Personal and academic blog. Explores the borderlands between rhetoric, politics and intelligence.


The Rhetoric of Naval Force

I have been looking into the concept of 'Diplomatic body language' in this blog. Now I have just read a text that further integrates theories of rhetoric with those of strategic studies and international relations.

Edward Luttwak's essay on 'The Political Uses of Sea Power' stresses the importance of signalling and interpretation to the diplomatic task of utilising naval manoeuvres. This has been called 'Gun Boat Diplomacy' by another seminal Navy-diplomatic writer James Cable.

Luttwak constructs a framework for understanding the use of military means of power to obtain a political goal in peace-time. This process he calls 'suasion'. Semantically this is very close to the centre-piece of much modern rhetoric 'persuasion'. As it can be seen, only the prefix differs. Both words hail back to the greek ' peitho' and the Latin 'suadere' - to advise.

Luttwak basically asserts that there is a difference between the actual actions performed and the output in the form of the actual 'suasion' in the mind of the opponent. You can send a carrier group into the littorals of a country, but you cannot control how the target country and its leaders will react.

This view of diplomatic signalling is actually based on a understanding of language, not as referential, but as symbolic. That is: words do not have a fixed meaning, but changes after the situation. This might banale today, but it isn't a thing that has been in vogue for quite a long time. Therefore signalling by naval ships will never be an exact science but more of an art - because what does a ship symbolize?. And in that aspect Diplomacy, force and rhetoric convenes.

I don't know if Luttwak was conscious about that when he wrote his essay in 1974, but it coincides very much with a general 'linguistic turn' in philosophy and sciences that was influenced by linguists like Austin and Searle.

Luttwak, Edward N., The Political Uses of Sea Power, (London: The Johns Hopkins University Press Ltd., 1974)


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