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No Empty Threats: Establishing Credibility in Foreign Affairs


Published: February 24, 2017

Often our words can replace the need for action in foreign affairs, but only if our allies and enemies believe what we say. Strength and diplomacy don’t happen without credibility. That comes from following through on what we’ll say do and never making empty threats.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the benefits of laying out a clear strategy for dealing with our enemies?
  2. What other historical examples can you think of that demonstrate the consequences of making empty threats?
View Transcript

The phrase “you’re only as good as your word” is important in many areas of life. It’s also imperative in foreign policy. In any given situation, political leaders must clearly communicate what they will and will not stand for.

Strongly spoken words can replace the need for action, but only when they are backed up by the will and capacity to use force, and only when we have a consistent track record of doing what we say we are going to do. In other words, we should never make empty threats.

Hitler faced empty threats from Europe about remilitarizing Germany and reoccupying the Rhineland, leading him to believe he could conquer Europe without resistance. Following the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein faced numerous sanctions from the United Nations, and yet he continued to terrorize his people and destabilize the Middle East.

In 2012, Bashar al-Assad crossed an explicit red line against the use of chemical weapons. The red line was never backed up with action, so his brutal civil war continues to tear Syria apart.

The consequences of making empty threats are very real. They teach our enemies that they can get away with violence and aggression against us or others whom we wish to protect.
And, they cause our allies to turn elsewhere for leadership, destroying the trust that takes years to develop.

In foreign policy, we must always mean what we say, to friends and foes alike.