Diplomacy and Ambiguity: Constructing Interests in Cooperation
Roundtable in Asia Policy 18.4

Diplomacy and Ambiguity: Constructing Interests in Cooperation

Roundtable with Wesley Widmaier, Mathew Davies, Lorraine Elliott, Ralf Emmers, Natasha Hamilton-Hart, Wenting He, Beverley Loke, and Susan Park
October 26, 2023

This roundtable examines the use of constructive ambiguity in Asian diplomacy and international relations and ambiguity’s role in enabling policy consensus and flexibility across great-power, institutional, and domestic policy contexts. The essays highlight ways in which ambiguity is less an impediment to advancing common interests among Asian states than a means to construct common interests themselves.

Introduction: Diplomacy and Ambiguity—Constructing Interests in Cooperation
Wesley Widmaier, Mathew Davies, Lorraine Elliott, Ralf Emmers, Natasha Hamilton-Hart, Wenting He, Beverley Loke, and Susan Park

Ambiguity and Decarbonization Pathways in Southeast Asia
Lorraine Elliott

ASEAN and Ambiguity
Mathew Davies

The Ambiguous Architecture of Economic Integration in East Asia
Natasha Hamilton-Hart

Ambiguity and National Interests: Foreign Policy Frames and U.S.-China Relations
Wenting He and Wesley Widmaier

U.S.-China Great-Power Politics and Strategic Ambiguities in an Evolving Indo-Pacific Security Architecture
Beverley Loke and Ralf Emmers

Meeting in the Middle? Multilateral Development Finance, China, and Norm Harmonization
Susan Park

Introduction: Diplomacy and Ambiguity—Constructing Interests in Cooperation

“Diplomacy requires constant adjustment to changing circumstance; it must leave a margin for the unexpected; the unpredictable is what always happens in foreign affairs. Nuance, flexibility, and sometimes ambiguity are the tools of diplomacy.” — Henry Kissinger[1]

Scholars and practitioners of Asian diplomacy are well acquainted with notions of “constructive ambiguity,” a concept associated most prominently with U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Indeed, Kissinger’s use of ambiguous language—capable of being interpreted in a range of fashions—enabled what was arguably the most important geopolitical shift of the past half-century.[2] Specifically, the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, issued by the governments of the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), saw the United States affirm “that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.”[3] By expressing U.S. views in this fashion, Kissinger elided disagreements over who might govern the “one China” and enabled the United States and the PRC to establish a de facto partnership opposing Soviet influence in Asia. This ambiguity also served to instill a degree of caution in the PRC and Taiwanese governments, leaving U.S. policy regarding any conflict opaque. Even as Kissinger should be faulted for pursuing an amoral realism in regional contexts, his pragmatic courting of interpretive “slack” enabled an era of geopolitical stability.

Indeed, one might argue more broadly that key elements of the wider rules-based international order that arose after World War II were themselves based in a pragmatic acceptance of ambiguity, as such ambiguity might ease the process of responding to shifts in security and economic “fundamentals.” For example, in place of the classical gold standard that had exacerbated deflationary pressures over the interwar decades, the fixed exchange rates of the Keynesian Bretton Woods framework had a normative component, reflecting a shared commitment to cooperation in pursuit of increased demand and growth. Even where it was recognized that a “fundamental disequilibrium” might compel devaluation, this criterion itself remained ambiguous, providing policymakers a zone of discretion in efforts to maintain growth.[4] In this way, policymakers sought less to eliminate ambiguities than to manage them in ways that could buffer security or economic pressures.

Nevertheless, such possibilities for the use of constructive ambiguity have been increasingly overlooked in recent decades. Rather than manage ambiguities, policymakers have sought to promote clarity and transparency in a way that can limit or eliminate the scope for interpretive nuance.[5] Consider the change in approach to U.S.-China relations from Kissinger to President Joe Biden as the Biden administration has moved away from long-standing ambiguity regarding U.S. intervention in a potential cross-strait conflict to a policy marked by increasingly clear alignment with Taiwan.[6] The absence of ambiguity and uncertainty may lead to misplaced certainties and excessive risk-taking, making conflict more likely. Likewise, post–Cold War economic policymakers have seen transparency as the key to market stability. For example, former U.S. Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan recalled that the postwar Federal Reserve had “sought to foster highly liquid debt markets through the use of what we called constructive ambiguity,” on the grounds that “markets uncertain as to the direction of interest rates would create a desired large buffer of both bids and offers.”[7] Departing from that view by the early 1990s, however, Greenspan argued that clarity would enable “market participants…to anticipate the Federal Reserve’s future moves…[thereby] stabilizing the debt markets.”[8] Such expectations would, of course, be set back by the 2007–9 global financial crisis, demonstrating the risks that misplaced market and policy certainty might fuel contagion and self-reinforcing crisis.

