Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Constructive ambiguities

Published on 04 July 2011
Updated on 05 April 2024

Every self-respecting diplomat has a (tall) story about a “constructive ambiguity” he created, saving a vital negotiation from foundering. Mine is based on two words: “and beyond” which I slipped into a Declaration long time ago, making the list of potential countries on the negotiations check-list open-ended. It worked, and the world became our negotiating oyster.

This was a strategic breakthrough. “Constructive ambiguities” often signify tactical stalemate. Neither side wanting to yield, the resolution of the contentious issue is postponed, and papered over.

This is often a wise thing to do. Time readily dissolves perceived “vital interests” into comfortable “policy preferences”. Dreaded breaking issues sometime never eventuate – and are forgotten. Ambiguities can be very destructive, however. An instance that readily comes to mind relates to maps establishing borders between India and Pakistan at independence. These maps were drawn hastily, without on-site verification, and
were instrumental in much subsequent contention, and needless mayhem.

The first treaty probably was a hand-shake. The specifics were left implicit, embedded in a shared code of honour. It was all a matter of reciprocal trust – and lack of paper to write it on. Hostages and brides were exchanged to underscore reciprocal trust: over time the parties were to become “one grand family”. Needless to say, it was soon: me and my brother against those good-for-nothing cousins.

The degree of ambiguity of such treaties was very high. As trust foundered, over time agreements became more explicit. Yet some of the underlying ambiguity remained, for words are symbols – signifiers – and can never full describe reality, particularly as reality becomes more complex. Words are always pars pro toto – pace nominalists as well as Platonists, who endlessly argued over the truth inherent in words (Plato, it is said, believed that the “idea” of the wheel existed even before it was invented). Just a reality, a text is “fractal” – it is “scale-dependent”[1].Close inspection of the detail dissolves clarity into underlying layers of complexity.

What one aims for is to produce a treaty whose text is at “the same level of generality throughout”. General principles are listed, and specifics are shunted off to Annexes (this remains an organizational gimmick, and does not resolve the ambiguity). Other, more general treaties (like the Vienna Convention of Treaties) stand as godfathers over the baptismal fount of the newborn treaty, pledging their vigilance that it will grow to
observe the general rules of good behavior in international relations.

“Constructive ambiguities” are exceptions to the search for the homogeneous level of generality and precision. Reciprocal trust – the negotiators call it “complicity” – in the form of an undifferentiated expression stands in place of an exact wording, allowing each side to provide to the trusting public cognate, if not congruent narratives.

A treaty is signed: from ratification on it has a life of its own. As persons and firms use it in their daily life the treaty grows and matures, and this experiential quality changes everything. Some provisions turn out to facilitate fulfilling the objectives, others are a hindrance; the treaty is put to new uses as the social and economic framework evolves. Technology can work wonders, or unexpectedly create a storm in a tea cup[2].

Living with a treaty soon wipes out the hopes and fears the negotiators had as the words were laid out on paper. A street-wise administration will disband the negotiating team immediately after signature to destroy the institutional memory[3]. “Constructive ambiguities” are a wasting asset.

Hrrmmmm. Humbug…

Pass the port, will you?


and in response to the comment by Dr. PEHAR

I have not read Dr. PEHAR’s book on “diplomatic ambiguities” – it would exhaust both my financial and time budget to do so. In my admittedly “light-hearted” notelet I tried to make a related point (without taking direct issue with his writing), which I thought would be useful, namely, that words are “scale” as well as “time” dependent. I’m afraid that Dr. PEHAR in his comment has missed this central point.

Better to explain myself, let me compare a Constitution with a Peace Agreement.

As a document ia Constitution is as ambiguous as they come, and mostly barren of material content – it’s mostly organizational procedures. It is the point of departure, however, for the emergence of laws. Laws too, are mostly ambiguous, hence the need for Parliamentary delegation to the Government to write regulations, and then down the line to bureaucrats to interpret the regulations.

One can see layers and layers of precision emerging as one moves from the general constitutional principle down to the specific instance. One hopes, but is never assured, that “the intention” or “the spirit” of the Constitution be respected all the way down to the specifics – otherwise one cries “unfair” – the crown jewel of ambiguity[1].

This is what I mean by “scale dependent”. As we go into specifics, words acquire meaning all the way down. There is no limit to the accretion process – unless we hit the de minimis clause which, however, itself evolves over time. One only needs to compare financial regulation then and now (and we have yet to rein in those rascals effectively).

Ambiguity, therefore, means “undetermined”, or “undecided”, not (necessarily) contradictory[2]. Dr. PEHAR’s examples[3] – the Delphic oracles – clearly show the fact that the oracle pretended to utter prophecies while conscious of its own ignorance – they were “I don’t know” writ cleverly.

The essential difference between a peace treaty and a constitution is that the latter is essentially a joint and ongoing commitment to procedures for resolving ambiguities. Peace treaties seldom contain such commitments, or then are part of the general diplomatic background. “Conflict resolution” clauses are mostly toothless: “best endeavor clauses”. Binding arbitration is seldom provided for, hence the unspoken right by either party to interpret the ambiguity unilaterally[4].

