The Semantics of the Tower of Babel: Language and Morality in International Politics

The semantics of the Tower of Babel of international politics that suits all participants, on the one hand, seems insoluble, at least in the short term. On the other hand, a better grasp of it will make foreign policy processes more predictable, and lead to greater convergence and mutual understanding between countries and peoples over time.

Differing values ​​and a variety of associated moral attitudes are becoming an increasingly tangible barrier to a dialogue between existing global centers of power. The idea of ​​Western values’ universalism ​​is being increasingly rejected and is often perceived by developing countries as neocolonialism. As a result, those involved in today’s international politics increasingly speak in different semantic languages. This happens even when everyone is using common professional English for communication. The reason for this lies in different value paradigms and public expectations with regard to foreign policy in various social media. Therefore, mutual semantic misunderstanding has become a key problem in international relations. 

This can be seen clearly in practice. The G20 summits, which bring together representatives of diverse value systems, are a case in point. It is much more difficult to reach consensus on important and pressing matters at the G20 than at the more homogeneous G7 (at least, before Trump) or in BRICS. As a result, in order not to upset the consensus (for the media, consensus is perhaps the main criterion of a summit’s effectiveness from the perspective of the host country), the items on the G20 agenda have taken on a more general and abstract nature. The G20’s recommendations are beginning to look like the well-known formula “we are for all good and against all bad.” The media has stopped paying attention to anything in the G20 other than bilateral meetings between world leaders held on the sidelines. As a result, the G20, which was designed as a key forum for equitable geographical representation in global governance, was largely hollowed out because of the difference in value paradigms promoted by various groups of its participants and turned partly into a logistics platform for bilateral meetings.

G20 as a Venue for Meetings. and Nothing Else?
Oleg Barabanov
World public opinion is focusing on the G20 summit in Osaka. But the event itself reveals a very indicative pattern. If you read the press or comments by experts and politicians, you will notice that the overwhelming majority of stories are devoted to bilateral meetings on the sidelines, with writers engaging in guesswork as to whether or not such and such meeting is going to take place, and if it is, what its outcome, if any, will be. At the same time, the G20 agenda and issues discussed at its plenary meetings seem to be viewed as a matter of secondary importance. Moreover, by no means all the experts can say what precisely G20 is going to concentrate on this year. It was the same at last year’s summit in Argentina, and in 2017 too.
Expert Opinions

All this creates an urgent need for some kind of a global translation arrangement between competing value systems’ semantic languages. There will be a need to develop new semantics and semiotics that can go beyond the linguistic determination of the meaning of words and expressions, but will apply to value-based sign systems no matter how theoretical it might sound. 

By the way, the term itself, “global semiotics,” is by no means new in this discipline. But since it appeared in the wake of a universalist approach to values, the main question was about understanding the “global diffusion” of common norms and values ​​within the framework of “intercultural translation.” Perhaps the opposite approach should prevail from now on. 

What are the main political conditions for making this new “global translation” between competing value systems effective? The first one is clear: all countries need to recognize that their values ​​are not universal and that other countries are not required to share them. Clearly, this will come as a tall order for many countries (not just the West, but the non-Western countries, as well). Translation will not be effective without this. The above “diffusion” will remain in place and attempts to impose one’s own values ​​on other people will be preserved. 

Second, in order to understand other people’s values, there is a need for an awareness or education process to study them and to understand them politically and culturally. Clearly, here too, there is a thin line between providing education and imposing one's own values ​​on others, which should be avoided. 

Third is recognizing the right to the above “value non-alignment.” This means that value-based conditions will not determine political and economic agreements. Certainly, this would not be easy, either. 

Fourth, translation cannot be done without translators. The countries that are either at the junction of new values and are experienced in understanding each of these value systems or, historically and culturally, have been exposed to different value systems and ideologies, such as countries that adopted Western values ​​at some point in their recent history, but then abandoned them, or the like, can play a key role here. Countries that walk the line between the global West and the global East, between the north and the south, the countries that combine different national, cultural and religious traditions can play a role of their own. 

Last, ideally, effective global translation can ultimately lead us to a place where competing value systems will converge and, possibly, merge. That’s where common universal values ​​can become available and be shared by everyone rather than perceived as imposed from the outside. 

As a result, semantics and semantic translation for different types of foreign policy discourse are taking on particular importance. Therefore, in 2020, the Valdai Club will focus on these matters, including, among other things, a new diplomacy language, which, in a matter of one short decade, went a long way from the seemingly unshakable standards of the "gallant era." Is this just plain vulgarization or does it reflect the social forces’ profound needs? Diplomacy languages in some regions of the world (Asia, Africa and Latin America) with an emphasis on their specifics, where the semantics of decolonization, left-wing liberation discourse, and the semantics of the common fate of humankind are manifest, constitute a separate area of research. Naturally, such an emphasis on global semiotics calls for an interdisciplinary analysis, drawing on the findings and conclusions from linguistics, social psychology, cultural studies and other sciences. 

Of these related sciences, history has a place of its own. The Valdai Club has repeatedly written about the problems stemming from different perceptions of historical memory. The upcoming 2020 75th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War in Russia and World War II internationally will clearly focus on the semantics of war and victory. Its diverse and even opposite interpretations and perceptions may have consequential political significance and thus need to be analysed particularly thoroughly.

What Will Replace WWII in Our Minds When We Forget About It?
Andrey Bystritskiy
World War II began eighty years ago. But did it end six years after it began? The war’s hostilities ended in 1945 and the conflict later culminated with the trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo. But, strangely enough, its presence is still felt in modern politics, culture and our social lives. This phenomenon requires our attention, although Theodore Adorno doubted whether culture existed in principle after Auschwitz.
Message from the Chairman

Various semantic languages ​​and various values ​​adopted by the key participants in international politics have led us to a situation where the role of international law that is single and binding for all as a basis of international politics is being increasingly questioned. When a moral and value paradigm that dominates a particular society is at odds with the rigid framework of law, morality is above the law. This describes NATO’s attempts to legitimize the military operation in Kosovo in 1999 not through law, but through morality. Later, this trend was further developed through the concept of seeing the EU as a normative power.

As a result, the dynamics of international politics in the 21st century is more and more shifting from a traditional balance of power to the normative and value-based conditionality of foreign policy actions. Therefore, moral attitudes begin to play an increasingly important role in international diplomacy and foreign policy struggles that sometimes prevail over the law. This moral and value variable acquires particular significance in perceiving foreign policy by society in various countries.

To reiterate, there is no such thing as universal values ​​and moral principles that are shared worldwide. Therefore, inevitably, the problems of moral relativism begin to exert an ever-increasing influence on international politics, which is increasingly adopting the “friend or foe” approach where those who have been tagged “foe” are morally demonized. The Valdai Club will focus on these matters, moral relativism, value revisionism and the normative conditionality of foreign policy in 2020.

Overall, the semantics of the Tower of Babel of international politics that suits all participants, on the one hand, seems insoluble, at least in the short term. On the other hand, a better grasp of it will make foreign policy processes more predictable, and lead to greater convergence and mutual understanding between countries and peoples over time.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.