To be sure, none of this is to suggest that there are not conditions under which clarity may have advantages. Indeed, as Jacqueline Best has noted, “too much ambiguity can be destabilizing,” given that there is no exogenous or definitive strategy that can be developed in managing ambiguity.[9] However, we suggest in this Asia Policy roundtable that the pendulum may have swung too far in the direction of precision, obscuring key benefits of ambiguity as a source of policy legitimacy and flexibility. There are occasions in which diplomatic agents might exploit a constructive ambiguity—defined by Michael Byers as entailing “the deliberate use of ambiguous language in order to achieve agreement”—to expand the scope for cooperation across institutional and domestic settings.[10] Ambiguity may even have a broader applicability in the context of institutional design. Best observes that “one of the best strategies for managing ambiguity is to incorporate it directly into governance strategies by encouraging greater institutional flexibility, political negotiability, and discursive self-reflexivity.”[11]

In this roundtable, we consider these possibilities for the use of constructive ambiguity, as agents employ language to enable policy consensus and flexibility across great-power, institutional, and domestic policy contexts. In this capstone essay, we briefly highlight the ongoing extent of analytic consensus on the merits of transparency and clarity before positing the conditions under which different types of ambiguity—principled or cognitive—can enable stability or instability. We finally offer a brief overview of the claims advanced across this roundtable.

From Clarity to Varieties of Ambiguity

Over a range of ostensibly distinct theoretical perspectives, ambiguity in recent years has often been considered detrimental to international cooperation, stability, and policy effectiveness. Instead, scholars from various perspectives have broadly cast clarity, defined as entailing the explicit definition of standards and sanctions for behavior, as a source of these desirable conditions. For example, realists stress the need for hegemonic states, in pursuit of the “hegemonic socialization” or “soft coercion” of rivals, to clarify “a set of normative principles” to construct “an order conducive to its interests.”[12] Likewise, from a more liberal vantage, scholars highlight the importance of a legalization process driven by domestic entrepreneurs that “unambiguously define the conduct” that rules “require, authorize, or proscribe.”[13] Indeed, the canonical definition of an international regime offered by Stephen Krasner highlights the importance of mutually consistent “principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures” in enabling stability over time.[14] Finally, such developments might be viewed in terms of a constructivist “norm life cycle” driven by entrepreneurs that institutionalize norms—or “standards for the appropriate behavior of states”—by “clarifying what, exactly, the norm is and what constitutes violation” and identifying “specific… sanctions for norm breaking.”[15] Despite key differences, each approach broadly stresses the contributions of clarity to the culmination of a norm life cycle, dismissing ambiguity as an impediment to norm construction. Indeed, this skepticism toward ambiguity transcends subjective attitudes toward norms, as supporters and critics alike cast ambiguity as a defect rather than an asset.[16]

