A famous saying is attributed to the French diplomat, Talleyrand: “Words are used to conceal thoughts.” There is, of course, more than a touch of cynicism in this quotation. Yet, it may also betray merely a deeper level of knowledge born of experience.
Talleyrand was the wily and irrepressible Foreign Minister to Napoleon Bonaparte. In fact, as a public figure he outlasted the decade of the French Revolution beginning in 1789, he survived the fall of the Bourbon Monarchy in 1793, he ascended with the rise the Napoleonic Empire, and in 1814 took a leading part in the Bourbon Restoration. Finally, at the end of his career he was able to salvage the dignity of a defeated France at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
As one of the most adept practitioners of the art of diplomatic interaction his statement quoted above must be credited with a level of insight that is deeper and more knowing than mere cynicism. He was a consummate realist, a shrewd evaluator of human nature and of national interests. Most of all, he was able to align those disparate interests to the advantage of France.
In fact, as a study in method and purpose it is useful to compare his diplomatic abilities with those of the current executor of American foreign policy, Secretary Clinton. Yet to do so–at the risk of appearing too harsh–the aphorism of the French diplomat might be rephrased as, “Words are used in place of thoughts.”
I make this statement advisedly because Talleyrand was able through subtlety and prescience to discover the meeting place of conflicting interests. Then with tact and charm he worked to reconcile those interests to the purposes of French policy.
By contrast, when Secretary Clinton encounters an opposing point of view her approach–one would scarcely say style–seems to rely on two possibilities: To berate in the most dour and condescending terms on the one hand, to threaten with armed reprisal on the other. The many alternatives outside these two extremes where the give and take of patient accommodation may occur seem scarcely to have been considered.
Undoubtedly the selection of Hilary Clinton for such a high position was appropriate to the atmosphere of American politics. It satisfied the demands of a loud constituency, it prevented a dangerous factionalism within the ruling party and it neutralized a potential rival. Yet, for all these obvious benefits domestically the appointment came at a cost, especially in its net effect on the world stage at large. Perhaps most importantly, America has suffered a further decline of what might be called respect in terms of admiration. We are emphatically no longer a beacon to the world. We are now routinely betrayed and disdained by our allies as we are outmaneuvered and embarrassed by our enemies. We reveal a callow ineptitude as we attempt to lecture foreign leaders whose political wisdom may well exceed our own.
It is possible our one gain has been an increase of respect in terms of fear. That is, we have come to be more feared for how we might employ our enormous power in inexplicable ways, ways that serve no humane or enlightened purpose.
Certainly, only a measure of blame for this situation can be laid at the feet of our current Secretary of State. After all, she along with the President who appointed her is still learning the complexities and realities of international affairs–and that is perhaps the problem. High moral purpose and lofty ideals are not the only legitimate aims of a foreign policy. Neither should a capacity for obliterative violence be its primary basis. Yet, our government seems to veer between these two extremes with not much of prudence and sagacity in between. This pattern reveals both a lack of experience and a lack of understanding.
Talleyrand would fit none of the criteria we demand for the chief oracle of American foreign policy. He was, after all, a high-born noble, he was openly contemptuous of the ignorant multitude and he was a notorious philanderer. Yet, it might be useful to speculate–cynically or not–on what kind of stature America would enjoy in the world today if it had a spokesperson as skilled and as schooled in the arts of diplomatic interplay as was Talleyrand. Things could not be worse.