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Our day-to-day verbal communication includes a sub-text of signals: some verbal and others__ non-verbal, some deliberate and others unintended, some subtle and others obvious. Methods    ofasignalling range from physical gestures and facial expressions to choices such the order    inawhich topics in a conversation are raised, what other people are present to overhear a conversation, and the tone or volume of voice used when talking about a certain topic. Signalling may be used to reinforce a message or to contradict it. For example, compare an invitation to dinner mentioned at the beginning of a conversation with a smile and a welcoming tone of voice with an invitation mentioned at the end of a conversation as an afterthought, in a hesitant tone. In the first case the signals reinforce the message, in the second, the listener may feel that her presence is not really desired.

Raymond Cohen writes “States have become adept at extra-linguistic forms of communication…[these] do not replace language, rather they complement, illuminate and supplement it.” (Theatre of Power: The Art of Diplomatic Signalling, London and New York: 1987) In diplomatic communication, as in communication between individuals, signals are frequently used to transmit messages. Actors of diplomacy often choose to use signals rather than direct communication for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is inappropriate for one actor to make too direct a suggestion or demand of another, or to transmit a message in person. A message passed through signals rather than directly also saves face for the receiving party, which can comply without seeming weak or refuse to comply without creating confrontation by simply ignoring the signals.

According to Christer Johnsson and Karin Aggestam, "the classic diplomatic dialogue can be seen as a system of signals, based on a code shared by the members of the profession." They point out that diplomatic signalling is characterised by "constructive ambiguity" for the following reasons:

First, it may be a deliberate means to retain flexibility and make signals disclaimable. Ambiguous signals allow the sender to argue "I never said that", "that is not what I meant" and the like, if the situation calls for it.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, ambiguity is often promoted by the need to take multiple audiences into account. ....In diplomatic signalling the potential audiences may be both international and domestic.

A third factor contributing to the ambiguity of diplomatic signals is the prevalence of non-verbal messages and "body language" in communication between states. Diplomatic "body language" has come to encompass everything from personal gestures to the manipulation of military forces. (“Trends in Diplomatic Signalling,” Innovation in Diplomatic Practice (ed. Jan Melissen), London: Macmillan Press, 1999, 151)


Diplomatic signalling is carried out through a wide variety of methods and means. A few    commonly used methods are described here.

One of the most widely used methods of conveying signals is the media—newspapers, television    or radio news, and now, increasingly, the Internet—as an intermediary. Christian Kaschuba of    the University of Washington writes that “the media are frequently used to send messages to    other governments. This allows for an informal exchange of information between leaders, indicating for example a willingness to talk or a pending military action against the other country. These messages are generally (and primarily) not intended for the general public in either country.” He provides as an example the following newspaper headline:

"Iraq Issues Threat to Hit Turkish Base Used by U.S." (NYT 2/16/99: A4)

The article reports that Iraqi Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan is threatening to hit a Turkish military base used by the US. While Iraq has not communicated this threat directly to the US government, a diplomatic message has been sent to the US with the assistance of the media. (Communications in International Relations course materials, Spring 2000

Drazen Pehar, researcher on language and diplomacy, provides the following scenario of signalling through the media in the Balkans: Imagine that the prime minister of Serbia, Zoran Djindjic, speaks to his Macedonian counterpart, and in the course of the conversation he says: "We have had too many divisions in the Balkans. We would regret it if Macedonia was divided into Macedonian and Albanian territories." While this comment was directed by Djindjic to his Macedonian counterpart, Djindjic knows that the conversation will be televised or published in full in a newspaper that the prime minister of Montenegro, Djukanovic, usually reads. Then Djindjic’s message to the Macedonian prime minister has meaning for Djukanovic and the government of Montenegro as well: approximately, that "Serbia and Montenegro should remain together. We would regret it if Montenegro was to declare independence and secede from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." In other words, Djindjic sent a message carrying a diplomatic signal to Djukanovic. 

