Politics is, ideally, a tool for civilization, for human flourishing and stability. However, identifying which policies are more or less likely to lead to a sustainable future and peaceful resolution of tensions is very important. Furthermore, the critical role of good faith and honest intentions in dealings with others is often overlooked. Without good faith, promises are worthless. If a government makes promises or signs treaties, only for a succeeding administration to pull out of them, there need to be extremely good reasons for such a significant withdrawal.
The United States has, in the past year, unilaterally withdrawn from two international agreements made by the previous adminstration. The first was the Paris Agreement, which came into effect on 4 November 2016. The second was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program, from which the US withdrew on 8 May. In 2016, we suggested that the former move was most unfortunate, but the latest withdrawal is also deeply serious.
International documents, be they legal treaties or non-committal agreements, have been helpful since the formation of international bodies like the United Nations after World War Two. Yet they can be constrained or weakened if involved parties (or forces within those parties) feel that those agreements can be easily canceled if they believe that they are, at any given time, not in their interest. Of course, the decision to withdraw from international agreements is every nation’s sovereign prerogative. However, we must assess whether the expressed rationale of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran deal, as one example, aligns with the action itself and the likely consequences. If these two aspects do not align, is it unfair to raise concerns of harmful speech?
Harmful speech also consists of false speech and speech that dissembles (concealing one’s intentions or disguising one’s true beliefs and desires because it is ultimately tailored to mislead others). The Analects—a collection of Confucian proverbs recorded in China’s Warring States period between 475 and 221 BCE and completed in the Classical Han period (206 BCE–220 CE)—discuss the idea of zhengming, commonly translated as the “rectification of names:” “If names are out of order, speech will not match reality, plans will be impossible to put into action, culture will decline, and punishment will be ineffective. The central task of the gentleman [junzi], then, is to put names in order. As Kongzi [Confucius] puts it, ‘The gentleman simply guards against arbitrariness in speech’ (13.3).” (The Snooty Empiric) According to scholar Cao Feng, this does not simply address social order or political philosophy, but could mean something very simple: “The importance of language in politics.” (Cao 2016) Janet Ainsworth, Seattle University’s John D. Eshelman professor of law, sees zhengming as “an evocative device” for “heightened sensitivity to nomenclature.” (Ainsworth 1996, 21)
Zhengming encompasses more than just respect for truth. It indicates, among many things, a majority consensus on what is epistemically reliable in a certain community—whether it’s the international community, or a collection of signatories to a treaty. Without this consensus, disorder, distrust, and chaos will reign. In both the traditional meaning and its application to comparative legal studies or politics, zhengming is socially oriented, with its application leading to a proper alignment of actions and a virtuous cycle of good faith and relations.
The most serious problem with the Iran deal—and in many other examples of domestic and foreign policy in Trump’s administration—is the abuse of language. It has allowed President Trump, and others within the administration, to engage in a series of untruths and lies about the nature of the treaty. David Usborne’s article in the Independent newspaper debunks some of the most serious allegations, for example, the Trump administration has stated that Obama sent US$1.7 billion to Iran when the deal came into effect, implying a bribe or pay-off, while in reality it was “owed to Iran for money paid to the US for military hardware that was never delivered.” Trump also cited Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying “that Iran had spirited out a ton of secret documents that would have given the lie to its claim that it never pursued a nuclear military capacity.” However, nuclear proliferation experts have lined up to deny this charge. (Independent)
There seems to be a misalignment between the act of withdrawing from the deal (which is inflaming extreme advocates pushing for military confrontation on both sides) and the stated desired outcome of that action (“a better deal” that will lead to peace between the very complex factions across the Middle East). It is more than likely that this intentionally aggressive stance will imperil broader prospects for peace and dialogue. While deceit has always been a part of geopolitical strategy, there are circumstances where lying is unacceptable. The goodwill and truthfulness required for treaties related to war and peace are of a similar character to Article 37 of the Geneva Convention, which prohibits feigning the intent to negotiate under a flag of truce or surrender.
It must also be considered how the disregard for giving decisions and actions their correct names has led to narratives that amount to false and harmful speech. Proponents of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 sold it to the public as an urgent and necessary response to September 11 and, more broadly, a war of liberation and against terrorism and Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. The opposite was true. Not only did Iraq not pose an existential or imminent threat to the US, the war and occupation of Iraq did not stabilize the Middle East or weaken Iranian influence—in fact, Iran’s position has been considerably strengthened. Those in favor of the Iran deal withdrawal argued and continueto argue the opposite of these realities.
The first and foremost maxim in Sun Zi’s The Art of War, another pivotal text of Chinese statesmanship, is that war is of vital importance and can lead to salvation or ruin, and because of this, it must be undertaken with the utmost gravity and seriousness. From a religious and moral perspective of a “just” war, any step toward conflict must be taken only after every attempt has been made to avoid it, and even then negotiations that lead to peace are preferable. Are there powerful and influential forces that believe that confrontation and war would benefit geopolitical interests or the balance sheets of the military-industrial complex?
The negative impacts of false and harmful speech and the mismatch between discourse and reality far outweigh any political or monetary benefits that war can bring. The voices for peace and the truth have often been in the minority, but they must continue to critique the forces that seek to wage war for perfidious reasons.
Ainsworth, Janet E. 1996. “Categories and Culture: On the Rectification of Names in Comparative Law.” Cornell Law Review, Volume 82, Issue 1. 19–42.
Feng, Cao. 2016. “A New Examination of Confucius’ Rectification of Names.” Journal of Chinese Humanities, Volume 2, Issue 2. 147–71.
Zhengming (The Snooty Empiric)
Trump promised and delivered on Iran. Never mind that he fabricated and misled all along the way (Independent)