4 thoughts on “constructive ambiguity”

  1. i thought it was “strategic ambiguity”, but that’s nitpicking. and as far as i remember, it also had to do with what was once known as ‘détente’.

    1. Thanks for your suggestion. As its qualification implies, strategic ambiguity is a unilateral factor of policy rather than a bilateral negotiating technique. Here is a claimed instance of the American security role extending far beyond the presence of troops and bases, and incorporating elements that are political, diplomatic, economic, and even psychological:

      For example, in the case of China and Taiwan, an American policy of strategic ambiguity serves to reduce the immediate risk of open conflict. The concept dates from the early 1970s and the Nixon-Kissinger rapprochement with the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). While it implies that the United States would help to defend Taiwan, the conditions under which it would do so are left unspecified in order to avoid needless antagonism of China, while discouraging Taiwan from actions that might provoke the PRC. And it lessens the temptation for China to invade the island by making clear to the Taiwanese that a move to formal, de jure, independence could negate the implied US security guarantee.
      —Robert J. Lieber, The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 159-160.

      By contrast, my main source for the Wikipedia article cites the Shanghai Communiqué containing an ambiguous provision inserted by the United States: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a province of China.” It goes on to point out:

      This sentence has been interpreted as the very first expression of American support for the “one-China” policy; for a reintegration of Taiwan into the PRC, although that is not how it should be interpreted in its original context. Actually, the inherent ambiguity of the term “one” was fully exploited. The fact that the PRC and Taiwan agree that there is “but one China” does not imply that they agreed on internal arrangements for the “one China”. Actually they disagreed on this. From the very opening of the Taiwan issue until well into modern times, China and the US have been unable to find a formula to ensure that the reintegration of Taiwan takes place. The term “one China”, however, helped the US itself express a proper balance between its relations with China and its relations with Taiwan without jeopardising either. The term was a clever tactic that the US employed to both maintain its policy of protecting Taiwan, on the one hand, and to promote its new policy of opening to China, on the other. It was probably the only way for the US to symbolically gratify both its own and China’s interests in relation to Taiwan.
      —Dražen Pehar, “Use of Ambiguities in Peace Agreements”, in Language and Diplomacy, edited by Jovan Kurbalija and Hannah Slavik, DiploProjects, 2001, pp. 163-200, at p. 180.

      So we see an instance of ambiguity exploited as a constructive step in a contentiously negotiated communiqué, evolving into a strategic policy element.

      I don’t have any examples of ambiguities negotiated in the course of détente. Can you recall anything of that sort? Incidentally, here is the latest take on Dr. K. echoing a contemporaneous Soviet joke.

      1. I think we’re pretty much talking about two slightly different aspects of the same concept. In other words, yes, I guess you could say that what you cited above can and perhaps should be considered as an example of strategic ambiguity. The way we learned it back in college (though I may have forgotten or blocked everything out) is more basic. Both sides have weapons and are not afraid to use them which makes neither side actually want to use them. This kind of deterrence remained relevant during periods of disarmament and the like because there were enough weapons to provide for the negative reinforcement of all-out conflicts anyway. In fact, it probably was and may still be a conscious choice to keep these sort of constructive doubts or paranoia alive. Just off the top of my head, I’d look into SALT I and II and generally in and around Kenneth Waltz’s works for starters. But, again, don’t quote me on any of this. It was all a long time ago.

        1. Oh, and what I forgot to say is that in these sorts of situations – whether they be bi- or multilateral – the term ambiguity refers to the lack of clarity as to whether either or any of the parties are actually crazy enough to strike, which provides for the desire to have nukes of your own; hence the arms race. In this sense, weapons have ensured relative peace. But of course we encounter strategic ambiguity in other contexts. Most women, for example, make it abundantly clear to their men that the mood can change at any moment for no obvious reason, which keeps the man constantly alert and behaving in certain ways.

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