a final noun; otherwise, what is being reduced is a mystery.
Contribution by: Yuliya Druzhinin
; Date entered: 6/1/2002 1:54:07 AM

ITU negotiations and ambiguity
During the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2002, Senegal proposed an amendment to Resolution 11 to replace the expression "a significant part" with a specific percentage, namely "80%". The change being proposed is to the sentence: "That a significant part of any surplus income over expenditure derived from the activities of TELECOM should be used as extra-budgetary income for the Telecommunication Development Bureau, for specific telecommunication development projects, primarily in the least developed countries."
The Highlights document from this meeting explains “A number of developing countries wanting to protect their interests in the TELECOM surplus fund supported the Senegalese proposal on the grounds that "a significant part" has always been the subject of much debate at Council sessions and at the previous plenipotentiary conference because the expression is vague and ambiguous. While recognizing that the Union is in dire financial straits, these countries believe that ‘it is time to decide on a percentage at this Conference in order to put an end to that ambiguity and its varied interpretations’
Contribution by: Jovan Kurblaija
; Date entered: 11/5/2002 12:48:16 AM


26 Feb 2012

Ambiguity in diplomacy came in useful again last week. On Friday, Serbia and Kosovo reached an agreement for Kosovo representation at regional fora.

29 Jun 2002

Arguments can be found both against and for the use of ambiguity in diplomacy.

29 Jun 2002

Ambiguous formulations are used in diplomacy to allow for a degree of consensus when parties to a negotiation cannot come to an agreement. Drazen Pehar explains

29 Jun 2002

Louise Lassonde (Coping with Population Challenges, London: Earthscan Publications Limited, 1996, 7) provides the following example

Resources - texts and articles

Drazen Pehar looks specifically at the use of ambiguities in peace agreements.

Of central concern in the field of negotiation is the use of ambiguity to find formulations acceptable to all parties.

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