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Triangle Institute for Security Studies

Editor’s Note: Again American Diplomacy presents a segment of the proceedings of a conference held at Chapel Hill, NC, on January 10, 1998, sponsored by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (see the journal’s Spring 1998 issue for the

initial report on the conference). Forty-six area and visiting scholars and foreign affairs professionals attended.

Public Argument and the Study of Foreign Policy

by Thomas Goodnight

imageBackground to TISS Conference

There has been much discussion in recent years about a so-called “CNN effect.” What kind of impact does press coverage have on American foreign policy? Has, for example, press coverage of humanitarian disasters pushed the United States into military intervention? The way in which public opinion, the press, and the foreign policy establishment interact with one another is an issue which has for some time aroused interest among social scientists.

Further, there has been growing debate in the humanities about the nature of some of the assumptions which underlie our discussion of public opinion. What, for example, do we mean when we refer to “the public”? Do opinion polls themselves influence public opinion? How should the public role be conceptualized? How do arguments made in the public sphere influence — or get influenced by — arguments made in the technical sphere? Are there normative notions of good argument?

The conference did not expect to answer all of these questions. It did, however, bring together persons from intellectual communities that examine foreign policy and the public in distinctly, sometimes radically, different ways. A dialogue between scholars and practitioners who operate on very different assumptions revealed new approaches to tough issues and in so doing, likely made future cross- and inter-disciplinary work more feasible and productive.

In this issue we offer Professor Tom Goodnight’s paper on communication studies and public argument as he presented it to the conference. His work on “argument spheres” has had a seminal influence on the study of public argument. Dr.Goodnight’s focus on how standards for the evaluation of argument change within different contexts, and the way contemporary argument styles place real public discourse at profound risk, has shaped the field over the last decade.

An account of the following roundtable discussions and questions from the floor will appear in the Autumn 1998 issue of American Diplomacy.




he question I was asked to address today is whether “argument studies” can draw rigorous, valid conclusions equally with history and political science in relation to the study of foreign affairs, international politics, and security studies. 

My answer is an unequivocal yes and no. The modern disciplines of history and political science, it seems to me, are further along in conceptualizing models of structure, causes of behavior, and situation variables than are argumentation studies. On the other hand, I believe the study of argumentation is sufficiently robust to make crucial contributions to inquiry, especially in the area of public opinion formation. I hope to show this by advancing a thesis today: what crisis studies were to the Cold War, controversy studies should become to the post Cold War world.

While to some extent argumentation studies is a set of interdisciplinary projects, the field in which I am trained is Communication Studies. Like International Relations, Communication Studies is a modern discipline born after the First World War. Like International Politics, Communication Studies shares a concern for improving the practices of decision making and policies of government. Like studies of the National Interest, Communication Studies joined with psychology and sociology to investigate the illusive concepts of “national character” and the variables of mass persuasion in the interests of perfecting citizenship. Like National Security Studies, our discipline offers a cautionary art that examines collaborative arrangements of influence. And just like all these sister disciplines, our field has been subject to model shifts and paradigm wars — moving through a variety of realist, idealist, behavioral, structural, constructionist waves of experimentation, and ballyhoo.

Communication Studies shares concerns with other modern disciplines, but it also is a somewhat distinct areas of inquiry, too. And argumentation, with its pre-modern and nondisciplinary roots in rhetoric, furnishes a good deal of its distinctiveness. Rhetoric is the active practice of language as gesture, appearance, symbol, persuasion, or vocabulary of motives; traditionally, it has furnished preparation for participation in public life. Rhetorics are developed by paradigms that reflectively interpret representative speeches or debates and by theory, usually drawn from psychology, politics or moral philosophy that systematizes persuasive appeals across people, topics, and situations. In uniting theory and practice, rhetorics are cultural conservators and innovators. A rhetoric can be revisited and its strategies revitalized.

Perhaps the best way to express the difference between rhetoric and modernist views of influence is to contrast a classical paradigm. Thucydides’ dialogues may furnish paradigms for the basic problematic of International Relations which explores the tangle of power, perception, and interest. The basic paradigm for argument studies may be Ulysses’ speeches in the Iliad which had to provide Achilles necessary and sufficient reasons for action.

After Ulysses “crown’d with wine the foaming bowl” (in the felicitous translation of Alexander Pope), he engages in a performance of communicative reasoning. He offers Achilles three reasons for action: first, the demands of the situation are compelling. “Greece on the brink of fate all doubtful stands, and owns no help but from thy saving hands.” Second, if Achilles’ public duties are not sufficient, Ulysses offers a roster of heroic bribes including steeds, territory, companions, art objects, and “Ten weighty talents of the purest gold, and twice ten vases of refulgent mould.” If neither public duty nor personal interest works, the final argument is to professional reputation — hinting discreetly that vanquishing Hector is the only way to sustain Achilles’ claim to prowess of the first rank.

