Sunday, July 6, 2008

“Surtout, pas trop de zele” – Above all, not too much zeal

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord (1754-1838) was a man of many accomplishments – among them cleric, diplomat, statesman, aristocrat, revolutionary, and imperialist. He is considered by many the most accomplished European diplomat of his age, with a diplomatic career that began with his mission to London in January 1792 to persuade Great Britain to remain neutral as revolutionary France battled the rest of Europe. His final diplomatic achievement was the 1834 conclusion of a formal alliance among Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, and France. Nevertheless, he is most often remembered today for the many epigrams attributed to him, of which my favorite is “Surtout, pas trop de zele,” often translated as “Above all, not too much zeal." By this phrase, Talleyrand was reportedly reminding his diplomatic subordinates that decisions about war, peace, and the nation’s security must be based upon the exercise of cool-headed reason and not upon emotions or any waxing or waning popular enthusiasm.

Talleyrand’s words came back to me recently as I listened to both presumptive-presidential candidates outlining their views on national security issues and declaring what their future decisions would be with regard to war and peace in different circumstances. Personally, the experience acquired over my diplomatic career leads me to generally disregard such commitments. Statements made in the heat of a political election campaign cannot help but suffer from a surfeit of zeal, intended as they often are to pander to the perceived enthusiasms of all or a part of the electorate.

The United States has had past experiences with the harmful impact of enthusiasms on political-military decision-making. I, for one, want to believe that the next President of the United States will ponder any decisions about peace, war, national security, and the future of the nation with a cool and rational consideration of the merits of the issue at hand – and not by trying to remember what promise he may have made on the campaign trail.


Anonymous said...

Buen comienzo

Anonymous said...

Ce post m'a beaucoup aide dans mon positionnement. Merci pour ces informations

Stormrider45 said...

Interesting assessment. Your justification for a reasoned approach, particularly regarding military involvement, is sound. However, does not the American public, at least those few that make informed voting decisions, not have an expectation that promises made on the campaign trail be honored? If not, the rhetorical mask of "reason" can and will be used to ignore, dismiss, aid and abet the outright proffering of lies during the election process.

Robert A Mosher said...

Thanks for the comment and excellent question. Personally, the first election campaign I paid much attention to was the 1964 Presidential race between LBJ and Republican conservative Barry Goldwater. Like many people that year (who unlike me could vote) I preferred LBJ over Goldwater. However, I'm not sure that many realized that while we voted for LBJ we got much of Barry Goldwater's defense policies. I don't generally hold a politician to his campaign promises because what interests me more is can he or she THINK - can they defend their position on an issue in reasonable detail (rather than in soundbites) - and if they later change their mind and explain to me again in reasonable detail why they changed their mind, I'm not too bothered because personally I want my elected officials to actually think about what they're doing. Not everyone agrees with me and that's their right. At University I used to argue that the American electorate could be sufficiently informed and educated even en masse to make intelligent decisions and thus guide their elected officials on what to do with regard to complex international issues - it might be said that it's less a belief now and more like a hope.