Another example is provided by David Wigston in a study of international radio news coverage of South Africa elections in 1987, 1989 and 1994. Wigston writes: 

A Comparative Analysis of South African Election Coverage by International News Radio," Communicatio: South African Journal for Communication Theory and Research, Vol. 21 (2), 1995) 


A third person, or intermediary, may be used for diplomatic signalling, with or without her knowledge. The sender of the message tells something to the intermediary assuming that the intermediary will pass on the information to the desired recipient of the message. The content of the message may have one meaning which the intermediary understands, and another which is comprehensible to the intended recipient. The intermediary may not even know that she is being used as a messenger.

Drazen Pehar and Dietrich Kappeler, former director of the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, point out an example of signalling through intermediaries in Abba Eban’s book Diplomacy for the Next Century (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, 4-7). Eban recalls that when in September 1950 he presented his credentials as Israeli Ambassador to the United States, US President Truman mentioned to him twice that “the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima had caused him no anguish or discomfort.” Eban spoke to the next ambassador to present his credentials, Hermann Van Roijen of the Netherlands, and found that President Truman had also told him “that he had never lost any sleep over the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan.” Eban interpreted Truman’s preoccupation as a sign of his actual anguish and discomfort with his actions. 

Kappeler provides another interpretation for Truman’s statements that he felt no remorse over using the atomic bomb. The ambassadors were presenting their credentials in late 1950, at the peak of the Korean War. Kappeler believe that Truman was probably sending a diplomatic signal via the newly appointed ambassadors to the leaders of North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, or perhaps even the Soviet Union, that he would not hesitate to drop an atomic bomb again. Truman probably hoped that by mentioning his lack of remorse to enough people the message would eventually be transmitted to the intended recipient. 

Diplomatic Relations

Signalling can take the form of the cutting or establishing of diplomatic ties between countries. For example, an article by Jawed Naqvi describes how on November 21, 2001, India sent a diplomatic mission to reopen its embassy in Kabul which had been closed since the Taliban takeover, in September 1996. The author writes: “By re-establishing diplomatic ties with Kabul, India is signalling its commitment to political and economic reconstruction of Afghanistan.” ("Indian Diplomats Arrive in Kabul," Dawn (Pakistani English language newspaper), November 22, 2001) 

Kishan Rana, former Indian ambassador to Germany, discusses one of the classical signals of diplomacy:

Language, Signaling and Diplomacy," Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001) 

Diplomatic Visits

An article on the Center for Defense Organisation’s website examines the use of diplomatic visits for signalling. Senior Analyst Nicholas Berry writes that diplomatic visits are commonly recognised as symbols of the closeness of relations between two countries, but less recognised “is the signaling function of visits. Signals focus on future behavior.”

Using the example of the visit in September, 2000, of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to US President Clinton, and Clinton’s earlier visit to India, Berry writes that:

Clinton’s exchange of visits with India signaled to New Delhi that its nuclear weapon program and failure to sign both the Non-Proliferation and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaties will not impede closer ties. These subjects were mostly unmentioned during Vajpayee’s Washington visit. The U.S.-Indian visits also signaled to China that any aggressiveness, such as toward Taiwan, in the South China Sea, or over the disputed border with India, would drive the United States and India into a closer security relationship. 

President Clinton, after departing from New Delhi, made a notably brief stop in Pakistan to talk to Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, signalling 

to Islamabad that its continued support of Kashmiri guerrillas in their incursions into Indian-controlled Kashmir and its support of the Taliban in Afghanistan who harbor the international terrorist Osama bin Laden will continue to erode U.S. relations. It also signaled to Islamabad, by including the stopover at the last minute, that relations could improve with its return to democracy and its resumption of dialogue with India. 

At the same time the White House announced that the President would visit Vietnam in November after attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Brunei, “signalling to China once again that upsetting the status quo in East Asia would recruit willing partners for U.S. efforts to check such behavior.” 

