Hassan Hami
10 January 2024

Hard Times for Political and Diplomatic Speechwriters in a Troubled World

Man holding a newspaper. Picture: Pixabay
Man holding a newspaper. Picture: Pixabay

Speechwriters invest enormous efforts in coming up with sound ideas, yet relations among nations remain fraught, unpredictably dangerous as even the most brilliant of them cannot predict the reaction to their ideas.

Speechwriters, policymakers, and military strategists have always experienced hard times. Not only do they have to come up with good ideas and the best exit strategy, but they also have to bear the consequences when things don’t go as expected.

The majority of them are renowned for being smart, sharp, and visionary. The problem is the statesmen and other high-ranking officials to whom they propose their ideas and share insights. These people are always very careful about what they write, but their control over events later slips through their fingers as soon as the political actors for whom they work enter the stage.

The most uncontrolled situation is always the one where political actors are faced with insidious questions that specialized media or troublesome journalists ask. However, out of all these experts, speechwriters are the most vulnerable; they are the ones who always have their boxes and suitcases ready for taking off or being fired at any time with no further notice.

Let us recall some examples that happened in the past when speechwriters had no hold on the situation. The last one was the heavy exchange that Emmanuel Macron, the French President, and Felix Tshisekedi, President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had on March 4, 2023. In the much-reported discussion, which took place at a joint press conference as Macron visited DR Congo, President Tshisekedi reminded his French counterpart that France and the West should start looking at Africans differently, showing respect, treating them as partners, and getting rid of their paternalistic attitude.

This scene is a reminder of a passage in chapter one of Charles Dickens’s 1854 novel, Hard Times, when he wrote: “Now what I want is facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else.” This sounds so real nowadays amid the change of paradigms on the obsolete international political chessboard as well as in the so-called traditional bilateral relationships. Partnerships should be based on facts, not on discourses and outdated narratives.

President Macron did not expect that the exchange with the Congolese president would be out of control and be broadcast worldwide. Incidentally, President Tshisekedi was like  reminding President Macron of Senegalese writer and director Ousmane Sembène’s rage against European ethnologists and moviemakers. He said in a debate with Jean Rouch in 1965 that most of the Africanists treat the Africans as if they were insects.

President Felix Tshisekedi was not the first to confront a French president with the bare truth that French policymakers look down on Africans. Or, maybe inadvertently, they poison the relationships between France and its former colonies.

In a migration-themed speech in Orleans on June 19, 1991, Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris and president of the Rally for the Republic party (RPR) said that “the noise and the smell of Africans living in France would get a hardworking French person nuts”. Of course, the statement was made in a special context, and Chirac apologized later for saying that. 

This was believed to be some sort of “French racism.” In 2001, he recognized that African people had been denied the rights to enjoy their wealth for four centuries and that Africa had been systematically destroyed. The most important thing in Chirac’s statement was that, since 2007, he understood that his country was losing ground to emerging international powers in Africa.

In the past, African politicians who dared to look at their European counterparts as equals ended up being ousted from power. The last one to date was Alpha Condé, the Guinean president who was the victim of a coup d’état in September 2021. Other heads of state were ousted from power for different reasons in Guinea-Bissau (2012), the Central African Republic (2013), Zimbabwe (2017), Burkina Faso (2015 and 2022), Soudan (2019), Thad (2021), and Mali (2020 and 2021).

Africa is at the top of the list of coups and coup attempts since 1950. According to Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne from the University of Central Florida and the University of Kentucky, out of 214 attempted coups in Africa, 108 failed. The second in rank is Latin America with 146 coup attempts, of which 76 failed.

Rhetoric, Overassertion, and Repetition

Similar practices showing some nerve were frequent. They were accepted as part of the political risk in an unstable political landscape. But they paved the way for bolder actions to put an end to such unacceptable behavior, be it for the sake of building up democracy or hiding double standards and political dirty schemes.

The exchange between King Hassan II and President Francois Mitterrand in La Baule, on the occasion of the 16th Franco-African Summit on June 20, 1990, is worth recalling. As a newly elected president, Mitterrand’s first intention was to shape a new Africa based on the conditionality principle. The Soviet Union was crumbling. The European dream of building a new subsystem free of old wounds was in progress. France intended to fill the void the URSS supposedly left in Africa.

The main credo was to implement a multiparty system and democracy as a prerequisite for the North-South relationship. King Hassan II had a different view. He thought that steps should be taken into account first. African people should digest what a multiparty system means and make it adequate for their ancestral structures. Besides, political and labor movements in Africa should be part of the change and understand the rules of the game.

