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Metaphors for diplomats: A ‘user manual’

Published on 23 August 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

Metaphors matter in the world of diplomats. Negotiations can be derailed; diplomacy is a game of chess; and states are people.

In an earlier blog, I suggested three ways in which they do matter. Each of these areas highlights a different take on the role of metaphors in language as well as in making sense of and creating the world. A skilful diplomat will be aware of all three areas and will be able to reflect on and use each of them when and where necessary. Based on my three-part taxonomy, I will make some practical suggestions for the work of diplomats. Awareness of the role of metaphors, especially beyond their role as figures of speech, is a key skill. This includes the ability to be able to choose appropriate metaphors to describe a situation and achieve a desired outcome. But moreover, being conscious of the metaphors used fosters greater self-awareness and understanding of others. Ultimately, it helps to bring into focus the very metaphors that International Relations are founded on.

Metaphors as tools for persuasion

I will start with the uncontroversial claim that metaphors, seen as figures of speech, can be tools for persuasion. Diplomatic negotiations are full of them. For example metaphors of movement can be used to preserve or create momentum of negotiations. Being “on track,” “racing against time,” and “step-by-step” diplomacy are just a few examples. If the aim is to highlight the danger of failure of negotiations expressions such as “being derailed” or being on “a slippery slope” can be helpful in invoking the desired emotional response and consequently the desired action.  Similarly, metaphors that allude to a common journey or a common goal can create a sense of belonging or connection.  

Metaphors as tools for accessing the world

In a second step, I would like to suggest that metaphors can serve as heuristic tools. In this sense, they help access as well as structure the world around us. For the “game” of diplomacy, sports metaphors and war metaphors are common examples. Metaphors can be used to make sense of the abstract and complex entities or concepts. In a metaphor two distinct things, issues, or areas of thought are brought into contact. One, the source domain, is used to make sense of the other, the target domain. For example, while most people have a good enough idea of what a game of chess entails, the structure and elements of diplomatic negotiations are less easily accessible. Describing negations as a game of chess can be a helpful heuristic tool. While these points can be taken a lot further from a philosophy of science perspective,  as part of this user manual I would simply like to suggest the following:

Being conscious of this role of metaphors allows the diplomat to be aware of her or his own point of view but also of the world view of the other side. This can be crucial, especially, when both parties operate on the basis of different root metaphors. Perceptions and actions will differ distinctly. Compare for example a view of negotiations as war with a conceptualisation of negotiations as game of chess. Similarly, metaphors structure how negotiation partners think of themselves and their role in the process. Paying close attention to our own unconsciously used metaphors and those of negotiation counter-parts can reveal a lot about world views.

Metaphors as tools for making the world

So far, metaphors were described as tools for persuasion and as elements of a world view or tools to access and make sense of the world. What we also need to consider is the possibility that metaphors create the world in the first place. I argue that the world that diplomats operate in is made by metaphors.

A look at past understanding of international relations helps illustrating this point. The rise of a mechanistic world-view from the 15th century onwards brought about mechanistic metaphors for international relations (a view of the balance of power as a force parallelogram for example). The 17th century saw the rise of machine metaphors and the view of international relations a self-regulating system. The fashionable idea of “levels” of international relations that implies a clear dividing line between the domestic and the international is another case in point.

Similarly, metaphors utilized to make sense of states in international relations provide us with interesting examples. 19th century thinking about states and nations utilised metaphors based in biology; the nation was seen as an organism. The idea of states as persons and the newer concept of “failed states” are also worth noting.

It needs to be stressed that these examples do not, in my opinion, depict “reality” dressed up in different clothes. These metaphors of the international realm and the state create reality in the first place; they create the very reality that diplomats act in. What I would like to suggest here is that seriously engaging with and being acutely aware of those metaphors that make the world of diplomats is crucial for being aware of the historic and cultural boundedness of what is too easily seen as stable and unchanging concepts. States, for example, are what we make of them and they don’t have an existence outside of our making.

Further reading:
G. R. Berridge. 2005. Diplomacy: Theory and Practice. Third Edition. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 64-6.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors we Live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Michael P. Marks. 2011. Metaphors in International Relations. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
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