Berry elaborates that the 

political efficacy of signaling via visits is that nothing has to be explicitly stated, thereby avoiding bruising nationalistic feelings and eliciting hostile responses. The subtlety of this mode of signaling has been valued historically, especially through multilateral summitry. One is reminded of the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic wars that signaled that radical political change in Europe would not be tolerated. The Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin wartime summits signaled to Hitler that the Allied coalition could not be broken. The various Camp David summits to broker Middle East peace sent signals that U.S. interest in Middle East oil is a high priority. The just-concluded Millennium Summit at the UN, where 154 government leaders gathered, signaled that globalization has virtually unanimous acceptance (if not enjoying unanimous enthusiasm). 

In addition, the volume of foreign visits - Clinton has traveled abroad more than any other president - signals to the world that America has many international commitments and worldwide interests, and so American world power is here to stay. ("Diplomatic Visits: Signaling As Well As Symbolism," Center for Defense Organisation Website, September 20, 2000)


Even the attire chosen for a particular event or visit can project signals. Kishan Rana writes that “The wearing of a particular kind of attire at an event of significance, when images are captured and broadcast around the world, may signify a hidden intent, for positive projection or for negative reasons. When national leaders visit their troops in the field, like President Bush in Kosovo in July 2001, they don ordinary combat outerwear, to underscore identification with the ordinary soldier.” (Diplomatic Signalling

Economic Sanctions 

In a 1989 article in Policy Analysis Joseph G. Gavin re-examines the common perception of economic sanctions. He concludes that “the chief purpose of foreign policy sanctions is to send signals and not, as is commonly perceived, to exert economic leverage.” He writes that the “questions and arguments about sanctions that consume the most time and energy usually center on whether they work. The answer is a matter of judgment, which depends critically on how one defines their purpose.” If the purpose of sanctions is understood to be signalling, then “sanctions can be said to work merely by application unless the signal is garbled." 

As an example, Gavin suggests that economic sanctions against South Africa have value if their purpose is seen as sending a message to non-white South Africans living under apartheid, and he reminds us that in fact, “clarifying U.S. policy on apartheid is a declared purpose of the legislation implementing the sanctions. In general, economic sanctions can send signals to any or all of three receivers: the target country, allies, and domestic audiences. ("Economic Sanctions: Foreign Policy Levers or Signals," Policy Analysis No. 124, November 7, 1989) 

Departures from Protocol 

A signal can be conveyed by a departure from diplomatic protocol, in a positive or negative way. Kishan Rana suggests that actions such as the "level at which a foreign dignitary is met at the airport, or who receives the foreign visitor for a meeting... a social gesture honoring the visitor, like a lunch, or some other function...especially when it is not mandatory under local custom” can all be used to convey positive or negative signals. He provides the example of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was a master of the “symbolic gesture; there was a clear but subtle distinction between the foreign visitors she received at the office table and those who were offered the sofa seat!” Rana provides a further example with the issue of punctuality: “Some years back, during a state visit to Morocco, the late King Hassan kept Queen Elizabeth waiting for some ten minutes, surely not by accident, but to assert a notion of ‘royal prerogative’ of his ancient monarchy, and indirectly assert equality with a major power.” Rana also discusses the “inconvenience display” as a powerful form of signal, “when a host goes out of his way to do something for the visitor at the cost of personal inconvenience, like coming to the front entrance steps to receive him...” (Diplomatic Signalling)


While diplomatic messages transmitted through signals offer some advantages to both sender    and receiver, as nothing need be explicitly stated, they also present some risks. Foremost is the    risk that a message might not be received, or more seriously, that it might be misinterpreted. Kishan Rana provides the following example: 

At the May Day parade at Tienanmen Square in 1970, Chairman Mao conveyed a    conciliatory signal to the Indian Charge d’Affaires, shaking hands with him and remarking    that the two countries should not go on quarrelling. It was the first personal bilateral gesture    from Mao in over a decade. Barely days later, while the move was under evaluation,    someone in Delhi, perhaps with pro-Soviet tendencies, leaked the news to the media where it was trivialised in headlines as a “Mao smile”, and the value of the signal was lost. It took some years of quiet effort by both sides to move even to the first step to normalisation, through the return of ambassadors in the two capitals in 1976. ("Language, Signaling and Diplomacy," Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

As this example shows, misinterpretation of signals often happens when a signal is interpreted differently in a different cultural setting. As Rana points out, the same signal may carry different meanings in different cultures. This problem is becoming more and more prevalent due to a change in the nature of the setting in which foreign policy and diplomacy operate. 