As noted above, our point is not to disparage a focus on clarity. There exist contexts and circumstances in which precision in setting norms, rules, or expectations is likely to be beneficial. This is particularly the case where discrete cognitive uncertainties rooted in the inability to make use of all available information or to identify or communicate preferences raise the danger of miscalculation or overreactions.[17] In such contexts of uncertainty based on a lack of available information, policymakers might reduce the scope for ambiguities that could lead to policy miscommunication or missteps by seeking to be as clear and transparent as possible regarding policy norms and rules. In contrast, we posit that purposeful ambiguities—rooted not merely in informational deficits or asymmetries but in the indeterminate nature of principled understandings themselves—may be less prone to clarification. Indeed, to the extent that principled understandings are often overlapping and contingent (e.g., the Shanghai Communiqué–styled tensions between conflicting views over sovereignty norms and strategic imperatives or Bretton Woods–era tensions between policy autonomy and economic openness), efforts to reduce principled commitments to clear norms and rules generate pathological or destabilizing behaviors. For example, Michael Barnett and Martha Finnemore noted in their influential discussion of institutional pathologies the danger of “insulation”: when institutional agents grow insulated from external or environmental feedback, they may “develop internal cultures and worldviews that do not promote the goals and expectations of those outside the organization who created it and whom it serves.”[18] Such pathologies can be seen as a reflection of attempts to reduce ambiguous, principled compromises to unambiguous, technocratic rules in ways that serve narrow concerns for policy clarity. At the same time, this may well jeopardize larger concerns for policy legitimacy or effectiveness in ways that may exacerbate crisis and conflict.[19]

Across this set of essays, we accordingly engage debates over the scope for the use of constructive ambiguity in efforts to promote stability and cooperation and the countervailing ways in which ambiguity can impede policy clarity, stability, and cooperation.

Speaking first to the scope for ambiguity across global and regional cooperation, Lorraine Elliott argues in “Ambiguity and Decarbonization Pathways in Southeast Asia” that a constructive use of ambiguity in diplomatic and negotiating contexts, related to climate change in the case study here, may be in tension with expected policy outcomes. She suggests that while there can be strategic value in ambiguity when facing the challenges of a world of ostensible “certainties,” because such ambiguity can account for diverse interests and capacities and permit a flexible interpretation of rules and targets that can allow for varied interests and capacities, such flexibility can also weaken policy ambition. Her essay applies these insights to a study of decarbonization pathways in Southeast Asia, a region that has significant negative exposure to climate impacts and associated economic consequences and that continues to be highly dependent on fossil fuels. Using the example of energy transitions—a key focus for decarbonization in the region—Elliott shows how constructive ambiguities in the 2015 Paris Agreement and in the nationally determined contributions of the members states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) under that agreement have resulted in ambiguities that are potentially less helpful. She explores this in the context of policy ambiguity as it applies to mitigation targets, clarity of measurement and reporting, and the social justice outcomes expected in so-called just energy transitions.

Examining the scope for ambiguity as a source of stability, Mathew Davies argues in his essay “ASEAN and Ambiguity” that ambiguity is essentially hardwired into ASEAN’s institutional genesis and evolution. While Davies argues that institutional reform within ASEAN has recently seen increasing detail and specification, and so a reduction of ambiguity of purpose, he argues further that ASEAN’s peculiar diplomatic culture has permitted seemingly specific documents to support ongoing ambiguity of meaning. Tracing these differing forms of ambiguity in the history of ASEAN, Davies more broadly explores their consequences, arguing that while both forms of ambiguity have enabled ASEAN’s endurance and pacifying effect on regional affairs, they have also enabled institutional overreach and reinforced the incentives to develop more functionally effective cooperation. Here, ambiguities have both positive and problematic consequences depending on the issue being raised and the questions being asked.

In her essay “The Ambiguous Architecture of Economic Integration in East Asia,” Natasha Hamilton-Hart juxtaposes the architecture of cross-border business ties and business-government relationships against the regional integration architecture created through intergovernmental cooperation, which is often sustained by the flexibility ambiguity provides. Many of East Asia’s trade arrangements, in terms of both formal agreements and informal networks, depend on some degree of ambiguity for their existence and for the eventual advancement of domestic regulatory reforms and market liberalization. Hamilton-Hart further suggests that in the current context of U.S.-China tensions, the United States has sought to eliminate areas of ambiguity and flexibility in its array of export controls and policies meant to hamper Chinese acquisition of advanced technology and “de-risk” its exposure to China. To the extent that the injection of new security logic has created pressures for decoupling, a new level of uncertainty has been potentially introduced in state policies, raising the question of whether institutions that evolved to manage supply chain relationships and production risks can adapt to the new context.

