Who is Our “Adversary”? A Question of Language

Photograph Source: United States Army – Public Domain

There’s a new word in town, folks – or rather an old word with a new meaning. It has become the fashion among politicians and journalists to describe nations like Russia, China, and Iran, and leaders like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Ali Khamenei, as “adversaries.” This is a term that gives me the creeps both because of what it says and what it hides.

According to Webster-Merriam, adversary is another word for “an enemy or opponent,” but in today’s parlance it has become a blurry euphemism.  Russia and China are called adversaries by people who loathe and fear these governments, but who consider it crude, impolitic, and possibly dangerous to label them enemies. You go to war with enemies.  But what if you want to trade with them?  What if you want to trade with them and attack them, using methods short of bombs and bullets?

“Adversary” provides an answer by introducing a note – actually, a whole symphonic score – of ambiguity.  The Oxford Dictionary tells us that the word means “one’s opponent in a contest, conflict, or dispute.”  This is how an anti-Russian (or anti-Chinese, anti-Iranian, or anti-Anyone) critic can have his cake while eating it too.  The phrase “Russian adversary” conjures up a dangerous, long-lived and malicious enemy, reminding us that the term’s secondary meaning is “Satan; the Devil.” If challenged, however, the phrasemaker can always say, “I only meant that they are our opponents in a dispute. You know, like business competitors.”

Such a convenient blur! Since the opponent is an adversary, not necessarily an enemy, it’s ok to trade and negotiate with him instead of going to war. But, since he is an opponent, and therefore assumed to be “hostile” (another current buzzword), it’s also ok to punish him using such measures as economic sanctions, cyber-warfare, and covert activities.

The great expert on this sort of calculated linguistic sloppiness, of course, was George Orwell, the celebrated author of Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, and 1984. Here is what he said about ambiguity in “Politics and the English Language” (1946):

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

In the case of words like adversary, “sheer cloudy vagueness” puts the matter too mildly. “Adversary” suggests more than temporary opposition or friendly competition. It is an epithet designed to make you clench your fists, even if you don’t throw the first punch. So, what happens if you don’t go along with someone who uses the word? Consider this Q & A:

Q:  Wait a minute.  Why do you call Russia (or China, or Iran) an adversary?

A:  Because the Russians interfered in our election.  Also, they annexed Crimea, helped keep Syria’s Assad in power, and support Ukrainian separatists.  (Alternatively, because the Chinese steal industrial secrets, the Iranians back armed groups like Hezbollah, and so forth.)

Q:  But nation-states do this sort of thing all the time – the United States most of all!For example, the Israelis, Saudis, and Americans spy on each other and interfere in each other’s domestic affairs nonstop.  They also do violent things of which other states strongly disapprove. Yet we don’t call Israel and Saudi Arabia adversaries.  We call them allies!

A: Well, the Saudis and Israelis areallies. They do not threaten U.S. power and global interests as the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians do.  They do not promote anti-democratic, anti-American ideologies.  And they do not have a history of hostility to the United States of America.

Now we begin to detect some of the real reasons for labeling another nation or people an adversary – but the answers given above require a bit of translation.

For example, it is said that those called adversaries “threaten U.S. power and global interests.”  Translation:they do not behave as they are ordered to by the world’s only superpower, an empire whose military forces are vastly more powerful than those of all the other powers, great and small, combined.  (Good lord – don’t they know who’s the boss?)

Another accusation states that adversaries represent “anti-democratic, anti-American” ideologies.  Translation: their societies are dominated by a small elite of bureaucrats and billionaires who don’t respect the law, while our society is . . . umm . . .  Forget it!

Third, we are told that adversaries have “a history of hostility” to the USA.  Translation:  The U.S. government has a history of hostility tothem.  Somehow, in producing a narrative of continuous conflict, we manage to forget America’s efforts to strangle the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian revolutions at birth, overthrow upstart regimes around the world, and maintain global hegemony by killing vast numbers of people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. What this narrative also ignores are significant periods of cooperation such as World War II, when the Russians sacrificed 20 million people to enable the Allies to defeat Adolf Hitler.

My point here is not that nation-states like the United States, Russia, and China are harmless buddies.  Far from it.  They are organized, elite-dominated polities with violent proclivities representing what one might call the post-adolescent phase of human social development. Nevertheless, it makes no sense at all to single out a few such entities and label them adversaries, when what that term really reflects is the labeler’s own fear, hostility, and uncertainty about the relationship.

The United States defeated Russia in the Cold War.  Thirty years later, the Russians are reasserting their claim to be treated as a significant player in world politics.  Does this make Putin an adversary, or merely another participant in the geopolitical poker game?  Xi Jinping is the latest arrival at the table, one with a very large supply of chips and nerve.  Is he therefore an adversary or merely a player to be taken seriously?  Ali Khameini’s ambitions are far more limited; he wants to be a top-rated regional player.  Is he an adversary, or merely an opponent pro tem of certain players we have decided to label allies?

You may object that the metaphor is ill chosen; international politics is a matter of life and death, not a poker game.  But the only party to view the struggle for prosperity, respect, and a place in the sun as an all-or-nothing existential proposition is the monopolist.  To the American elite, China’s ambitious and self-protective economic development programs feel like a threat.  Ditto with regard to Putin’s assertion of Russian interests in bordering states and the Black Sea region.  This is notbecause China and Russia are adversaries, however, but because such moves threaten to turn a global monopoly into an oligopoly.  What the term obscures is the process by which a superpower-dominated world is becoming  multi-polar.

Weirdly enough, Donald Trump seems sometimes to have a better understanding of this development than the U.S. military and intelligence establishments and the right wing of the Democratic Party.  What Trump does not understand, however, is that the move towards multi-polarity will not produce a stable world order.  In the twentieth century, the “Great Game” of global power politics gave us two world wars.  In recent years, the game has become increasingly dangerous and dysfunctional, since it exacerbates rather than solves the underlying social problems that generate terrorism and other forms of violence.  And “violence” now includes a potential nuclear and thermonuclear firestorm.

For this reason, the only game worth playing from here on is one that transforms the current structure of global politics by moving from adversarial relations between nation-states to cooperative relations between peoples.  I hear that our Russian “adversaries” are creating a museum to commemorate the cooperation between Americans and Russians during the early days of World War II.  In Berlin, the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute conducts annual forums on topics like “Multipolarity and dialogue in global and regional developments: imagining possible futures” (2017).  Many other programs around the world, including some sponsored by my own university, are moving in a similar direction.

With a little luck and determination, we may live long enough to become participants in a human civilization.  In this effort, as George Orwell understood, language matters.  A first step, small but significant, will be to stop calling Russia, China, Iran, and other global neighbors adversaries.  Fellow players presently engaged in a dangerous game, we can recognize them now as future friends and partners.