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“Central to the operation of deterrence is the manipulation of risk or uncertainty.” Robert Schelling

“An example of ambiguity in a sentence is,  “the chicken is ready to eat.” There are two meanings, the first one is that the chicken is already cooked and people are going to eat that chicken, the other meaning is a chicken is going to eat.”

“What the US president “giveth” he can also “taketh away.” —William Saffire

“Never laugh at live dragons.”— Bilbo Baggins, “The Hobbit”

Do you ever wonder what in the world is going on…in the world? Does it ever seem like it is just out of control? Do you ever ponder the cogency of global foreign policy positions? Who exactly is for what? It used to feel like there were good guys and there were bad guys. Knowing the difference between the two was pretty easy. We were the good guys! If you were our friend, you were a good guy. If you were not our friend, you were a bad guy. It sounds simplistic, but the Cold War had a way of simplifying things.

Today things appear to be much more convoluted and complicated. We are not even sure if we are the good guys anymore. We are not sure who our friends are, and we certainly do not know who is with us or against us! There is a name for this. It is called Strategic Ambiguity. Strategic ambiguity, as organizational communication expert Eric Eisenberg defines it, enables a company, country, or organization to express itself—its mission and goals—in a way that allows “the freedom to alter operations which have become maladaptive over time.” Simply put? It allows us to change our minds whenever we get a hankering to.

By being strategically ambiguous, companies who encounter turbulent times in the future can maintain a firm grasp on their identity and goals while embracing change. For most, this is their key to staying relevant.

Eisenberg notes that when air travel replaced sea travel from the United States to Europe, cruise lines survived only because they rebranded themselves as entertainment and hospitality facilities. This broader self-identifier allowed companies to provide new services, such as pleasure cruises and activities on boats that never even leave the dock. Because the cruise industry didn’t pigeonhole itself as a method of transportation, it survived and has since flourished.

Today Strategic Ambiguity plays a somewhat different role in global affairs. It is no longer used primarily as a means to retain lateral movement strategically, but instead it is a way that policy makers can keep from having to tie themselves to a position that could be unpopular with their constituents. I am not just speaking about this in a United States context either. Strategic Ambiguity is a methodology being used by politicians and global leaders world-wide.

To demonstrate my point, let me ask you this. What exactly is the US and European position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? What is the US’s strategic position on the nation of Taiwan? What is the United State’s position on Iran and the JCPOA? Where does the United States stand in its position towards Afghanistan today? Venezuela? I could go on. I hope you get my point. Even when you look hard, and I have, there appears to be no real cogency in so many foreign government’s policies towards its neighbors or potential enemies or friends. What this does is set the stage for a world that will constantly experience globally shifting sands. Globalization as we understand it is changing. I am not saying globalization is dead. I just think that as with so many things in the world, it will probably look a lot differently than any of us are anticipating.

So my analysis this week in More than Meets the Eye will not be to try to unpack and explain global foreign policy positions as much as to just demonstrate how ambiguous things really are. I will give a few more recent and obvious examples of just how ambiguous things have really become.


What is strategic ambiguity used for? Strategic ambiguity is used to rhetorically cope with competing meanings on purpose: keeping things vague in order to allow multiple interpretations to exist together and, consequently, to enable collective action (Abdallah et al., 2011; Alderman & Ivory, 2015; Eisenberg, 2007; Jarzabkowski et al., 2010). …

What is an example of ambiguity?The definition of ambiguity is a word or sentence that is not clear about the intention or meaning. An example of ambiguity is when a person answers a question in a way that indicates he is not giving all of the details.

Example One-

Despite President Biden’s recent assertion that the United States will do whatever it takes to defend the people of Taiwan, it is clear that the US does not currently have a serious commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. Since the formal normalization of Sino-US relations in 1979, Washington’s position vis-à-vis Taiwan has been guided by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The TRA asserted that while Washington had determined to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it is the policy of the US:

  • To preserve and promote extensive relations with the people of Taiwan.
  • That peace and stability in the area are in the political, security, and economic interests of the US.
  • That establishment of relations with the PRC rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.
  • That any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means would constitute a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and be of grave concern to the US.

As a result, the TRA identifies the need ‘to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character’ and ‘to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan’. In essence, the TRA indicates that the United States is with Taiwan, conceptually, but in the end it is not inclined to over-step boundaries, except to insist vehemently that China stop doing whatever it is doing…or else. It is that “or else” which places this example clearly within the realm of this conversation. Nobody really wants to say what that “or else” is.

Example Two-

In the course of a presidency, a U.S. president says millions of words in public. You never know which of them end up cementing a certain impression. For Barack Obama, one of those phrases would be “red line.”

July 23, 2012: Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi confirmed for the first time that Syria has chemical weapons, stating that these weapons would never be used against the Syrian people, but only against “external aggression.”

August 20, 2012: In August 2012, Obama was asked about what could lead him to use military force in Syria. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime,” he said, “that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.” We had received reports about a month earlier that the regime was preparing to use chemical weapons against the opposition, or transfer them to the terrorist organization Hezbollah. We issued private warnings to Iran, Russia, and the Syrian government; Obama made clear publicly to Assad that the world was watching, and that Assad would be held accountable by the international community should he use those weapons.

