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Is ambiguity an effective diplomatic tool?

Published on 29 June 2002
Updated on 19 March 2024

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.

Norman 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?”

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