Words are important. Last week’s video on Gibraltar inspired a lot of confusion in the comments. People didn’t seem to understand why I found the statement from the UK’s Michael Howard so offensive. So this video explains in detail. Using violent words in a time of international uncertainty can lead to violence. History shows us this.
The video was already too long, so I left out examples of how this happens. In the pre-industrial era you could see this sort of thing all the time. Lands were ruled by Kings and Nobles, with a delicate sense of honor, who would sometimes start wars over verbal insults. The Spanish Armada, the most famous example of tension between Spain and Great Britain is one example. The Spanish tried to invade Britain for a number of reasons, among them religious words, but some of them were personal. Phillip II of Spain was angry that the English Queen Elizabeth had rejected his son’s hand in marriage.
You can see the importance of the words of leaders in the run up to World War I. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 tells the tale. For decades European leaders used belligerent nationalist talk about their enemies to legitimate their rule. They found that this got out of control. Their newly moneyed and literate publics took these words to heart, and ran ahead of their rulers in their hatred of the other. World War I was started by a perfect storm of idiocy, but a lot of it started with words. When the few leaders with sense could see what was happening, they found that they were constrained by the nationalist beast they had unleashed. That beast ended up eradicating the power, and sometimes the lives of most of Europe’s royal families. It’s a great book, and an important read as we fall back into the nationalist maelstrom. I’d suggest giving it a look…
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there, Today I’d like to talk about how people talk about other countries. So a week or so back, the formal Brexit proceedings started. Great Britain is leaving the EU, and the European Union put together, sort of a preliminary talking points document. And in this document, there was something that was kind of a legalistic stab. It was a statement that Spain would have a veto on any settlement of the relations between Gibraltar, a chunk of land that Britain owns, that’s right next to Spain, and the European Union.
Last Week I made a video talking about the response of a UK politician, who compared Spain to 1980’s era Argentina and threatened the use of military force. Now 1980’s Argentina is one of the more vile dictatorships we had during the 20th century. The body count wasn’t as high as some of the other ones, but it was a pretty terrible place. So it’s a very insulting statement, and it’s also a threat of violence. Now this struck me as very like going into divorce proceedings with your spouse, and then getting up in front of the judge and threatening to beat the crap out of your spouse. Not a good move. Not very polite.
That reading of this event seemed pretty straightforward to me, but it’s become clear from the YouTube comments to that video that a lot of people don’t see it that way. They saw these two things, the EU making a sort of legalistic push and this British politician threatening military force, and comparing Spain to a really nasty dictatorship. They saw these two things as being equivalent somehow. As a fair give and take.
So I thought I’d explain a little bit more about why the British comment bothered me so much. We’re entering a new era of geopolitics in 2017. Nationalism is on the rise. I think I’ve made it pretty clear in my other videos that I’m not the biggest fan of this development, but I think we all can agree that we need to look at these things objectively and figure out how we can all survive in this new era peaceably, no matter how nationalist, or not nationalist a country is. So in an era of nationalism, in an era of renewed competition between different countries, people need to be more careful about what they say about other countries, not less.
World history is filled with examples where a stray word, or a silly thing that somebody said, turned into a larger conflict. Words have power. Angry words, threats of violence, can turn into real violence. Words can cost thousands of lives. Now I’m not talking about individuals. I’m not talking about people saying stuff on YouTube, I’m not talking about journalists, I’m not even talking about political candidates.
But for individuals like this guy last week, who can be interpreted as leaders in their country. He’s a member of the House of Lords, if I recall correctly, and he used to be in charge of the conservative party, during one of the times when it was in opposition. So he’s a sort of quasi-official figure for the British government. People like him need to be more careful about what they say. In a new, more nationalist era, like the one that we are entering, the words that are exchanged between countries become more important.
There are more options on the table now. In 2017 it looks more possible than it has in 70 years, for two large, powerful state actors to come into conflict. Wars between states are much more serious, and much more dangerous than anything we’ve seen. The potential of a battle between Russia and Turkey, or Russia and the United States. Or even Spain and the United Kingdom, would likely kill dramatically more people, dramatically more quickly than any kind of civil war. Even the horrible one in Syria that’s going on right now. To be clear, I don’t think there’s any chance that Spain and the United Kingdom will get into any kind of shooting war in this decade or the next. But after that?
The point I’m trying to make is that people in public life need to be more careful about what they say in a nationalist era because the stakes are so much higher. I don’t think anybody wants war. Even hyper-nationalist people who want a more assertive reading of their country’s rights put out there, they’d like to accomplish that peacefully… I’m assuming.
So last week, Donald Trump was criticized for a lot of things… a lot of things. But there was one criticism in particular that I thought was unfair, and I think it illustrates what I’m talking about here. As a candidate, Donald Trump said a lot of things. And he said a lot of things about China in particular. One of the statements he made was that when he was president, and it came time for a state dinner or some kind of interaction between Donald Trump and the leader of China, that there wouldn’t be any kind of official dinner or anything like that. He was gonna buy him McDonald’s and they were going to get to work.
Well, last week, Xi Jinping, the leader of China came to visit the United States and they sat down for a very official looking state dinner. The internet went crazy with this, and a lot of people thought they’d “gotten” Trump or something like that, and I don’t, I don’t agree with that. I actually think that Donald Trump should be applauded for changing his stance on this issue. It recognizes that there’s a difference between what an individual says as a candidate and what they say when they’re representing their country. I still think that Donald Trump is way too negative on China, and I think a lot of his plans are troubling, and not the right thing to do, but I applaud Donald Trump for acknowledging that he can’t follow up on his sillier campaign pronouncements when it comes to diplomacy.
State dinners are important. Observing the forms are important. What our politicians say about other countries is very important. Donald Trump has learned that he has to be more careful about his statements and actions when it comes to China. That’s a great thing.
If politeness goes out the window, as we saw last week, the story becomes about the comments. And the politicians and the governments in question lose control of the issue. What should have been a very straightforward negotiation, where the British said “We believe this provision is unfair and it should be off the table” it’s now become a darker conversation. The British and Spanish people are both now dramatically more aware of this issue, and harder angrier positions are forming. That simply wasn’t necessary.
As you look back through European history you can see that diplomacy has always been something that has been handled very carefully. The relationships between states, even when they were fighting each other, or they knew they were likely to get into a war sometime soon, were always very careful, very measured. Even when they were making demands that the other country would never accept.
This was a survival strategy. In a more nationalist era, the chances of disputes between state actors becoming wars becomes much higher. This means that people who can be seen as speaking for their country need to be more polite, and more careful with their words, not less.
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