From this exchange, one can find in the performance of communicative reasoning

  1. a situation where the outcome is contingent, that is argument speaks to an occasion that is fraught with constraints and opportunities;
  2. speech acts that motivate by moving to consensus on different levels–public, personal, and professional; and
  3. an art of context construction where more direct reasoning is insufficient.

The lesson also teaches that even the taking into account the situation and its motives, that invention is not always effective. Were Achilles a rational policy maker, the heroic bribes alone would slake an heroic appetite and compel action, but Ulysses is unsuccessful because the bribes are taken as insults as Achilles considers the context — the history of the dispute — and his personal objection is determinative. Note, later on, that the controversy is sustained and when Achilles is motivated to act after the death of Petroclus, Ulysses has the opposite function — to retard precipitous action in the interests of coordinating attack and marshaling victory. In the Iliad, argument has the double role of motivating to action and also of retarding action by fitting means to ends. But the effectiveness and rationality of the reasoning which Ulysses must use to achieve his policy goals is caught up in and bound by the quarrels between and within contending parties.

The classical literature of the Greek period continued to find in its schools of training ambassadors and statesmen the art of rhetoric — finding the optimal means of persuasion amid “dissoi-logoi” or what later the Romans were to call controversy. Over the course of Western culture, concern with the arts of rhetoric and interest in foreign affairs seem to flower together. Thomas Wilson wrote the first rhetoric study in English and served as an Elizabethan ambassador; the Earl of Shaftesbury was a rhetorician and a balance of power theorist. International law and the renewal of rhetoric were double movements. The relationship between changes in foreign policy practices or alterations in strategic doctrine and rhetorical theory appears to be a history yet to be explored fully.

Ironically, it was the failure of the neo-classical revivals in the late nineteenth century to modify or contain the excesses of the first world war that in many respects launched our modern disciplinary pursuits of the study of war and peace in the university. Yet, at the end of the twentieth century I would suggest that we might profitably return to the rhetorical questions of contingency and consensus in controversy precisely because the termination of the Cold War creates challenges to modern views of war and peace.
It is at this point that I would like to develop the core thesis of the paper:


What crisis studies were to the Cold War, controversy studies should become to the post-Cold War context.

To advance this claim I will first argue that our understanding of the basic paradigm of influence and controversy can be altered productively; second, I will examine a few key elements of the Cold War as an argument formation, that is, as a way of generating grammatical, dialectical, and rhetorical discourses; and third, I will speculate on how the end of the Cold War shifts the locus of argumentation from developing expert/theoretical fields to engaging public discussion and debate developing from features of the post-Cold War era.

  • First, I will elaborate the significance of controversy in its relation to the performances of communicative reasoning. In the example of the dispute between Agamemnon, Ulysses and Achilles, argument is discussed from the perspective of one who is trying to persuade or resist persuasion through the manipulation of appeals to alter belief and resolve. Ulysses, as proto-social psychologist, is manipulating his audience through appeals to guilt, cupidity, and vanity in the interests of effect. There is a single intent to change opinion and move to action. This model envisions communicative reasoning as an antidote to conflict through the creation of consensus. The persuader must invent reasons that bring together appeals is an appropriate way at the opportune moment. While modern psychology, social psychology and conflict resolution studies deal with audiences as aggregates and whole nations as actors, and while these offer much more complicated behavioral models, still modern disciplines share the end of producing discourses that reduce controversy through achieving compliance or agreement. This is an implicit assumption of modern models of influence and public opinion.

    Suppose we take the cue from the Iliad that controversy itself may super tend the variables by which a situation can be constrained. In this regard, the lesson drawn from Ulysses’ failed act of persuasion is that our own logos (the sum of the logics we have available) is always vulnerable to the perspectives of others who are bound up in a situation that sometimes produces cooperation, and others, objection or dispersion. In depicting Achilles refusal, Homer comments on the limits of personal, professional and public cultural resources of reason when a controversy itself becomes its own compelling reason.

    While we can still study any communicative reasoning or theorize consensus seeking, controversy expands inquiry into influence. Implicit in the stakes of any choice are assessments of the propriety, legitimacy, truthfulness, or aptness of the communicative reasoning used to induce decision. In a controversy, the efficacy of practices of influence are as much at stake as the “actual” outcome of decisions. In this regard, we examine arguments (everything from public debates to expert discussions) not to theorize about the ends of persuasion, but to see the limits and inventive possibilities of the cultural, social, practical contexts within which actions and judgments are contested. A brief contrast of the Cold War and post-Cold War formations of controversy I hope will clarify the benefits of such a perspective.