The setting in which foreign policy and diplomacy operate in countries has changed drastically, first, through the entry of multiple state entities into the diplomatic process in each country, overcoming the former exclusive role of the foreign ministry, and second, by the entry of non-state actors into the external relationships of each country…This means that there are many new players, who do not know the old syntax or style, using less subtlety and more direct language than before. 

Unlike the classic age of diplomacy, the period up to and immediately after World War II, when the number of nation states was barely one fourth of today, and most of the players had similar upbringing and mindsets, there is infinitely greater diversity now. Even while a single vehicular language dominates as the medium of discourse, the levels of language competence, both in the spoken word and comprehension, vary greatly. There is no certitude that direct communication will always be understood as intended, much less a subtle signal. This demands greater care over how one uses language, and greater sensitivity on how one is perceived by the other side. ("Language, Signaling and Diplomacy," Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Rana suggests with today’s diversity of cultures, diplomatic practitioners need to be more direct and resort to the use of signals less. 

Because signalling is an integral part of communication of all kinds it seems unlikely that its use can or should be avoided in diplomacy. However, as diplomatic communication deals at times with matters of high importance and the outcomes of diplomatic decisions effect vast numbers of people, misinterpretation of signals can have serious consequences. Awareness of cultural differences and conscious and considered use of signals is necessary now more than ever.


Evacuation of Soviet Personnel from Syria and Egypt - Middle East War of 1973
"The conspicuous evacuation of Soviet dependants and civilian personnel from Syria and Egypt three days before the fighting started may have been a tacit warning and a signal to Washington that the USSR was not involved in the Arab decision to go to war.” Source: Christer Jonsson and Karin Aggestam, “Trends in Diplomatic Signalling”, in Jan Melissen (Ed.) Innovation in Diplomatic Practice, p. 151.
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija; Date entered: 4/5/2002 2:47:04 AM

Gulf War - Baker's Speech
“‘Regrettably, ladies and gentlemen,’ I said, in over six hours I heard nothing that suggested to me any Iraqi flexibility whatsoever on complying with the United Nations Security Council resolutions.’…. From a tactical standpoint, the tone of my remarks was intended to reinforce the message that the United States was the reasonable party, not the Iraqis. My ‘regrettably’ also caused the stock market to reel…Oil prices which had dropped jumped from $ 23.35 when I began speaking to $ 31 five minutes later. If anyone doubted global interdependence and the power of instantaneous communications, those gyrations should have changed their mind.” Source: Christer Jonsson and Karin Aggestam, “Trends in Diplomatic Signalling”, in Jan Melissen (Ed.) Innovation in Diplomatic Practice, p. 164.
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija; Date entered: 4/5/2002 2:47:15 AM

Japan Signals Independence
"Since the two countries became allies after World War II, Japan has followed the United States obligingly on virtually every matter of international security that concerns them. Ensuring economic growth was always the full-time mission of Japan's leaders, and a snug spot under the U.S. diplomatic and military umbrella almost always seemed like a smart place to pursue this goal.

That is, until last week, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan held a summit meeting in North Korea, taking a major step toward normalization of relations with a charter member of President George W. Bush's "axis of evil." Suddenly, Japan seems more willing than ever to plot its own diplomatic course.

Both the United States and Japan have taken pains to play down any divergence over North Korea. But the agreements reached in Pyongyang, including an indefinite extension of a ballistic missile test ban by North Korea and promises of large-scale aid by Japan, seem far afield from the position of the Bush administration. And they suggest that Japan has its own ideas about solving global problems, especially when they concern its immediate neighborhood or the lives of its citizens."
Contribution by: Hannah Slavik; Date entered: 9/23/2002 7:22:15 PM

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