In a letter written in 1900, then New York Governor and future US President, Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt suggested that the best way to achieve foreign policy goals was to “speak softly, and carry a big stick”. His elevation to the presidency, following the assassination of President McKinley in September 1901, brought about the end of an imperial-style approach to foreign affairs – often known as “gunboat” diplomacy – and the advent of his way of doing business. A way that has dominated foreign and diplomatic affairs for the last 100 years.
His famous phrase and President Roosevelt’s subsequent approach to diplomacy came to be known as “big stick ideology”. Events overnight relating to the US and North Korea would suggest we are back to the gunboat – or big mouth, blunt instrument, dangerously reckless diplomacy. President Trump confirmed this when he said: “They (North Korea) will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The days of quiet diplomacy are clearly well and truly over.
President Trump was not elected because of his deft use of language or subtle, carefully argued world view. He was however elected and we now have to live – every day – with the decision the American people made to place between us an increasingly agitated and better-armed North Korean dictatorship and a completely unsuitable leader of the free world. The years of standoff between the west and North Korea did at last seem to be stable. We have no such stability today.
As a communications person you would expect me to say that words matter. They do. Diplomacy is built on words; on finding mutual understanding; searching for common ground or at least accommodations; on using arguments carefully and thoughtfully. Just take a look a the video of the people in the room when President Trump made his statement yesterday – look at their faces. Take a look at what the Secretary of State said today – look at his face. When people who work for the boss say, this is what he meant to say or this is what he meant, you know that they know that words matters too. You know too that they know that the words used will not do.
We are now a far cry from Jimmy Carter’s promise never to tell a lie and his confirmation that he never dropped a bomb. This is no Great Society. No Camelot, as we “all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” We are through the looking glass with potentially worrying consequences. Potentially catostrophic consequences.
We can only hope that TR’s other famous words, written upon the death of his wife and quoted by President Nixon when he left office, are not portentous for our current position; “The light has gone out of my life”. We hope that the light of quiet diplomacy will be relit very soon and that someone, please someone, helps the President speak more quietly. Our futures really do depend on it.