Diplomacy after the fact

The frenzy, following the political shocks of 2016, to redefine modern discourse as the harbinger of some «post-fact» or «post-truth» era is understandable. In a world of «alternative facts», what will replace rational debate—the law of the loudest? The most seductive? The most outrageous?

But the debate also presumes a lot. It presumes a consensus around the nature of Truth—even among philosophers, this has not been the case for some time. It presumes equal access to the playing-field of truth where rational discourse dukes it out—but in a system of unequal education this is not the case either. It presumes that truth is an end in itself—and not just a means, which opportunistic populists have exploited. It also presumes that human beings are inherently rational—but history is littered with emotional conflicts.

Perhaps the «post-insert-term-here» debate is more a symptom than a cause of rising tensions. Of course, feeling that your version of truth is suddenly undermined is a serious and scary matter. But hasn’t politics, in a sense, always been concerned with debating the nature of reality? Things may be shifting unprecedentedly quickly right now, but new vocabularies, some more «truthful» than others, have consistently replaced each other over time.

Rather, we should keep our attention on why such language is being used, and what are the implications for the world. The reaction to such discourse, if Trump takes it to his global affairs, is more pressing than examining the discourse itself. The crudely stated ambitions of the new administration are in fact clear—more tariffs, reshoring of industry and jobs, the eradication of islamist terrorism. The question is how will other states cope with a style based on alternative facts rather than real ones?

Again, the presumption is that this is inherently new. In global politics it may not be so shocking. Misinformation, disinformation, propaganda and «the battle for hearts and minds» have always led to competing narratives and truths. Gideon Rachman writes that the Cold War, that simpler manichean time, was also a war for the truth; ultimately won by the west when the Soviet regime collapsed under the weight of its own lies. But the «truth» which he claims was victorious, if laudably democratic, was nevertheless still the truth of the winners—who were also not averse to using information campaigns for realist ends.

What about relations between America and its allies in Europe? Isn’t an erratic regard for truth more dangerous when it comes to communicating with friends, who are supposed to understand you? Yes, this is a blow to American soft credibility, but it ignores that tensions have persisted for years. In 2003, the «truths» around the war in Iraq, a prime example, fell firmly into the category of «slippery». In 2015, we learned that the US and Germany, pillars of the free world, under two leaders seen as paragons of virtue, were spying on each other. Wikileaks has exposed thousands of instances of state policy running counter to public discourse.

Trump’s «truth as a tool» approach does go beyond simply misleading, of course. Previous leaders sought to shape narratives; he completely bypasses them. It is thus plausible to imagine his international style will operate similarly to the Putin school, where in a saturated world of information, truths and lies often seem to get confused in the mush. Trump knows better than anyone how to use this to his advantage, brushing it all behind the goal of «making the best deal». Who is right in Syria is not important, who is responsible for chaos in Eastern Europe neither—what is important is the «optimal» outcome.

Rather than a new post-fact age or monumental break from the past, this is realism 2.0—realism à la Putin, open lies as means. And the biggest losers? Most likely the public, already confused and struggling to understand bewildering modern shifts in tech and politics.