The World According to Nick
My take on Software, Technology, Politics, and anything else I feel like talking about.
Saturday, October 09, 2004

The New Four Letter Word 

Unilateral... ok, so it's 10 letters... lets not quibble over the small points. As I've been reading the news, and listening to parts of the presidential and vice presidential debates, I hear that word more and more often. Moreover, it always seems to be used in a negative sense. I actually find the phenomena to be quite amusing since I am in a technical industry. What you find in the technical world is that people who really don't know what to say, or don't even really know what you're talking about will latch onto buzz words. They'll hear a new buzz word (like .NET today, or ActiveX several years ago) and use it just to sound smart. It got so bad at one point, at one of my old jobs, that we actually played buzzword bingo during a telecast meeting from one of the vice presidents. In political circles, I think unilateral has become the new buzzword. And like all good buzzwords, a lot of people don't really know what it means.

I'll give a for instance. Yesterday I was reading a news story from Reuters about how the U.S. was canceling an Airbus contract because part of the agreement between the U.S. and the E.U. had been that there would be no government subsidies for the company that would allow it to compete unfairly. The E.U. not only gave startup subsidies to Airbus, but also gave them production subsidies. As a result, the U.S. is canceling the contract according to the agreement. The E.U. is obviously upset, and is accusing the U.S. of acting "unilaterally". To be specific they've said:

In a letter released in Brussels on Friday, the European Commission said it rejected a unilateral U.S. move to terminate the pact since it was not backed by proper reasons and the EU considered the agreement to be in force.

U.S. trade officials said they terminated the agreement because European governments had also provided billions of dollars in production subsidies for the A380, which were not allowed under the 12-year-old accord.

*Gasp*. But here's the thing. If the contract is between two parties (the U.S. and the E.U.), and one party has a problem and takes action, by definition that is a unilateral action, and there is no way around it. Unilateral literally means by or for one party. So what is it about acting on your own, for your own interests, that is inherently bad? When I vote for my congressman, senators, or president... I don't vote for him based on how I think he'll help Europeans. I vote for him or her based on my values, and my hopes that he'll do what is best for me and my country. I'm pretty sure that's what we all do. So why is it somehow shocking, and terrible when they actually do that. In this case backing out of an agreement that was unfairly beneficial to the Europeans, when they had broken the agreement already? In this case, crying out "Unilateral Unilateral" is really quite foolish. But it certainly gets the desired reaction these days.

When we look at the presidential foreign policy debates, we see the whole gamut of "lateral" words thrown around. Unilateral vs. Multilateral. Bilateral talks and multilateral talks... Bingo! We have Sen. Kerry saying that he would only act multilaterally in regards to Iraq, and when it comes to N. Korea he would have bilateral talks (and multilateral talks... whatever that means). He claims we've acted unilaterally with regards to Iraq... despite the help of Australia, Britain, Poland, Japan, etc. Of course he also says that he'd never give veto power over our foreign policy to another country. What the hell does that mean? Doesn't that mean that he'd act unilaterally? Yes it does, he just doesn't want to use that word. The meaning of the word has been totally lost. Instead we'll just claim that a policy we don't like is unilateral, therefore by it's new definition is bad, where all other policies are multilateral and by definition good... with bilateral apparently being somewhere in between.

Believe it or not, my point here is not to blast one side or the other. My point here is to stop using all the "laterals" as buzzwords. If you think we should be acting in concert with other countries, say so, and give us good reason. If you think that we should be acting in accordance with U.N. agreements, then say so, and give good reason for that too. Please notice how those are two separate things Sen. Kerry. An alliance with other nations doesn't necessarily have to mean with the U.N. If you think that we should act according to our own wishes, no matter what other countries want, say it, and tell us why. Tell us what values you hold that can never be trumped by another countries wishes. These are things that really matter to us, not some buzzwords on a bingo sheet.


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Name: Nick
Home: Wauwatosa, WI, United States

I'm a Software Consultant in the Milwaukee area. Among various geeky pursuits, I'm also an amateur triathlete, and enjoy rock climbing. I also like to think I'm a political pundit.

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