Over the last sixty years, statesmen who didn’t respect what their speechwriters wrote have been remembered with both intrigued and ironic feelings.

The short list includes Nikita Krouchtchev, General Charles de Gaulle, Fidel Castro, Muammar Kaddafi, Jamal Abdenasser, Saddam Hussein, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Emomali Rahmon, Heydar Aliyev, and Hugo Chavez, to name but a few.

All these statesmen had the reputation of not sticking to their scripts. The common characteristic they shared was that they always delivered a few coherent sentences and immediately switched to improvisation. Back then, this was acceptable, given the fact that their performances were perceived as a strong proof of sound knowledge, charisma, and an ascendant control over the situation.

Diplomatic chronicles keep people reminded that a few leaders have turned words into action. In this respect, the most notable examples to cite are those of Khrouchtchev, de Gaulle, and Kaddafi.

At the United Nations General Assembly meeting in 1960, Krouchtchev took his right shoe, waved it, and banged it on the table, so everyone paid attention to him.  Krouchtchev replied thus to the Philippine delegation, which stated that the URSS had swallowed Eastern Europe.

The same year, in a speech in Nantes, de Gaulle called the United Nations “This useless and dangerous thing.” Nevertheless, he had to work closely with this organization at a time when the October Missile Crisis was about to ignite another devastating world war in 1962.

For his part, Kaddafi’s 90-minute speech on the occasion of the September 2009 annual UN General Assembly Meeting is still a source of candid comments. He was supposed to be allotted 15 minutes. Instead, he waved aloft a copy of the United Nations charter and seemed to tear it, saying he didn’t recognize the authority of the document. He overtook Fidel Castro, who spoke for four hours and 29 minutes in 1960, condemning imperialism.

On the topic of the press conference, people remember the scene when an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at President George W. Bush. Bush was visiting Baghdad in the aftermath of the military coalition intervention led by the United States in Iraq in 2003. 

Iraq was allegedly suspected of possessing weapons of mass destruction that should be immediately destroyed. Saddam Hussein was ousted from power. After being on the run for a few months, he was apprehended, sentenced to death, and executed. This resulted in the chaos the country is still suffering from.

For his part, Vladimir Putin is famous for giving unexpected answers to tease western journalists. This is also an illustration of the way he enjoys manipulating the media. One of the answers he became famous with was given in 2009 in Davos, Switzerland. When a journalist got on his nerves, he said, “I’ll answer your question in a minute. But first, let me ask you about the extraordinary ring you have on your finger.” Everyone present assumed which other finger he was referring to.

In so doing, Putin echoed his 2005 speech, in which he said that the Soviet Union’s collapse was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” The same idea of bitterness and sorrow was at the core of his speech in 2007 at the Munich Security Conference.

The Press Conference Ritual: A Chance and Double Jeopardy

President Mohamed Bazoun of Niger performed an interesting speech at the joint conference he held with President Emmanuel Macron on November 9, 2021. He seemed to be lecturing his French counterpart, who, surprisingly, paid attention to his words.

President Bazoun calmly criticized NATO, the United States, France, and the European Union for their stands on Russia and the Ukraine war. He even called attention to the emergence of a new group of countries that are changing the rules of the game on the global stage. He confessed that African countries are having trouble choosing whom to side with. The key answer, according to him, resides in a multilateral international system. He even said that Russia would not abdicate and would even win the economic war against the Europeans, who depend largely on it for energy and food security.

Of course, there are exceptions, when statesmen fully respect what is inked on the paper or scrolled on multiple revolving screens. However, in order to deliver clear messages, statesmen and high-ranking officials are advised to refrain from improvising in their speeches.

The American tradition of the “State of the Union” address is a paramount illustration in this matter. The American president is not allowed to skip a word of the speech on which a big team had worked for weeks. In his February 7, 2023, annual address, President Biden stressed what he called “unbowed and unbroken democracy” despite being “bruised”. He reiterated the United States commitment to defend Europe.

The Russian tradition is also worth mentioning. It materializes in Putin’s annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow. In his February 21, 2023, address, he emphasized what he called an “existential threat to Russia” in relation to the war in Ukraine. It was some sort of answer to President Biden’s pledge to keep helping Ukraine and promising to get Russia punished sooner or later.

The Chinese tradition presents another style for how a speech should be delivered before the Communist Party congress. Nothing should be left to chance or unpleasant surprises. President Xi Jinping centered his December 2022 speech on Taiwan, striving for peaceful reunification and keeping a steady, strong hand on Hong Kong. On an international level, he deplored that hegemonism and power politics are still obstacles to a peaceful international system. This was clearly understood as an indirect allusion to the United States.

