Actions and Words in Foreign Policy

One of the most frustrating things about political discourse is the disparity between words and actions. Just as irritating is mistaking words for actions. There are times when speaking the truth can be an action in itself, typically when speaking is dangerous. But in reality this is a fairly rare occurrence. In politics and diplomacy, much is made of the words which are said, but the actions are what is important.

A key area of current concern is about Bush’s publicly stated short-term goal of bringing democracy to Iraq. This, coupled with his long-term goal of bringing democracy to the Middle East, offers a powerful vision for the hope of an end to the War on Terrorism. This is a worthy vision, but it remains to be seen if he and the American public have the will and stamina to bring it to fruition with positive action. In a democracy, one way of keeping the actions from straying too far from the words is by holding politicians accountable for doing what they say they will do. By the time of the 2004 election, we will hopefully be able to see if Bush’s actions are leading in the direction of his stated goals.

In diplomacy, the gulf between words and actions can be even greater than in democratic politics. It is common for a country to say one thing publically while doing the opposite. It is often frustrating for me to discuss foreign policy with people who insist on believing the public pronouncements of foreign actors, while ignoring their actions. I know these people are capable of noticing a gap in actions and words--they do so all the time when our own government is involved. But when other governments say something, they refuse to question the gap between actions and words.

A classic example of this is when people suggest that after 9/11 the world was with us. They suggest that Nato invoked Article V after 9/11 and that we squandered that good will by failing to coordinate through NATO in Afghanistan. The Article V invocation was speech. The actions after it were not in line with support. The NATO countries initially tried to discourage us from acting militarily against Afghanistan. When they saw Bush was determined, they next attempted to gain veto over all targeting choices (ask Gen. Clark how great he thought that idea was in the much easier war in the Balkans). The way this would have worked out can be easily discerned by how the French 'supported' us in the Afghanistan action later. They refused to provide air support to our units when the US soldiers were under fire. The US military acts on the moment to moment assessment of soldiers on the ground. Waiting days for NATO approval of individual targets would have been disasterous. It would have increased the length of the war, and really could have caused us to be engaged in a quagmire. These were not the acts of those who were supporting us. The words were irrelevant. The willingness to let our soldiers die without air support was eloquent enough.

In the run up to the war against Saddam Hussein, I saw a number of Amnesty International supporters complain that their reports of Saddam's rape and torture rooms and their documentation of Saddam's genocide were being misused to drum up support for the war. I can't find any of the original articles now, but I remember a number of debates about the fairness of using Amnesty International reports against their wishes. This reflects a serious confusion about Amnesty International's usefulness. Amnesty International documents human rights violations. It sheds light on them by publishing this documentation. In authoritarian countries, this puts the documentors in danger so revealing the truth counts as action in those cases by my definition above. But this revelation is not an end to itself. Amnesty International does not reveal this conduct just for the fun of it. They hope that their revelations will cause other parties to take action so that the atrocities will not continue.

In a free society, revelation will hopefully cause the populace to vote in leaders who will make changes. But in a highly restricted society this is not possible. In order for the atrocities to cease, someone must use force to get rid of those who are committing the atrocities. The words of revelation are at best a first step in causing the change. To pretend that the words are being 'misused' as support for forcing the change desired is to mistake the speech condemning the atrocities with the force required to cease the atrocities. This confusion causes groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to act in all sorts of crazy ways like these documented by Steven DenBeste at The USS Clueless . Because in free countries the revelation itself is often enough to cause change, such groups act as if the revelation is real action for change in authoritarian situations as well. So they end up in the odd position of opposing the kind of action which is really needed to improve human rights in less democratic countries because they forget that words are not the main actions which are needed in such cases.

This mistake is seen constantly in diplomatic discussions of soft power . The problem is not that soft power doesn't ever work. The problem is that it doesn't work in all the areas where its supporters think it works. Soft power can almost always obtain agreements and treaties. But when one party doesn't want to follow these agreements or treaties, soft power is usually helpless to enforce compliance. This can be seen in such disparate cases as North Korea's relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons, Hitler's relentless pursuit of Poland, and France's decision to ignore the Euro-stability pact rules that it set up. In each case, advocates of soft power declared victory because of pieces of paper--words--while setting themselves up for nasty times later on by ignoring the actions which contradicted the words.

In both domestic politics and foreign policy, discussions of words are completely insufficient; you must examine actions. Much recent discussion of other countries' willingness to help on the War Against Terrorism has focused on their words. That is not helpful since their actions are not in line with their words.

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at December 15, 2003 2:33 AM