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War, diplomacy, and ‘dediscoursation’

Published on 20 August 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

In one of his most advanced reflections on diplomacy (147: Is war a biological trait?) Aldo Matteucci eloquently discussed one issue which is of key importance to diplomatic theory and practice, the issue of the causes of war. He briefly commented on a number of theories that aspire to illuminate the perplexing issue and then offered his reflections and prudently worded forecasts on our human, realistic ability to come to terms with wars, to contain or perhaps even fully remove their causes.

On one particular sort of the causes of war, however, Aldo was silent, so hereby I will try to both complement and enrich his Reflection No. 147. I do not consider this as Aldo’s fault, failure, or a sign of serious misapprehension – far from it. That particular cause is nearly totally absent from the standard genealogies or dominant theories concerning the flow of causes that lead to an outbreak of war, despite its obvious relevance and the gravity of its consequences. I refer to that particular type of the causes of war by an apparently complicated, but in my view a perfectly convenient label of ‘de-discoursation.’ For the reasons that will be addressed in the next few paragraphs, I view that type also as particularly fit to be influenced by diplomatic activity, as the type about which serious and engaged diplomats can do something.

So, the story goes as follows: imagine that human being is internally split into two components, an ‘ens belli’ (EB, the being of war) and an ‘ens loquens’ (EL, the speaking-discoursing being). For the former to become dominant, the latter needs to decrease in significance. In other words, the decision to cease negotiating, to stop using discourse as a problem-solving means, normally precedes the decision to wage war in a sufficiently large number of cases. This does not imply that the EL disappears – the will to negotiate never disappears fully – only that, in comparison to the EB, within a given context the EL does not enter one’s calculus as a defining feature of one’s attitude to another human being. In other words, one starts believing that one is unlikely to solve one’s problems with another human being by discoursing (hence the term De-discoursation); the next step is to start believing that one is likely to at least confirm one’s commitment to a cause by a resort to violence, by a physical defense of oneself as a believer in a cause, not by intellectual defense of the cause – hence war. Notice that, in the story, war is simply theorized as a side-effect of one’s loss of faith in discourse; war is not a logical outcome of anything, it is fought for a reason but cannot defend the reason – it defends the reasoner (War may perhaps still serve a purpose: to teach one party, or both, that the other party is serious about their claims, and that therefore all the claims should be taken seriously and tested peacefully and reasonably, for which a recovered faith in discourse is a prerequisite. I think I would half-heartedly concede that point to the tradition of ‘just war’ theory.).

However, this is also a deceptively simple story. ‘Dediscoursation’ takes place in many ways and is characterized by a varied dynamics. For instance, under the assumption that we deal with two actors only, both actors may experience ‘dediscoursation’; however, for a war to break out it suffices if a single actor experiences it, for obvious reason. Also, different mechanisms may be responsible for the phenomenon of ‘dediscoursation’. One is culture: for instance, imagine that you are born in a country which places a higher value on violent men than on those who believe that social-political problems need to be scrutinized, argued about, and resolved reasonably in the medium of verbal communication. The most interesting part of the story, however, is as follows: one actor may act upon his or her interlocutors in the way that contributes to ‘dediscoursation’ – that is a situation when you talk to somebody about some serious (social or political) problems but s/he is not engaged in discourse with sufficient seriousness, morality, or logical-epistemological responsibility. This is not an infrequent phenomenon and it characterizes international politics as much as quotidian human relations.

Ethics of discourse is here of critical importance: the use of discourse is human activity and as such it is not value-neutral – it is guided by some standards, principles, norms and values. This means that, whenever one talks to somebody, one displays the image of oneself as a moral, or immoral, discursive human agent: speak truth, be polite, heed the criteria of coherence, supply and ask for reasons, and keep your promises! Applied to the world of diplomacy and negotiations, this means that if you negotiate unethically, in the sense of the use of discourse that undermines the ethical substance of discourse itself, your negotiating partner will sooner or later sense an irresistible need to stop negotiating with you. Then, under ‘favorable’ conditions, you are just two-three steps away from the state of war.

To some readers this all may sound a bit too speculative, but in reality it is not. In many real-world cases aborted negotiations precede the state of war; in many cases, beginning at least with the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta, you will find that ‘broken promises’ precede the state of war; in many cases you will find that either conscious or unconscious disregard of truth played an important causal role in the chain of events that led to the outbreak of war (for instance, ‘appeasement’ period preceding World War Two, the US Congress ‘Gulf of Tonkin Resolution’ and the ‘domino’ theory as applied to Vietnam, perhaps ‘Račak massacre’ etc.); and in some cases you will find that the failure to address one’s interlocutors, or some population at large, through reasons resulted in political polarization of such a nature and intensity that an outbreak of war was just a matter of time (for instance, ‘Dred Scott v. Sandford’ 1857 US Supreme Court Case prior to American Civil War, or 1992 anti-constitutional declaration of independence of Bosnia-Herzegovina).

One chapter of my book ‘Alija Izetbegovic and the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina’ (available from https://www.scribd.com/doc/97178954/Alija-Izetbegovic) applies the theory of dediscoursation to a very interesting contemporary case from which junior diplomats can learn a lot. And of course, a more comprehensive analysis set within a proper conceptual-linguistic frame is in the making.

The theory of ‘dediscoursation’ does not aim to tell the whole story of the emergence of wars. But, I think it addresses an important part. It underlines the rational aspect of the causes of war and represents adequately the fact of continuous coupling and decoupling of the factors of force and reasonable negotiating throughout the pre-war-, war-, and post-war period. Also, if we take language to be key medium of diplomacy, then, from the point of view of diplomacy, the theory addresses the most interesting part of the story. Now, if the reader senses that my argument entails the belief that all major social-political issues are negotiable and resolvable through reasonable discussion, s/he is right. As to the belief opposed to mine, I view it not only as a serious underestimate of the power of human creativity, but also as simply an instance of ‘dediscoursation’.  

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