The last example would be King Mohammed VI’s throne speech. It could be perceived as a sort of annual statement about achievements and future perspectives. It could equally be perceived as another illustration of what a speech should be like in terms of fully respecting the topics and the time.

King Mohammed VI seems to prefer short, creative, and straight-to-the-point speeches. He even prefers not to attend regional and international meetings and conferences unless serious issues are dealt with. One of those examples is the 2016 Arab League Summit, which Morocco was supposed to host. King Mohammed VI said that if the conditions were not met, the summit would be a failure. The summit was held in Nouakchott and was indeed a failure.

Independent observers are aware that the media are a perfect arena for manipulating people. They share the view that the press conferences could be staged. Communication department heads or last-minute intruders looking for scoops would be deliberately involved.

Nevertheless, it happens that the truth comes out of idle statements. This happened several times when statesmen hosted young people for the sake of promoting their own images or digging out hidden scripts. France, Russia, and the United States of America come at the top of the list, not to mention a few Arab and Islamic countries too. Young people are who they are; they like to cope with things in the same spirit as the policymakers. They like to impress and get their own scoops, mainly with the information technology and communication outlets readily available nowadays.

In all cases, no matter what the aim of the statesmen is, their styles and ability to resist stress must be taken into account. As a matter of fact, few studies have focused on the importance of stress in influencing the foreign policy of state actors. The impact of stress depends on the hierarchy and the role of these actors on the international diplomatic and strategic chessboards.

In this respect, it is worth saying that some statesmen like to hold pieces of paper or notebooks in order to give the impression they have done their homework before showing up. Some others manage to have revolving screens to get their messages through. A quite interesting style example is given by those who sit in the first row and talk to the audience sitting behind them without looking at them.

These examples show that speechwriters have a hard time coming up with sound ideas but cannot predict the outcome, which is why out of the blue, bilateral or international political crises could be ignited.

The Speechwriters’ Dilemma: Dedication and Fear

Take a chance to look at speechwriters or policymakers when a speech on which they collaborated is being read aloud by a statesman or a senior official. They seem to be lost. Not to mention when they attend a press conference. There are famous scenes when a statesman loses or drops his notes. They couldn’t manage to improvise, and their advisers, including speechwriters, were in real trouble.

Forget then about the explanation given about the assassination in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, of the Austrian archduke Francois-Ferdinand. This was a sad event that was presumably the origin of the First World War. The reason was to reshape the geopolitical chessboard and write down the script of the Second World War. Adolf Hitler was coopted and prepared for what he was requested to do. Later, Hitler felt that Great Britain and France betrayed him, with the United States conducting operations behind the scenes.

Forget about the Bolshevik victory Vladimir I. Lenin engineered in 1921. He was dispatched from Germany to get the job done. The dichotomous views about the best way to implement Marxism resulted in bloody spectacles that historians are still trying to explain.

Forget about Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Kuwait on August 2, 1991, on the fallacious argument that he was willing to secure a corridor on the Arab Gulf, so he could easily export his oil and get back the money he had spent in the years of war against Iran. In 2002, he paid the price for supposedly having tried to kill President George H.W. Bush, as President George W. Bush argued on September 27, 2002. His explanation of why he had to order the invasion of Iraq was: “The guy who tried to kill my dad.”

Forget about Russia, Turkey, Japan, or China’s allegedly hegemonic temptation. If, through some actions, statesmen in these countries corroborated such an assumption, the reality on the ground was different.

The relationships between heads of state and media outlets of all kinds are not always cordial. People keep in mind how the American president, Donald Trump, despised journalists and their media outlets. Vladimir Putin did the same on many occasions. In China, the local media are not allowed to ask tricky questions to senior officials. Kaddafi used to put the journalists and the diplomats in the same basket. To him, all were agents, working for intelligence services and aiming to jeopardize states’ internal security.

Lately, we have witnessed new heads of state get confused, not knowing what to do or how to address their people or the international audience. The Tunisian President Kaïs Saed gets the golden palm in this respect. Using the classical Arabic only a few people understand, he endeavors to make ideology fit with the unlikely political goals he aims to achieve.

It also happens that some statesmen think it smart and even take a chance to send messages from outside their main headquarters or their own capitals to other statesmen who are at odds with them over sensitive issues or don’t accept their paternalism. President Macron did it last week when, on the occasion of his short visit to Gabon, he said that he wouldn’t accept pressures to change his position on specific diplomatic matters. He added that he would entirely bear the consequences.

