The World in Quotation Marks

From Russian “volunteers” in Syria to Chinese “islands” in the South China Sea, foreign affairs today is full of deception.

Pro-Russia protesters in Luhansk, Ukraine (Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters)

After visiting Argentina in the 1970s, the novelist V.S. Naipaul reflected on the “colonial mimicry” of Buenos Aires. “Within the imported metropolis there is the structure of a developed society. But men can often appear to be mimicking their functions,” he wrote. “So many words have acquired lesser meanings in Argentina: general, artist, journalist, historian, professor, university, director, executive, industrialist, aristocrat, library, museum, zoo: so many words seem to need inverted commas.”

Naipaul’s brilliant observation about the illusory reality of “inverted commas” (otherwise known as quotation marks) applies not only to last century’s Argentina, but to the world in the 21st century—a world plagued by hollow institutions incapable of fulfilling their missions and situations deliberately manufactured to deceive, by information warfare and the militarization of civil society.

Recently, for example, the Russian government announced that Russian “volunteers” would be heading to Syria to fight (the quotation marks are not mine; they appeared in the headline of a New York Times report on the subject). These Russian “volunteers” are suspiciously similar to the “pro-Russia militants” who invaded Crimea and continue to do battle in eastern Ukraine. In reality, these “volunteers” and “militants” are likely either Russian soldiers or mercenaries organized, equipped, and supported by the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin’s government, it seems, has come to see the value in wielding “non-governmental organizations” for military and political ends. Consider the now-defunct, pro-Putin youth “movement” known as Nashi, which identified itself as “democratic,” “anti-fascist,” and opposed to “oligarchic capitalism.” What went unsaid was that it was sponsored and promoted by individuals with close ties to the Russian government.

The Kremlin’s approach is indicative of the broader rise around the world of what have become known as GONGOs: government-organized non-governmental organizations. Back in 2007, I wrote about GONGOs ranging from the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation to the Sudanese Human Rights Organization, noting that some of these shadowy groups were quite dangerous:

Some act as the thuggish arm of repressive governments. Others use the practices of democracy to subtly undermine democracy at home. Abroad, the GONGOs of repressive regimes lobby the United Nations and other international institutions, often posing as representatives of citizen groups with lofty aims when, in fact, they are nothing but agents of the governments that fund them. Some governments embed their GONGOs deep in the societies of other countries and use them to advance their interests abroad.

More recently, I speculated about why many governments today appear to be meddling in and appropriating civil society:

[G]lobalization and the spread of democracy have empowered civil society around the world as never before, which in turn has contributed to the proliferation of NGOs. These groups can join and be supported by global networks of like-minded organizations, financiers, and volunteers. Yes, disguising soldiers as civilians and recruiting civilian insurgents are old practices. But in the twenty-first century, they’ve acquired unprecedented potential as tools of war.

In many countries with autocratic or non-liberal governments, “private” and “independent” media outlets are bought by “private investors” and financially independent, but editorially enslaved to a government that secretly supports and guides them. Leaders of countries such as Hungary, Iran, and Venezuela often clandestinely control “lawmakers,” “prosecutors,” and electoral tribunals approved by “impartial judges” to oversee “democratic elections,” which are often tampered with and rigged.

The trend holds not just in countries, but in international organizations. The mission of the United Nations Human Rights Council is “the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe.” Among the governments in charge of this mission are human-rights abusers in China, Congo, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Russia, Venezuela, and Vietnam. In 2001, members of the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted the “Inter-American Democratic Charter,” agreeing that “representative democracy is indispensable” and that “any unconstitutional alteration or interruption of the democratic order in a state of the Hemisphere constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to the participation of that state’s government in the Summits of the Americas process.” It was a nice sentiment, but little more. Not only has the OAS not activated the “democratic charter” when there have been blatant “interruptions of the democratic order” in various countries throughout the Americas (Honduras, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Venezuela), but it is also seriously considering reinstating as a full member of the OAS that champion of democracy: Cuba.

Then there’s “communist” China, which has become a fundamental pillar of the capitalist global economy. With some sediment and reefs, China has turned a highly disputed area in the South China Sea from uninhabitable ocean to habitable “islands” now being used by Beijing to set up naval bases and a military airfield.

Of course, propaganda and deceptive language long predate China’s makeshift islands and Russia’s volunteer soldiers. In his masterful 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. ... Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” That wind continues to blow today—perhaps more strongly than ever.