The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Legitimacy and rhetorical cover in international politics

March 27, 2006

Nidal al-Mughrabi of Reuters writes:

Hamas called on Monday for talks with Western powers to seek a “just peace” in the Middle East but showed no sign of softening its stance on Israel as it presented its government to the Palestinian parliament.

Hamas’s prime minister-designate, Ismail Haniyeh, told the assembly that his cabinet, expected to win a vote of confidence and take office by mid-week, was ready to open a dialogue with the “Quartet” of mediators.

But the United States, grouped in the Quartet with the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, quickly ruled out direct talks with the militant Islamic group unless it renounced violence, accepted interim peace deals and recognized Israel.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev dismissed what he called “double talk” by Hamas, winner of Palestinian elections in January, saying he saw no change of policy by an organization pledged to destroy the Jewish state.

In his speech, Haniyeh used the word “peace” five times and called for “resistance” only once, prompting members of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction to suggest Hamas was either sending conflicting signals or going soft.


But he peppered his speech with language that could be seen by some foreign powers as more conciliatory.

“Our government will be ready for a dialogue with the Quartet … to look into all ways to end the status of struggle and to achieve calm in the region,” said Haniyeh, who will take over a Palestinian Authority on the brink of financial collapse.

“Our people are in need more than any other nation on earth for peace, for security and stability. Our government will not spare any effort to achieve a just peace in the region.”

A spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Israel spurned the proposal: “Whomever Hamas plans to be ‘dialoguing’ with, it won’t be the United States,” said Stewart Tuttle.

Haniyeh’s call for talks could expose differences within the Quartet, which has drafted a peace “road map” that neither side has respected, over how to deal with Hamas, which formed a government alone after failing to get other parties to join.

While Washington is boycotting what it brands a terrorist organization, Russian officials have already met Hamas’s leaders and the United Nations could seek a bigger mediating role, Western diplomats said.

International-relations theorists routinely debate the influence of rhetoric, signals, and talk in world politics. One perspective considers the sort of statements made by Haniyeh “cheap talk.” Haniyeh doesn’t suggest any actions that might signal a credible commitment to a peace process with Israel. His rhetoric also doesn’t involve any particularly “costly” elements, i.e., those that would harm Hamas’ domestic political relations to key constituencies, such as recognizing Israel’s right to resist or renouncing violence. This perspective alligns pretty well with that of US and Israeli policy makers.

Other scholars–but not enough, in my opinion–focus on the strategic benefits of ambiguious signalling. If Haniyeh’s aim is to craft rhetoric that simultaneously satisfies Hamas’ rank and file but also provides just enough running room for some of the quartet–particularly the Russians–to legitimate a stance in favor of providing more material and diplomatic support to the Palestinian government, then his speech represents exactly this kind of strategic use of ambiguity.

But this raises something of a puzzle: why would “cheap talk” ever be important to international politics? One reason might be that actors, even heads of state, feel compelled to rationalize and explain their actions to multiple audiences: domestic constituencies, other actors within their government, foreign leaders, and foreign audiences. It isn’t so much that they change their minds about what they want to do, but that they seek rhetorical cover for their actions.

The key quetion, of course, is whether, and to what extent, they would behave differently in the absence of such rhetorical cover. Do speeches like Haniyeh’s, in other words, actually lead others to behave differently than they would–by enabling them to behave exactly how they want to?

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.