There are hints in the spring air of a diplomatic thaw: The Clinton administration is poised, they say, to let Libya out of the doghouse. Sanctions may be lifted, and Americans may once again vacation in Tripoli. Modest celebrations are in order, but there is one caveat. Washington should not let the thaw proceed without clearing up once and for all that perennial impediment to better relations between Libya and the English-speaking world: Nobody knows the name of the man at the helm over there. Moammar Gadhafi? Muammar Gadaffi? Moamer Kadhafi? Muamar Qadhaffi? A quartet of interchangeable cousins? The world has not been dealing with a statesman all these years, but a spectral shape-shifter. No wonder tension has been rife.

Nor is the problem confined to Libya. A moment’s reflection confirms that it may have fanned diplomatic fires the world over.

Take Asia and the Problem of the Floating Hyphen. Are we talking to North Korean President Kim Jong Il these days, or Kim Jong-il? (We once saw a headline about Kim Jong Ill as well, but that was probably just a report on the health troubles of Mr. Kim Jong). Relations with China have also stumbled on the hyphen question, though matters have been further complicated there by the complete orthographic chaos that broke out with respect to that country some decades ago. Instability has been the hallmark. No sooner had we finally assimilated the transmutation of Mao Tse-tung into Mao Zedong, Nanking into Nanjing and all the rest of it, than the British went and handed back Hong Kong, thereby reigniting the dormant hyphen problem. Will Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (a.k.a. Tung Chee Hwa and Tung Chee-Hwa) hang onto his hyphen as a sign of Hong Kong’s independence? (Or is that Hongkong?) The world waits.

Things are unsettled in Taiwan, too, and it is easy to see why. The hyphenated President Lee Teng-hui got nowhere with his unhyphenated mainland counterpart, Mr. Jiang Zemin, and the outlook for his successor, Mr. Chen Shui-bian, will be no better until the two sides finally present a united front on spelling. The rest of us will never make sense of it until they do.

The rule holds for all the globe’s diplomatic hot spots. Russia, which long labored under the yoke of the czars (or tsars) is still a minefield of interchangeable y’s and i’s. Even former President Boris Yeltsin popped up occasionally as Eltsin — and who can forget his frequent typographical Doppelganger “Yelstin”? By this measure, Russia’s horizon has definitely brightened with the election of Mr. Vladimir Putin. Now there’s a name that can’t be messed with, except by those with the urge to append the prefix “Ras.”

In the flash point of the Middle East, Israel has also done well to lose the unsatisfactory Prime Minister Benjamin/Binyamin Netanyahu. All that’s needed now is for the Palestinians to find a leader with a stable first name: Yasser or Yasir has got to go.

Europe is, in the main, a solid bloc of orthographic consistency. But, again, wobbles signal trouble. Austria’s bad boy, former Freedom Party leader Herr Haider, is Jorg one day, Jorg or Joerg the next: clearly, a slippery character. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder/Schroder has the same problem with his umlaut, always a cause for suspicion among foreigners. But the man whose name really spelled political disaster (which came to pass in February with his scandal-related resignation as chairman of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union) was the unfortunate, poly-voweled Wolfgang Schaeuble. When he started showing up in the international press as Schaeiouble, he should have known the writing was on the wall.

There is no end to it, if you think about it. Pakistan entertains cautious hopes for a better future under its new leader, Gen. Musharraf, but again, his first name is shrouded in a fog of alternative renditions — Pervez, Pervais, Pervaiz — so the country’s outlook remains murky. The same goes for Indonesia. People’s spirits lifted on first hearing that the world’s fourth-most-populous nation had last year elected as its president a man named Gus. Finally, it was felt, Asia had produced a leader who might feel comfortable in the company of Bill and Tony. Sadly, it turns out that the he goes officially by the more dignified, but less memorable sobriquet Abdurrahman Wahid. No comfort for linguistic one-worlders there.

All in all, the outlook is mixed. But November could mark a turning point. If Texas Gov. George W. Bush is elected president of the United States, the world’s lone superpower and principal cultural powerhouse will be led by a man for whom the problem simply doesn’t exist: As far as “Dubbya” is concerned, foreign leaders have no names at all.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.