Diplomatic lingo: Keep it under your chapeau

With Iran's nuclear efforts in the news again, I've been doing a little research on the Non- Proliferation Treaty and related efforts to keep humanity from vaporizing itself with the weapons devised for its "protection."

Maybe it's nostalgia for chapters of history that, however harrowing they were to live through, did ultimately have happy endings - the Cuban missile crisis, for one.

In any case, I've discovered that along with all the arcane abbreviations, initialisms, and acronyms that make up arms-control lingo, there is an occasional bit of whimsy. I have discovered the diplomatic concept of the "chapeau."

What exactly is a chapeau? Well, it's a hat, for a start, but doesn't "chapeau" sound more elegant, even if it's just the ordinary French word for hat? And anyway, we're talking the language of diplomacy here, and "exactly" isn't always the way diplomats say things.

The ideal diplomatic utterance is a formulation of a difficult issue in which all parties can hear what they're listening for, and no one hears a reason to go to war.

In some ways a chapeau is less like a hat and more like an umbrella. A chapeau is an "introductory provision," as the website of the University of Washington Law School puts it, going on to say: "Conditions set out in a chapeau must be satisfied in conjunction with those which follow the chapeau (i.e., the chapeau controls the enumeration that follows)."

I first ran across "chapeau" on the website of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, a British organization whose very name seems an admirably frank acknowledgment of the alphabet soup of arms-control policy.

Think of MAD, for instance - "mutual assured destruction." Does that sound like something from the Alfred E. Neuman Institute of Foreign Policy Studies or what?

In their day, the elements of MAD have included SLCMs and GLCMs, which the United States built to be able to sic 'em on their enemies. While we're in the neighborhood of MAD, let's not forget another wonderful initialism, less a part of arms-control policy than of international negotiating parlance generally - "committee of the whole," or COW. (This calls up an interesting mental image - Ambassador Bart Simpson wandering the corridors of power, admonishing his colleagues, "Don't have a COW, man!")

Shades of "Dr. Strangelove," that Peter Sellers laugh riot of a flick about nuclear weapons. It came out before I had a really solid grip on the concept that sometimes - sometimes - when adults talked about things that seemed pretty outrageous, they were only kidding. My parents (uncharacteristically) took us to see it at a local drive-in when it first came out, evidently trusting we kids would fall asleep before we saw anything truly baffling.

The term "chapeau" is also used to describe certain kinds of international agreements needed to finesse differences in treaty practices among different countries (i.e., in countries where the executive does or does not have to contend with a constitutional requirement that treaties be ratified by two-thirds of the US Senate).

But the most colorful use of a "chapeau" that I ran across was by Colin Powell, in a March 2003 interview with The New York Times when he was secretary of State and when the war in Iraq was still in its initial hot phase. Mr. Powell was talking about the United Nations' role in postwar Iraq. "The way I describe it to my colleagues in the Department, 'We hope the United Nations will provide ... both a chapeau and a vessel.' " He continued: "It essentially provides an endorsement, an international recognition for what's being done, an umbrella. An international umbrella for what's being done - chapeau.

"It's a vessel into which you can put resources from which you can then draw; vessel, like glass. And the reason I call it a vessel is if I go to one of the governments, I may not pick a particular government, but if I go to a particular government and say, 'What can you do?' And they say, 'We'll go to our Diet, we'll go to our Diet and we'll try to get so much money.' That Diet is not going to appropriate that money to give to Colin Powell or to Tommy Franks, but it will give it to a vessel that has the underpinning of the United Nations."

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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