In 1960, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech at the United Nations, where he banged his shoe and declared, “We will bury you!” Although later deemed a mistranslation of what was closer in meaning to a vow that communism would outlive capitalism, Khrushchev’s bluster epitomizes for Westerners the Cold War-era language of dictators.
As U.S. forces massed on the Saudi Arabian border with Kuwait and Iraq in September 1990, Saddam Hussein promised the “mother of all battles.” To Western ears, his threat sounded so over-the-top that it became a meme, spawning countless “mother of …” variations. (English biologist Richard Dawkins had coined the word “meme” 14 years earlier, to describe a cultural idea that goes viral, but the new word itself did not go viral until the advent of the Internet and social media.) In fact, the phrase Saddam exported to the West was an Arabic chestnut dating back to a 637 A.D. Arab victory over the Persians. For Iraqis, Saddam’s rhetoric was “same old, same old,” but as an invasive species of language in the West, it spread like kudzu and now claims its own Wikipedia page.
The end of the Cold War and the diminishing number and influence of autocratic regimes seems to have brought an era of more sanitized diplomatic talk. The G8 has expanded to the G20, and it is awkward after all for world leaders to hurl invective at people with whom they pose annually for a photo. In the era of “leading from behind,” we are left with legalese directed at lesser nations—“biting sanctions,” “red lines” and “serious consequences.” The closest any U.S. leader has come in recent years to a genuine old-school verbal smack down was President George W. Bush’s “wanted: dead or alive” comment about Osama bin Laden.
Fortunately, North Korea’s Kim dynasty is keeping alive the tradition of verbal bombast in diplomatic relations. In mid-March, as Kim Jun Un was threatening to incinerate South Korea and the United States, or at least Guam, with nuclear weapons, his public relations toadies showed they knew how to put President Park Geun-hye in her place. (She is the daughter of late South Korean President Park Chung-hee. When she was 22, a gunman acting on orders from North Korea killed her mother in a failed attack targeting her father.)
“This frenzy kicked up by the South Korean warmongers is in no way irrelevant with the venomous swish of skirt made by the one who again occupies” the presidential Blue House, the North responded to her repeated offers of humanitarian aid.
“Venomous swish of skirt.” That is the kind of talk you cannot just make up on a whim. The mindset for such language must be cultivated and nurtured through generations of isolation, inbreeding, and denial.
Is there hope for the art of snarky language among national leaders? Maybe, and the answer could lie with the very technology that lately has helped to topple autocrat strongmen—Twitter.
The so-called “Arab Spring”—a season that has spawned its own memes and defied the calendar—gave rise to the term “Twitter revolution,” as protestors armed with smartphones in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen used social media to communicate and organize demonstrations and civil unrest. In Syria, where a civil war grinds on, “Twitter diplomacy,” using hash tags to battle for hearts and minds, is morphing into “Twitter espionage” as pro-government forces hack accounts to post malicious photos and slogans.
With its 140-character limit and impulsive, push-button method, which promotes short barbs and rapid expression unhindered by calm reflection, Twitter may yet restore a bygone era in colorful dialogue between world leaders. For a look at where Twitter diplomacy could be headed, check out this improbable exchange between President Barack Obama and Kim Jong Un, as reported by The Daily Rash.