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Private `yes'; public `no'

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IN recent weeks, the United States government has sent envoys to Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America to seek support for US policies. In reports on such missions, we frequently hear that government leaders abroad agree with us in private, but, for their own political reasons, are unwilling to say so in public. We seem to take comfort in such positive private statements and to believe that, because key officials are with us privately -- or say they are -- this makes any public opposition to our actions abroad less significant. This assumption can be a dangerous trap.

The private ``yes'' and the public ``no'' is a phenomenon not confined to foreign relations. Even US domestic politicians have been known to use the device.

The private statements can be honest explanations of a genuine political dilemma. National leaders are frequently placed in the position in which they cannot get the public support for actions they favor or believe to be necessary in the national interest. Their explanation of their dilemma to another foreign leader or to an ambassador can be a statement of fact. The problem arises when the hearer, seeking international support for a certain policy, places the emphasis on the private ``yes'' and proclaims to the press and others that President so-and-so ``is really with us.'' The hearer should be paying more attention to the other part of the message: ``Even though I favor what you are doing, I cannot support it publicly, because I would have a real political problem in doing so.'' To ignore this message is to risk not only being unprepared for a strong public reaction abroad but also unappreciative of the genuine problems that our actions may create for a friendly foreign leader.

It is sometimes hard to know whether the private word is really ``yes.'' Candor is not popular in private diplomatic encounters. Some foreign leaders receiving official visitors, particularly from the US, do not like to appear negative. Other aspects of relations with the US may be too important, or they may not be quite certain of the consequences of being totally opposed to a US action.

In such instances, whatever their true opinion of the proposed action, they may say they would like to follow the US lead, but then stress the difficulties that would result for them and their government if they did so. Or they may make Delphic equivocations that are read by the eager visitors as approval. National leaders want to be polite, but they also want to stay in office.


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