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.