Why the U.S. Loves Calling Other Countries Names

Recently, the website for the magazine “Foreign Policy” published an essay entitled “A Global V.I.R.U.S. of Instability.” The author remarks that the English names of the nations Venezuela, Iran and Russia form the acronym “VIRUS”; he posits that the three nations’ alliance against the U.S. poses a threat to the stability of the entire Western hemisphere. Foreign Policy writer Daniel W. Drezner commends the acronym’s creator, deeming it “catchy” and likely to “spread across the foreign policy community like . . . well, you know.” )

The U.S. has always liked to call other countries names. This new “VIRUS” acronym is similar to terms of the past such as “rogue state” and “axis of evil,” and it will go in and out of fashion just as those terms did. These terms enjoyed brief popularity during the recent neoconservative administration, but they are gradually moving into the wastebasket of history. Innumerable new terms move in to replace old ones. What doesn’t change is the U.S.’ love for making enemies.

After the U.S.’ rise to global dominance following WWII, American political leaders used “good versus evil” rhetoric liberally. To this day, Americans love to use words like “evil,” “rogue,” “imperial,” “dictatorship” and so forth.

The U.S.’s attitude of moral superiority is almost religious in its fervor. When the U.S. wants something from the international community, words like “international interests” and “power” are insufficient. The “good versus evil” rhetoric is the U.S.’ s way of justifying its actions on the international arena.

However, the name-calling is not random; in fact, it is quite calculated. For example, the term “totalitarian state” is used globally, but the U.S. will not pin it on its ally Saudi Arabia. Japan and South Korea are nicknamed “gateways to democracy,” but this is not a name the U.S. will bestow on Palestine and its democratically-elected Hamas, even though Palestine is in the Middle East where democracy is uncommon. Hamas opposes the U.S., and so it is classified as “terrorist” instead.

The name the U.S. bestows on a given country reveals its foreign policy interests there. Americans themselves know this, but they are masters of self-denial. One hand reaches for that which will fulfill self-interest, while the other sprinkles moralizing labels. The two hands do not touch.

Some labels reflect the U.S.’s foreign policy goals and thus can predict its behavior. It is therefore worthwhile for the U.S.’s allies to study and understand the terms the U.S. uses. For example the Bush administration’s term “axis of evil” foreshadowed the U.S.’ invasion of Iraq.

However, not all of these nicknames merit such serious consideration. The U.S. is a pluralist nation wherein many diplomatic and political goals compete for dominance. Generating new names and new terms attracts attention. As the proverb goes, “Doing well is not as good as singing well.” The U.S.’s think tanks and media sources must rely on “singing well” to make a living, and sometimes those institutions coin new terms simply to attract attention to themselves.

The real fascination is in the U.S.’s linguistic hegemony. Take this new term, “VIRUS.” If Georgia gave it to Russia, if Columbia gave it to Venezuela or if Iraq gave it to Iran, it probably would not appear in the global media. Unfortunately, because an American coined the term, it attracts the world’s attention.

This author has spent some time observing the offices of “Foreign Policy.” The offices are clustered within a single building, sharing space with a diverse array of other organizations. Outside that building, along the busy Massachusetts Avenue, lie the offices of countless other D.C. think tanks, journals, magazines and other organizations, all attracting the attention of the world.

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