Even Constitutions may fail to resolve all ambiguities. The US Constitution does not contain the term “slavery” – what an ambiguity! – yet the original document of 1789 is shot through with this problem. The Founding Fathers were aware of this “hidden ambiguity”, and hoped for it to “die a natural death”. Technology (the cotton gin) destroyed this hope. The 3/5th rule embedded in the Constitution destroyed all chances that the issue of slavery might be resolved through Constitutional means – hence the eventual outcome: Civil War.

The other point I was making is that “time changes everything”. The infinite complexity of negotiating a peace agreement collapses into a few pages of text. No sooner has the ink dried on the signatures that the infinite complexity of living with the peace agreement begins – akin to the expansionary inflation after the Big Bang. We call the complexity before the signature “the spirit of …”, which we hope has not been lost as we threaded the complexity through the eye of the needle – the peace document – that is supposed to stitch together the two warring parties. This “passage” is transformative, and living with peace is what changes the text the most.

God thought he had put the “essence of the world” in Noah’s Arch, and destroyed bad “contingency” through the Flood. Alas, as the myth retells, “the spirit of sin” was on board as a stowaway, and humanity reverted to its former behaviour.

This kind of discussion – Dr. PEHAR will pardon me – has gone on ever since Confucianists and Legalists sparred against each other in an attempt to get the Chinese Emperor’s ear – he usually deferred to his favorite eunuchs.

The latest gyration is the ongoing discussion in the US between literalists and progressives in interpreting the US Constitution. We can never recover the “original intent” of the Constitution, if nothing else because words’ meanings evolve over time – virginity of meaning once lost through the passage of time can never be stitched together again. The whole discussion in fact is about how to make change explicit. Can it be done by judicial reasoning, or do we need a Constitutional Amendment? Those “beati possidentes” – blessed are the possessors – will ask for the latter, relying on the difficulty of the procedure to fend off any attack on their acquired rights. Others will rely on the guardian angels of ambiguity – the Supreme Court – to “read the election results” and decide in evolutionary fashion.

A final word of the “aim of language”: at the outset of the quoted article Dr. Dazen PEHAR writes: “the primary aim of language consists of transmitting information, in conveying a piece of knowledge from human being A to human being B”. This is an engineer’s view of language – I can see the rows of 00011110101 – not a linguist’s or a cognitive scientist’s (thankfully I’m neither).

Chinese does not convey “information” to me – it is just so much gibberish. For words to transmit “knowledge” both sides must share a world of meaning and context, and words therein are symbols and simply “signifiers” – the “pointed finger” as in: “Me Tarzan – you Jane”. How the few grunts and wheezes we utter translate inside our brains into “meaning” and “knowledge” is one of the great mysteries of all time. And whether such grunts and wheezes transmit “essence” – that’s just so much belief.

In a joking vein, let me thank Dr. PEHAR for pinning the “yellow star” of current intellectual discourse on me: might I be a post-modernist and a “believer in incommensurability”. Perish the thought. I’m so much attached to reality that Plato’s axiom that reality can be split into “essence” and “contingency”, and that contingency can be dropped without “loss of information” is anathema to me[5].

To survive in this world is as much as I can hope for. Knowledge is beyond our capabilities and possibilities. Theories are Procustes Beds all.

[1] “justice” and “fairness” stand to each other in fashion akin to “Gemeinschaft” and “Gesellschaft” in TÖNNES. Justice is based on explicit statutes, and fairness relies on implicit and shared understandings. In my notelet I spoke of the “clasp of hands” that obligated both sides – this was possible because both sides shared the meaning of “fairness”.

[2] Wittgenstein’s “duckbill”, which Dr. PEHAR mentions in his article, is just a special case.

[4] Or to “balance off” one unilateral ambiguity against the other, thus re-equilibrating the overall result. Quick and easy tit-for-tat.

[5] Plato went as far as to assert that the “idea” or “essence” of the wheel pre-existed its invention, and that invention was a “recovered memory phenomenon”. The corollary was the utterly elitist assertion that only “philosophers” – intellectuals in today’s parlance – could achieve “recovered memories”.

[1] An example is the question: How long is the coast of Great Britain? The more detail is included in tracing the coast-line, the longer it becomes. If we scale down to the molecular level, we would probably throw our hands up and mutter: infinite!

[2] Unless deodorized, fish meal cannot be used as animal feed, for it taints the meat. In the original EFTA Convention trade in fish meal, unlike other animal feeds, was not subjected to trade restrictions, reflecting implicitly this technological constraint. Deodorizing now allows fish meal enter the animal food chain as welcome protein source. The ensuing negotiations over this implicit ambiguity were long and acerbic.

[3] Well-earned promotion is the usual justification. The collateral damage to the history of the text has not gone unnoticed.

Link of original post

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog