When emotions and perceptions outweigh facts

The new U.S. secretary of state during a routine summit meeting
Bonn, Feb. 16, 2017: U.S. chief diplomat Rex Tillerson during a G20 session; his attempt to skip NATO’s next routine summit caused an uproar in Europe (source: dpa)

Prioritizing is as important in politics as it is in business. Unfortunately, in political discourse and in public debate, juicy, emotionally charged, but marginal news nearly always takes precedence over real problems.

Do you recall the ruckus that was made over news that the United States had listened in on the phone calls of the German chancellor and most other political leaders around the globe? The revelation came from whistleblower Edward Snowden. For weeks that followed, media and politicians indulged in moralistic grandstanding on the issue. It was hypocritical, as all larger states eavesdrop. Gathering intelligence on the plans of other nations and on their leaders – regardless of them being friend or foe – is the main duty of intelligence services.

Distorting reality

In that particular case, critics were delighted that it had been the Americans, and not them, who had been exposed. The squabble allowed other eavesdroppers to play glorious victims.

The latest verbal spat between Turkey, the Netherlands and other European countries betrays a similarly suspect quality. There are no real grounds for the quarrel. Big words are used, hot air exchanged, but real, critically important issues between allies, Turkey and Europe, are not addressed.

The high media profile of the North Korean dictator leads many to significantly overestimate the danger he presents to the outside world. Likewise, misperceptions stand in the way of a more coolheaded assessment of the challenges posed by the relations with China, both economically and strategically.

And then there was the “Assad must go” slogan – a grossly simplified recipe for the complex geopolitical crisis in Syria. Hiding behind this motto, Western governments struck moralistic poses while in fact failing to react responsibly and effectively to the grimly escalating conflict.

This whole business, especially the G20 summits, is outrageously expensive

Another example are summits. These gatherings of bigwigs serve mainly as shows, since the real policy work is conducted earlier, on a different level. It very much looks like summits are arranged for politicians to project the image that they are addressing problems, not to give leaders an opportunity to truly solve anything.

This whole business, especially the G20 summits, is outrageously expensive. These are high profile events, but their outcomes tend to be shallow and disappointing.

Ado about nothing

Look at the latest pseudo-news on NATO. There are important decisions to be made on the functioning and the role of the Atlantic alliance – no question about that. It is not crucial, however, who among top officials attend NATO summits. Many have said they think it is scandalous that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson intended to skip a NATO summit early in April 2017 in Brussels, as at the same time Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to meet President Donald Trump in Florida. This visit, the first between the Chinese and U.S. leaders, obviously requires the presence of the secretary of state.

Sure, the alliance’s decision makers do need to meet regularly. One suspects, however, that if some of them are occasionally substituted by able deputies, the overall accomplishments of the gatherings can even be more substantial.

Arguably, the attendance of top officials at a pivotal event signals its importance. Yet it is hard to believe that this signal is essential in the case of a routine meeting. As members of the alliance pretended to be concerned, Secretary Tillerson found a compromise by agreeing to come to Brussels on an earlier date. When it comes to solving NATO’s real problems, this whole exercise will make no difference.

In truly critical moments, leaders’ presence carries significance. For example, in the summer of 2008, when Russia attacked Georgia and Tbilisi was in a danger of bombardment, it mattered that Polish President Lech Kaczynski and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice showed leadership by traveling to the Georgian capital to demonstrate their support.

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