The Mealy-Mouthed West

MADRID – 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.