Attempting Diplomacy in a World Obsessed with Labels

Diplomacy. The word itself sounds somewhat tranquil, if not downright peace-inducing. Diplomacy is supposed to be at the heart of all international relations regardless of any particular nations that might be involved in political discourse. Unfortunately, diplomacy has many enemies. One of the most prominent is humanity’s obsession with labels.

During the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, the US was often referred to as a fascist country. In fact, some scholars still describe both the US and UK as practitioners of imperial fascism. Meanwhile, scholars and pundits with a more conservative bent freely throw around the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’.

What do so many labels do to diplomacy? They encourage diplomats to form opinions of other diplomats and the countries they represent long before any sort of interaction takes place. With opinions formed and strategies formulated, diplomats are unable to go to the negotiating table with a completely unbiased mindset.

Lenin, Socialism, and Communism

Marxist Vladimir Lenin was rather outspoken about his views of both socialism and communism. Unfortunately, he did not provide clear definitions of either one. To this day he is credited with saying that “the goal of socialism is communism”, though there is no proof he said it.

There is also no proof that Lenin believed socialised medicine was the foundation of a communist state. He is quoted as saying so, but there is no evidence he said any such thing. Why does this matter? Because people use these sorts of assertions as a basis for defining socialism, communism, and the relationship between the two.

To the pure capitalist, both socialism and communism are evils that must be purged from the earth. With such a mindset, it becomes easy to brand anyone with whom you disagree as a socialist or communist. People do it all the time.

Controlling the Means of Production

Though communism and socialism have never enjoyed hard-and-fast definitions across the entire political and economic spectrum, many people believe the differences boil down to the means of production. As the thinking goes, the socialist model encourages the private sector and government to collectively control the means of production and distribution.

The communist model dispenses with public-private cooperation to vest all control in the hands of a strong central government. In a communist state, the government ultimately controls everything. Knowing that, is China a socialist or communist country? Before you answer, do a little research. You’ll find the lines are a lot more blurry than you previously suspected.

The US, UK, and Fascism

On the other end of the label spectrum is fascism. Opponents of conservative politics love to throw this term around just as much as conservatives bandy about socialism and communism. But just what is fascism? The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “a political system based on a very powerful leader, state control, and being extremely proud of country and race, and in which political opposition is not allowed.”

There is no doubt that both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are nationalists. They are proud of their countries and have a tendency to put them first. Are they fascists? Are their nations fascist?

If you follow the Cambridge Dictionary definition, you have to say that they are not. The conditions of powerful ruler, state control, and no tolerance for political opposition settle the question. Donald Trump was an immensely powerful leader while he occupied the White House. But he was not a dictator. The laws of America’s representative republic prevailed for the entire four years of his presidency.

Likewise, Britain’s Parliament didn’t dissolve when Boris Johnson became prime minister. Johnson’s government does not exercise strong state control to the exclusion of MPs and the courts. Political opposition is not only allowed, but it is also encouraged.

WWII Germany and Italy

By contrast, both Germany and Italy operated under a fascist system during World War II. In fact, fascism gave rise to that war. In both cases, you had very strong leaders and strong state control. Political opposition was absolutely not allowed.

Compare the US under Donald Trump to Germany under Adolf Hitler. Compare the UK under Boris Johnson to Italy under Benito Mussolini. There really is no comparison in either case. Labelling the UK and US as imperialistic, fascist countries is both a violation of the terms and a disservice to their political ideals.

Disagreeing Without Attacking

The lesson in all of this is demonstrated in the concept of disagreeing without attacking one another. And right now, it is a lesson the world desperately needs to take stock of. Like so much hazard signage warning of dangers in the workplace, today’s political vitriol is a warning sign that bad things may be on the way.

The Western world can disagree with the Middle East and its seeming inability to find a lasting peace without the two sides verbally attacking one another at every turn. The US doesn’t need to continue sparring with North Korea any more than China needs to continue provoking the US.

When individuals assign labels to others, transparent interactions are immediately hindered. The same is true for countries. When one country assumes to know another country well enough to slap a label on it, that first country has already determined the second country’s position. How can the two have reasonable diplomatic relations if their labels are at opposite sides of the spectrum?

Actions More Important Than Philosophies

Labels are nothing more than words used to quantify what is often not quantifiable. In the end, they do not matter. They also do more damage than good. What really matters are actions. Indeed, actions are more important than political philosophy.

There will always be nations that lean more to the conservative side. Likewise, there will always be those that lean toward the liberal side. That has been the story of history thus far. It will continue to be the way of the future. If we are to keep the world at relative peace and stability, we must all recognise the fact that political philosophies are not going to change. Instead, we need to be better at diplomacy.

The best kind of diplomacy dispenses with labels. It doesn’t go to the table with preconceived notions and settled expectations. The best diplomacy grants all of those at the table the benefit of the doubt. It seeks to find common ground wherever it exists.

Ultimately, effective diplomacy rests on mutual respect. Political leaders do not have to agree on philosophy to show that respect. Yet that respect cannot be present where labels exist. Until we dispense with the labels and take those with whom we disagree at face value, nothing will change.