President Macron certainly had Morocco and Algeria in mind. Both countries had urged France to take a clear stand with respect to their bilateral problems—mainly with respect to the regional conflict over the Sahara. What Paris calls a need for observing a balanced position on this specific matter can no longer lure or blur as far as Morocco is concerned.

And also, Macron was probably sending the same message to sub-Saharan countries whose leaders requested that France withdraw its military forces from their lands. He did not seem worried that French was losing ground to English as the first foreign language in Gabon, Rwanda, Mali, and other African countries that have traditionally been strong defenders of the French language and culture.

On the methodological front, the speechwriters have to meet a set of challenges. The first challenge would be to understand what the statesmen (in this case, the head of state, prime minister, and foreign minister) want. Then he is requested to come up with a new idea that would erase past statements if they had proven to be ineffective.

The second challenge would be to make sure not to “surf on words” and take into consideration where and when the speech commissioned would be delivered. This applies to the venue, the topics, and the timing.

The third challenge would be to brave their hierarchy’s dogmatism and overrated self-confidence. Because writing a speech is a team effort; this would also depend on the venue and the timing.

The fourth challenge would be to work hard not to fall into monotony or the taken-for-granted expectation of always having a good product.

The fifth challenge would be to make sure that speechwriters and policy planners are not around at the same time during an unexpected crisis. Keeping them together would be very risky.

The Diplomat: As Dark Horses And Scapegoats

In all these scenarios, there is one team missing: the diplomats. They are often used as scapegoats. In the past, a classical opinion defined diplomats as people who serve in the dual capacity of being civil servants and soldiers.

Hence, this definition does not mention another function they perform around the clock: that is, being occasionally firefighters. Such an unpleasant mission is always the result of high-ranking fellow citizens who happen to add to their exaggerated confidence by having a propensity to improvise.

There are plenty of cases where a senior official thought it would be accurate to change the core of a speech he was supposed to deliver without removing a comma or scratching a line. For example, some thought that speeches that professional speechwriters inked wouldn’t be good enough to help them get the job done.

Sometimes some parts of the speeches are not convincing; this wouldn’t mean that the whole paper ought to be changed or thrown in the trash. Senior officials happen to introduce ideas that might ruin the structure of the text. Worse, this might make the message being communicated unclear or misunderstood.

Besides, with the boom of the information technology medium, people would not even bother to listen to long speeches, no matter who delivered them. They are aware that serious business is dealt with behind closed doors in different venues in order to keep intruders or eavesdroppers out.

In the past, Arab and Islamic leaders used to tirelessly deliver hours of speeches. They used what Raphael Patai called a diverted way of diplomatic communication. This method was based on three characteristics he called “exaggeration,” “overassertion,” and “repetition.”

The exaggeration is linked to psychological and cultural attitudes that make two people interact with each other by showing a given interest performed in a very routine way. As a result, emphasis is placed more on the phraseology than on the substance.

 This touches upon the second characteristic, which is over-assertion. This is why the discourse is articulated in such a way that the repetition of special expressions would aim to convince the audience or viewers that the message is worth being communicated and spread. Nowadays, this practice wouldn’t reach the targeted goal.

Gamal Abdelnasser used to deliver epic speeches based on the three characteristics mentioned above. His favorite topic was praising Arab nationalism. The speech he delivered to announce the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 resulted in the trilateral military intervention by France, Great Britain, and Israel. The same impetus drove him to deliver an important speech on the eve of the second Arab-Israeli war in 1967. The outcome was even worse.

In their speeches, some African leaders, who have been educated in the former Soviet Union, thought it was their first duty to get people to change their mindsets. They didn’t measure the magnitude of harm they would cause by destroying African values and imposing western hermetic ones.

Sékou Touré, Kwame Nkrumah, and Thomas Sankara paid a high price for believing that, through socialism, in its Russian version, and despotic enlightenment, they could introduce substantial changes in Guinea-Conakry, Ghana, and Burkina Faso.

Others educated in western European countries advocated embracing western values of democracy and style. Both approaches excelled at producing speeches and discourses that proved to be as chimerical as the impacts of the rules those leaders tried to impose.

Today, things seem even harder for both statesmen and speechwriters. Given the troubled time they live in, the big question is whether either of them should have the last word or should they work as a team in terms of conceiving a coherent message that would help them get their respective jobs done. Yet they have to deal with another big issue: do people still pay attention to their speeches or even understand what they might be talking about?

Source : Morocco World New

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