The Mealy-Mouthed West

Among the numerous challenges the West faces, one is consistently overlooked: its addiction to meaningless rhetoric. From US President Barack Obama’s oxymoronic first-term mantra “leading from behind” to the recent German variant “leading from the center,” empty phrases have become the currency of Western governments’ foreign policies.

Of course, the inherent complexity and unpredictability of international affairs intensify politicians’ inclination to equivocate. And today, with the geopolitical environment more complicated and less predictable than ever, our leaders have even less incentive to offer the kind of boldness and clarity that effective policymaking demands. Unfortunately, the result has been to make a bad situation worse.

Strategic statements play an important role in signaling a country’s direction and intentions to its adversaries, allies, citizens, and government agencies. When such statements require endless interpretation and explanation, their impact is weakened dramatically.

This is not to say that there is no place for ambiguity in international affairs. History abounds with episodes when strategic ambiguity would have been beneficial. For example, some historians suggest that then-US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s decision in 1950 to exclude South Korea from America’s “defense perimeter” signaled to North Korea and the Soviet Union that the United States would not defend the South in the event of an attack.

The problem with today’s ambiguity is that it is not particularly strategic. Consider Obama’s underlying rationale for his foreign policy – the so-called “Obama doctrine” – which he finally provided following the announcement of the framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. “We will engage,” Obama declared, “but we preserve all our capabilities.”

On the surface, that statement makes sense. But it leaves us with more questions than answers. What has Obama really signaled? What, in his view, are the boundaries for US engagement? Under what conditions would the US use its capabilities?

Nearly 70 years ago, when George Orwell examined the tendency toward ambiguity, he offered the rather simple explanation that “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” In other words, hazy language is necessary to obscure unsavory realities. Massive violence against civilian populations is “pacification,” and ethnic cleansing is a “transfer of population.” As Orwell noted, “[t]he great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”

To some extent, Orwell’s observations still ring true. But the issue today is different: politicians are using vague rhetoric less because their policies are fundamentally indefensible than because they fear having to defend any position at all. While there are myriad reasons for this reticence, when it comes to international relations, two stand out.

The first is the hyperbolic political atmosphere in Western democracies, where the 24-hour news cycle and social media have made “gotcha politics” the order of the day. Add to that the intrinsic uncertainty of foreign affairs, and it is unsurprising that politicians would rather spout empty lines than risk saying something that might blow up in their faces. Indeed, one need only consider the years-long stream of commentary – characterized by partisanship, hearsay, and hostility – following the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi to understand leaders’ angst.

The second reason is more fundamental: the waning sense of purpose and conviction that characterizes Western democracies today. Whereas, say, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan clearly confronted the Soviet Union in their speeches at the Berlin Wall, a succession of Western leaders has spoken in nods and winks about the crisis in Ukraine and China’s aggressive stance toward its neighbors.

The difference is not difficult to discern. During the Cold War, the West’s certainty that it occupied the moral high ground inspired confidence in both word and deed. Though the West still occupies the moral high ground on many important issues – such as the Islamic State and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – the global system is far less clear-cut today. Internal social challenges, which have called into question the justness of Western countries’ liberal model, have exacerbated politicians’ reticence.

As diffident Western leaders offer garbled messages or, worse, mere verbal fluff, they allow cynical actors with simpler and more forceful narratives, often based on lies and distortions, to win support more easily. In Europe, the rise of demagogic populists on both ends of the political spectrum exemplifies this phenomenon. Likewise, Russian President Vladimir Putin, unburdened by facts or guilt, has taken advantage of domestic and international audiences’ deep-seated resentments and insecurities to craft compelling narratives in support of his policy toward Ukraine.

Western leaders should see no need to dispense with the truth; the facts are on their side. What is needed is the confidence to defend the liberal rules-based international order – and to back up arguments with action. After all, powerful declarations mean nothing if leaders do not follow through; worse, they undermine the credibility of the speaker’s future statements.

Obama learned this the hard way, when he drew a “red line” against Syria’s use of chemical weapons and then failed to act forcefully when Syria crossed that line. The Obama doctrine cannot be credible if the US is not willing to use the capabilities that the president has pledged to preserve.

This imperative is not limited to Obama. All Western policymakers will, before long, have to move beyond their parochial political considerations and anxieties to present a clear strategic vision.

The habit of bland rhetoric is a hard one to break. Indeed, Orwell warned of its potential to weaken one’s capacity for critical thought, because “every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.” But, as the global balance of power shifts toward the East and the South, the West must do what it takes to secure its continued influence – and that means taking a firm, clear, and credible stance on the strategic challenges it faces.