August 23, 2012: An official in the State Department confirmed that “Syria has a stockpile composed of nerve agents and mustard gas” and that the U.S. government monitors Syria’s chemical weapons activities “very closely.”

December 23, 2012: The first allegation of  chemical weapons use was reported. Seven people were allegedly killed in Homs by a “poisonous gas” used by the Assad regime. The coverage included the report of side effects such as nausea, relaxed muscles, blurred vision, and breathing difficulties.

Barely four months passed from the time that a US President stated with clarity that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” for the US. President Obama made clear publicly to Assad that the world was watching, and that Assad would be held accountable by the international community should he use those weapons. The words “Red Line” are pretty definitive words. The words “held accountable” are not. A lot of politics goes into acting on words. Few know how complex these matters are.

This is why I stay intent to analyze the complexities of strategic ambiguity and not necessarily point fingers at the political misuse of it, of which much goes on.

Example Three…

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine is the final nail in the coffin of a Western strategy of “strategic ambiguity” with regards to the states of post-Soviet Eurasia—an approach that had already been seriously compromised in the wake of the 2008 clash between Russia and Georgia. For the last two decades, the corollary to giving Russia a “voice without a veto” in Euro-Atlantic security affairs has been to offer Russia’s neighbors a “pledge without power”—to make promises which appear to convey binding security guarantees but without creating the mechanisms for their enforcement. Yet neither the Europeans nor the United States have wanted to explicitly draw lines and their specific consequences. Thus, the importance of strategic ambiguity.

But has strategic ambiguity accomplished what it was intended to. States like Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan offered military forces in support of the U.S.-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, believing in a transactional approach to international relations—that their willingness to put forces to fight and die alongside U.S. troops in the Greater Middle East created a reciprocal obligation of the United States to, in turn, guarantee their own security. The clear, bright, shining line between an ally with a Senate-confirmed mutual defense treaty and concrete contingency planning for security and a “partner” who received U.S. security assistance funds and basked in presidential speeches and non-binding Congressional resolutions promising support was allowed to be blurred.

This brings us to the question of the legal standing of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the United States (along with the United Kingdom and Russia) pledge to guarantee the security and territorial integrity of Ukraine. This promise was an important incentive in getting Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons. However, it is not akin to the treaty which created Belgium and which guaranteed its security—the stated reason for Britain to declare war on Germany in 1914 after the German army violated the Belgian frontier. It is, as the title suggests, a memorandum. It was never ratified by the Senate and it offers no security guarantees whatsoever to Ukraine. One can argue that there is an explicit moral commitment. But there is no binding legal commitment for U.S. intervention should Washington conclude that Ukraine has indeed become a victim of aggression.

Once again, this is a significant modern example of strategic ambiguity. Western government leaders in some respects thought they were putting down a red line for President Putin, but in the end their “red line” proved to be little more than a line in the sand on a wave-battered beach. Vladimir Putin will continue to test the parameters of the real “red lines” of the United States and Europe. It is not accidental that Putin got the Federation Council to give him a unanimous vote to deploy Russian military forces in Ukraine—a not-so-subtle rebuttal to a U.S. president whose rhetoric about action was not matched by Congressional authorization or public support. It also presents an unwelcome task for U.S. policymakers who must now begin to bring clarity to our deliberately ambiguous statements.


Why is strategic clarity important? It frees the leadership. Strategic Clarity shows people where to focus their time and resources, and that is liberating. This allows their efforts to become more effectual and decisive when everyone knows how an impact can really make a difference—especially when operating in a rapidly changing landscape.

Strategic ambiguity may put off the sufferings of immediate pain and consequences, but seldom does it effectively allow the space for genuine problems to be resolved. It is more of a delaying tactic than anything. We can see strategic ambiguity becoming increasingly a part of global diplomacy. I think there are several reasons. One is that as the world moves further and further away from God cowardice will escalate at an alarming rate. Already, the fear of decisive thinking is looked upon as wisdom. Faintheartedness is now called logic or prudence, and ambiguity, even duplicity, is deemed an appropriate response to the ever-changing global political landscape.[b]


How strategic ambiguity can work for us:

  • Know the difference between being ambiguous and being strategic about your ambiguity. When naming and/or positioning your organization, you can’t say, “Well, we don’t want to limit ourselves, so we’re going to try to be all things to all people.” You are not all things to all people—and you won’t succeed if you try to be.
  • Make choices. Strategic ambiguity is about drawing lines, and it requires a strong identity strategy. It’s more about who you are and why you matter than about what you’re doing right now. If you can commit to what you stand for, that commitment will actually allow for more flexibility when you’re confronted with change.
  • Think about the possibilities. Find ways to explore what you do now in different contexts and from new perspectives. This will help prepare you to make decisions about where and how you’ll allow yourself to grow and evolve over time.

The follow-up.

Going Viral: Implications of COVID-19 for Bioterrorism…


The feed-back.

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