Situating recent setbacks to U.S.-China relations in the context of more enduring economic and environmental cooperation, Wenting He and Wesley Widmaier examine in their essay “Ambiguity and National Interests: Foreign Policy Frames and U.S.-China Relations” the effects of Keynesian and financial framings to highlight common interests in bila bilateral cooperation. While noting that the Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s hard line toward China, He and Widmaier focus on the U.S. Treasury secretary Janet Yellen’s long-standing role in countering and softening such trends. Yellen supported economic and environmental cooperation in the mid-1990s debates over the Kyoto Accords and China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. She again backed economic cooperation during the 2008 global financial crisis. Now in the Biden administration, she continues to advance a strategic trade policy while attempting to avoid a deeper decoupling. In this way, He and Widmaier stress the ambiguity of the ideas that shape interests in conflict or cooperation. Although not denying that real issues divide the two superpowers, they suggest that a Yellen-styled pragmatism may provide a foundation for mature U.S.-China cooperation in realizing mutual policy gains.

Focusing on the regional context, as well as its implications for great-power rivalry, Beverley Loke and Ralf Emmers juxtapose multilateral venues for regional countries to exchange strategic perspectives in their essay “U.S.-China Great-Power Politics and Strategic Ambiguities in an Evolving Indo-Pacific Security Architecture.” They focus in particular on ASEAN and its associated forums, such as the East Asia Summit, in contrast with the more exclusive minilateral arrangements driven by U.S.-China great-power politics. China’s influence-building measures include the Belt and Road Initiative, the Xiangshan Forum, and, more recently, the Global Security Initiative. U.S.-led minilaterals include, among others, the Quad (that brings together Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) and AUKUS (a trilateral security pact signed by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in September 2021). Loke and Emmers suggest that the rise of minilateralism has added ambiguity to Asian architectures at the level of embedded regional alignments. Institutions such as the East Asia Summit are structured around the notion of ASEAN centrality in regional order–building and impartiality in the great-power competition, and they seek to institutionalize regional relations through inclusivity and by promoting diplomatic rules of engagement acceptable to all. In contrast, the Quad and AUKUS are arrangements that openly exclude China and seek to balance its rising power. Noting that this contrast may seem counterintuitive, Loke and Emmers suggest that constructive ambiguity in the regional architecture can help maintain stability, especially in light of intensifying U.S.-China hegemonic ordering, by limiting the potential “hardening” of alignments that risk cementing “us/them” binaries and heightening regional instabilities. Developing these insights, Loke and Emmers suggest that inclusive and exclusive approaches to security cooperation are not mutually exclusive, as they enable flexibility and fluidity in regional alignments.

Focusing specifically on China’s engagement with multilateral institutions, Susan Park argues in her essay “Meeting in the Middle? Multilateral Development Finance, China, and Norm Harmonization” the ways in which—U.S.-China tensions aside—China can be seen as pursuing a policy of “norm harmonization.” While in the 1990s China was viewed as a novice “norm-taker” that needed to be socialized into the international system, China today is influencing international norms within multilateral institutions, through both internal and indirect external pressure, that may fundamentally reshape how finance, trade, development, and energy policy are practiced, thereby shifting from the role of norm-taker to norm-maker. Park addresses the ways in which China is reshaping multilateral development finance, traditionally the purview of Western-led institutions and groupings, and examines the institutions promoted by China to pursue an international development agenda. She argues that although China is a significant force in international development, it may not necessarily seek to challenge all multilateral development norms. In areas such as climate change mitigation and environmental protection, China is increasingly engaging with existing development norms and actors. Park suggests that this new role for China as an international development lender makes possible the exercise of ambiguity in efforts to find a “middle way” in reconciling and harmonizing multilateral development finance norms.

Taken together, these essays highlight the ways ambiguity is less an impediment to the establishment of institutions that advance common interests than a means to construct common interests themselves. Viewed pragmatically, one might argue that anarchy is what diplomats make of it.[20]

Wesley Widmaier is a Professor of International Relations at the Australian National University (Australia).

Mathew Davies is an Associate Professor in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University (Australia).

Lorraine Elliott is Professor Emerita in International Relations at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University (Australia).

Ralf Emmers is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics of East Asia and Co-Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS University of London (United Kingdom).

Natasha Hamilton-Hart is Professor at the University of Auckland Business School and Director of the New Zealand Asia Institute (New Zealand).

Wenting He is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the Australian National University (Australia).

