It is one of the peculiarities of modern reporting on international relations that the speeches of foreign leaders (presidents, prime ministers, foreign secretaries) seldom garner much attention in the news media. It would be possible to study intensively the Syrian crisis, for instance, and never actually have the benefit of reading (apart from a brief comment here and there) what the Syrian foreign minister says about the civil war in his country. When the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, became intimately involved in the plan to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, the New York Times ran an article on Lavrov and noted his importance in diplomatic circles, but the if the Times has ever run an extended transcript of a speech by Lavrov it has escaped my attention. (It might have happened, but it's rare. The Times once did this sort of thing much more regularly). The NSA bugged the phones of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, for over ten years, beginning in 2002; but it is a safe bet that the geniuses running our intelligence establishment often don’t pay attention to her public speeches. It takes a lot of man hours to decipher all that babble from cell phone chatter; why bother reading a carefully considered statement?
This blog proceeds on the assumption that “what others think” is a
useful thing for us to know. What they say publicly, it may be further
ventured, is frequently a very good guide to what they think in private.
It was said of Woodrow Wilson that he was far more intimate when
speaking to a crowd than in a tête-à-tête. In the former setting,
he was expansive and revealed his true thoughts; in the latter, he was
withdrawn and often unresponsive. Wilson was unusual in that regard,
perhaps, but the point remains. In trying to understand what others
think, a necessary but often neglected aspect of that inquiry is to read
what they have actually said. This may seem obvious (perhaps because it
is obvious), but the point is often neglected by major media
outlets. That what foreign leaders say seldom reveals the entirety of
their thinking is doubtless true, and we should always be on the lookout
for deceptions and omissions. So, too, things said by diplomats tend to
be put diplomatically, and may require additional investigation to
determine what they really mean. But we proceed on the assumption that
what they have to say is worth hearing.
Since Washington D.C. often seems like a foreign country to those of us
in the hinterland, we’ll also occasionally report the speeches of
American leaders as well. When we get a bit of critical mass, we'll look
beyond official statements to dissenting views.
The blog will be run in conjunction with students in my international
relations classes at Colorado College. Student contributions will be
noted at the bottom of each post.Their assignment was to locate an
incisive statement by a foreign leader; they were free to choose people
and themes as they saw fit.
Professor of Political Science
February 21, 2014