Jeremy Kahn: The Politics of Gesture


Granted, more than 90% of communication is supposed to be non-verbal. And images and atmospherics certainly are as important to diplomacy as the spoken and written word. But if Sunday’s much-discussed New York Times tick-tock on how the Bush administration came to its turnabout on engagement with Iran is true, the Bush administration seems to have raised non-verbal politics to a new and disturbing level, both inside the White House and abroad. For starters, here is how The Times describes the luncheon between Rice and Bush that set the administration on the path toward offering to talk to Iran:

A meeting [Rice] had attended in Berlin days earlier with European foreign ministers had been a disaster, she reported, according to participants in the discussion. Iran was neatly exploiting divisions among the Europeans and Russia, and speeding ahead with its enrichment of uranium. The president grimaced, one aide recalled, interpreting the look as one of exasperation “that said, ‘O.K., team, what’s the answer?'”
That body language touched off a closely held two-month effort to reach a drastically different strategy, one articulated two weeks later in a single sentence that Ms. Rice wrote in a private memorandum.

This is somewhat bizarre. You would think that on a topic of such importance, Bush might express an opinion rather than forcing his advisers to guess at the meaning of his facial expressions. Maybe attending meetings with the president is a bit like going to a farm auction, in which guests are cautioned against making any extraneous gestures lest they be inadvertently end up buying a cow. (“Condi, did you just suggest we bomb Tehran or were you just scratching your nose?”)
Further evidence of Bush’s apparent fascination with non-verbal communication is offered later in the Times story, this time in an international context:

The idea intrigued Mr. Bush, White House officials say, and on May 8, Ms. Rice met with him just hours before flying to New York for a meeting with her European counterparts.
She asked him what kind of body language to display at the United Nations meeting. Should she signal that the United States was considering negotiations with Iran? “Be careful,” he said, according to officials familiar with the conversation. “I haven’t made up my mind.”

I wonder how Rice tried to follow the President advice? Did she raise her left eyebrow while speaking? And I wonder if the diplomats at the UN correctly guessed at the subtle significance of Rice’s body language? In international diplomacy, when one is dealing with people from different cultures and backgrounds, I think it would be helpful, even more so than in a domestic context (where certain gestures are universally understood within the social context), to send unambiguous signals. And, if one wants to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings, this is probably best accomplished through deliberate words and actions — not smiles and grimaces.

Jeremy Kahn is managing editor at The New Republic.


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