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Knowledge Base

No Empty Threats: Establishing Credibility in Foreign Affairs

Secretary George P. Shultz writes about the consequences of empty threats to diplomatic efforts in his book, Learning From Experience:

“The lesson—no empty threats—was one I have never forgotten. Its relevance to the conduct of diplomacy is obvious, yet often ignored. If you say something is unacceptable but you are unwilling to impose consequences when it happens, your words will lose their meaning and you will lose credibility. But the lesson is also broader, as in any deal-making. If you are known as someone who delivers on promises, then you are trusted and can be dealt with. As my friend Bryce Harlow often said, ‘Trust is the coin of the realm.’”

Secretary Shultz was asked by Ambassador James Goodby how strength and diplomacy interact:

“I have always felt that strength and diplomacy go together. If you go to a negotiation and you do not have any strength, you are going to get your head handed to you. On the other hand, the willingness to negotiate builds strength because you are using it for a constructive purpose. If it is strength with no objective to be gained, it loses its meaning.”

Secretary Shultz on what else accompanies keeping your word:

“I kept [no empty threats in mind] when President Reagan and I were negotiating with the Soviets. When I was asked at congressional hearings about the importance of making a deal, I would always say we were interested only in good deals. Add patience to your strength, and a good deal may come along.”