Beverley Loke is a Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University (Australia).

Susan Park is Professor of Global Governance in International Relations at the University of Sydney (Australia).


[1] Henry Kissinger, The White House Years (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 940.

[2] For a baseline definition of ambiguity as permitting interpretation variation, see Jacqueline Best, “Ambiguity, Uncertainty, and Risk: Rethinking Indeterminacy,” International Political Sociology 2, no. 4 (2008): 356.

[3] “Joint Statement Following Discussions with Leaders of the People’s Republic of China,” February 27, 1972, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XVIII, China, 1969–1972, U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v17/d203.

[4] For a broader discussion of transparency, clarity, uncertainty, and ambiguity, see Jacqueline Best, The Limits of Transparency: Ambiguity and the History of International Finance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).

[5] On such trends in the post-Cold War setting, see Wesley W. Widmaier and Luke Glanville, “The Benefits of Norm Ambiguity: Constructing the Responsibility to Protect across Rwanda, Iraq and Libya,” Contemporary Politics 21, no. 4 (2015): 367–83; Michael Byers “Still Agreeing to Disagree: International Security and Constructive Ambiguity,” Journal on the Use of Force and International Law 8, no. 1 (2021): 91–114; and Best, “Ambiguity, Uncertainty, and Risk

[6] Michael Crowley, “Biden Backs Taiwan, but Some Call for a Clearer Warning to China,” New York Times, April 9, 2021 u https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/08/us/politics/biden-china-taiwan.html.

[7] Alan Greenspan, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World (New York: Penguin, 2008), 151. Consider the early post–Cold War optimism regarding the ostensibly liberal rules-based international order.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Best, The Limits of Transparency, 7.

[10] Byers “Still Agreeing to Disagree,” 93.

[11] Best, The Limits of Transparency, 8.

[12] G. John Ikenberry and Charles A. Kupchan, “Socialization and Hegemonic Power,” International Organization 44, no. 3 (1990): 284; and Beth A. Simmons, Frank Dobbin, and Geoffrey Garrett, eds. “Special Symposium on International Diffusion of Liberalism,” International Organization 60, no. 4, special issue (2006): 781–810. More broadly, Sarah Percy argues that “legal institutionalization,” or efforts to limit ambiguity and formalize norms as laws, can inhibit adjustment in ways that accelerate norm decay.” See Sarah V. Percy, “Mercenaries: Strong Norm, Weak Law,” International Organization 61, no. 2 (2007): 394.

[13] Kenneth W. Abbott et al., “The Concept of Legalization,” International Organization 54, no. 3 (2000): 401.

[14] Stephen D. Krasner, “Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables,” in International Regimes, ed. Stephen D. Krasner (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 2.

[15] Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change,” International Organization 52, no. 4 (1998): 893, 896, 900.

[16] To be sure, one can find realists, liberals, and constructivists who recognize the scope for ambiguity. From a realist view, Kissinger coined the term “constructive ambiguity.” See Aharon S. Klieman, Constructive Ambiguity in Middle East Peace-Making (Tel Aviv: Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, 1999). From a liberal view, James Mahoney and Kathleen Thelen cast ambiguity as pertaining to situations “subject to interpretation, debate, and contestation.” See James Mahoney and Kathleen Thelen, “A Theory of Gradual Institutional Change,” in Explaining Institutional Change: Ambiguity, Agency and Power, ed. James Mahoney and Kathleen Thelen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010), 11. For other liberal views, see George Downs and David M. Rocke, Optimal Imperfection? Domestic Uncertainty and Institutions in International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). For constructivist views, see Best, The Limits of Transparency; and Percy, “Mercenaries.”

[17] Best, The Limits of Transparency, 3–4

[18] Michael N. Barnett and Martha Finnemore, “The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organizations,” International Organization 53, no. 4 (1999): 722.

[19] Best notes that the “least successful regimes will be those that underestimate the force of ambiguity, treating it as a purely technical problem that can be eliminated once and for all—rather than managed on an ongoing basis.” Best, The Limits of Transparency, 8.

[20] We are paraphrasing Alexander Wendt’s well-known article here. See Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics,” International Organization 46, no. 2 (1992): 391–425.

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