  • This leads me to my second observation: The Cold War can be understood as a particular kind of argument formation, which is a term for describing more or less systematic ways of generating disagreement and dispute — a global controversy, that is. The Cold War had a flexible grammar, a more or less stable set of categories whose representations mapped the terrain of enemies and allies and rendered intelligible events and acts of influence. The Cold War had a dialectical vocabulary within which opposing values were ranked and contested. Ideological warfare produced philosophical competition over whose system of beliefs would occupy the curve of history. Finally, the Cold War comprised a rhetoric, a complex of motivations to sustain and fracture domestic and foreign consensus.To frame the contrast with the present, I would like to make two comments about the Cold War as an argument formation.
  • First, nuclear weapons altered the material constraints on war and peace. The result of the power surplus is that the motivational formations of productionist persuasion were now confounded by the limited relevance and vulnerability of national populations. The language of war and peace which motivated nations to achieve solidarity and fight now had to be constrained within a system of shared, international obligation. The paradoxes of the nuclear age altered the possibilities of creating “reasonable” public opinion and furthered expert discourses of control problematically related to public consensus.
  • Second, the context of containment which formed the ideological parameters served as a strategic frame which measured the direction, significance, and implications of events within an East-West context. The result was a binary logic of disagreement that transcended the sub-disputes over issues such as nationalism, trade, development and environment.

    The argument formation of the Cold War was a controversy that dove-tailed with and accelerated the authority of modernist disciplines insofar as expert, rational actors and control of international behavior could be framed within a fairly stable set of meanings attached to the motives and behavior of ideological adversaries. Persuasion itself was calculated and driven within a frame circumscribed ultimately by the need to discount all forms of traditional genres of war rhetoric and motivations for ultimate conflict in the interests of survival. Traditional motivations for war — from heroic culture, through the just war doctrine, through balance of power and reasons of state — were held in check within the argumentative construction of neutral game-theoretic logic and simulations.

    For this particular argument formation the notion of crisis was of special importance, and the Cuban Missile Crisis with its global stakes, chances of error, institutional actors, and thirteen days of defined exigencies probably serves as the quintessential Cold War exemplar where institutional structures and historical actors converge to prevent the ultimate.

    [polling interview] From the perspective of argumentation studies, the end of the Cold War means the demise of the coherence, power, and issue foci of one argument formation and perhaps the rise of others. My contention is that what crisis studies were to the Cold War, controversy studies should be to the post-Cold War era. Please note that this does not mean that crises are not going to occur, that they shouldn’t be studied, or that what we have learned during the Cold War is unimportant. My argument is that to the extent theories are developed in response to the practices of the time, the chief communication practice of a post-Cold War era will be controversy. Moreover, this area might be the last genuinely under theorized area of communication in the academy.

    I offer five reasons for the prominence of controversy, the first two spring from legacies of the Cold War itself:

    • THE COLLAPSE OF AN INTERPRETATIVE FRAMEWORK MEANS THE RESTART OF HISTORY.First, the end of the Cold War signals the collapse of an interpretative framework by which the significance, direction and portent of major and minor international actors could be defined. The Cold War offered a historical horizon by which the issues of right and left could be sorted, debated, and defined. The absence of such easy divisions makes political alignments more ambiguous and more fragmentary. Far from the “end of history,” the post-Cold War period is the beginning of history as groups now reconfigure the Cold War as an episode of national, ethnic, or comparative history rather than the reverse.
    • THE TRIUMPH OF INSTITUTIONS DRIVEN BY SYSTEMS LOGIC CREATES SPACE FOR LEGITIMATION CONTROVERSY.The Cold War propelled the development of institutions whose language and logic are those of expert discourses, which are only partially amenable to public discussion. Systems discourses first developed as part of warfare logistics and they were propelled by a scientific vocabulary whose validity requirements do not translate easily into overtly political vocabularies. Moreover, as the power of systems reasoning grows the perfection of formal vocabularies create systemic necessities that may be viewed as local crises. To the extent that systemic reasoning is transcultural, it is bound to have a difficult time finding its way into the fore where its interventions and consequences are openly evaluated and discussed. For example, the public justification for nuclear war (while always thin) will become highly public when the inevitable “accident, miscalculation or madness” eventually happens. Or, gold seems to be part of an economic system, and is regulated by the language of international economics. Its symbolic value can create a protracted controversy that undermines the neutrality and hence credibility of systems logic, as the Swiss recently found out in revisiting their role in the banking system during World War II.
    • GLOBAL INSTITUTIONS & EVOLVING COMMUNICATIONS FACILITATE THE EXCHANGE OF OPINION AND CREATE INTERNATIONAL PUBLICS.Third, the global institutional structures developed during the Cold War create systems of circulation and flow that resituate and create international publics. The absence or presence of a problem or solution becomes more debatable given the transportability of potential relief and harm. This is true from a standpoint of traditional issue debate which has been broadened by a global forum. Advances underwritten by market driven medical technologies in Europe and the United States enter into debates over price and availability of medicines for Africa. Labor practices in Pakistan now impact potentially on the shoe market in America. New technologies themselves are associated with international events-as the internet reintroduces and transforms the ambassadorial function, the World Wide Web offering a space for international public debate. The circulation of communication — whether visual or verbal, as traditional discourses of politics or system and sign system-increases the number of sites and the flow of discourse in controversy.
    • MILITARY FORCE IS ENGAGED IN CONSENSUS FORMING ACTIVITIES, SUCH AS PEACEKEEPING.A preeminent, contemporary form of security activity is peace keeping or peace enforcement. The U.S. Army field manual quotes Dag Hammerskold, who suggests the dynamic at the heart of this form of controversy: “Peacekeeping is not a job for soldiers, but only a soldier can do it. ” The job of peace keeping blurs genres between police and military action, tactical and strategic considerations, uses of symbols and uses of force. As the U.S. manual maintains: “Soldiers must understand that they can encounter situations where the decisions they make at tactical level have immediate strategic and political implications. . . . Failure to fully understand the mission can quickly lead to incidents and misunderstandings that will reduce legitimacy and consent and result in actions that are inconsistent with overall political objective.” Because the invitation to intervene depends upon a prior controversy over territory, rights, governance, and so forth and because the acceptance depends upon a consensus between often violent factions, the intervention itself can fuel controversy at home and abroad, often with unpredictable results.
    • FINALLY, COLD WAR LESSONS OF PUBLIC EXCHANGE HAVE BECOME REVIVED AS DOMESTIC POLITICS.The final reason to expect controversy to occupy a central spot is that old rhetorics die hard and become reinvented to serve other purposes. Absent a Cold War demon of the Soviet Union to deal with, in some corners Washington has come to replace Moscow as an object of scorn. The tactics of Cold War rhetoric as a praxis need to be understood as they infest the capital. It may be the case in our current political institutions that persuasion is not so much about creating informed belief as it is about preparing a set of indictments should policy fail — or merely register its vulnerability through negative poll data. This sort of inventive procedure results in curious public spectacles where hardened hawks cower before the prospect of invading Haiti, and such rhetoric may also lead to exaggerated claims about the risks of active foreign policy. New strategic doctrines such as Baker’s “selective engagement” or Clinton’s “democratic enlargement,” of course, are designed to create freedom of action as much as the Reagan doctrine; however, the nonideological underpinnings of their purely tactical trajectories open a space for reanimating traditional ideological disputes.

    In short, the post-Cold War world is likely to be increasingly contentious not only due to the absence of parameters within which to define post-war activity, but also due to the successful development of systems-driven institutions which, however powerful, are vulnerable when encountering claims to legitimacy. The Cold War’s rhetorical legacy left a public discourse whose bitter and contentious dimensions have become translated to local scenes as a politics by praxis. Finally, the definitions of war and peace, humanitarian intervention and unnecessary risk, force and persuasion, are being blurred through the interpretation of incident and gesture within alternative cultural sites.

    How should controversy be studied? Does it follow patterns? Are there specific kinds of controversy? To situate ourselves in the realm of the controversial do we have to demote academic values of prediction and control, precision and scope, in lieu of finding a richer kind of understanding born of reading theory as a kind of argument practice in the making, and the practices of controversy as having more or less explicit theoretical bearing? While it is clear that controversy will increasingly mark the post Cold War world, the theoretical and practical implications of reading and learning from such public, technical, and personal contested actions are clear. Argumentation studies which takes the controversy as one of its prime units of analysis, however, should be able to contribute to history’s tracking of the particulars of disputes and social sciences review of the structures of influence. Just as crises offered a pressing, under explored way of uniting case and social theory during the Cold War, so the study of significant controversies are important to the post-Cold War era.

    © Copyright 1998 by Thomas Goodnight. All rights reserved.

G.Thomas Goodnight has taught in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University since 1975. In the research field of argumentation his interests include foreign policy issues, rhetoric, criticism, and social theory. He earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Kansas. The author of many scholarly essays, he is at work on two book-length manuscripts, one on the theory of controversy and the other dealing with the relationship between controversy, memory, and critical imagination.

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