It has been almost 20 years now since President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire.” The President apparently didn’t think that what he had said was all that dramatic. But it caught the imagination of the media and it made the Soviets absolutely apoplectic.
Who knows in retrospect just how much good-or harm-that statement caused.
Since “the evil empire” eventually collapsed and there are several theories as to why it collapsed, President Reagan’s statement stands out historically as one of those Cold War moments well remembered by students of the recent past.
Now comes another Republican President, George W. Bush, who has announced today that the free world is confronted by an “axis of evil” in the form of three countries which, up to that moment, did not see themselves as an “axis” of anything.
It is not likely that anyone in the State Department or the National Security Council staff thought that this statement was a good idea. It was probably the work of a speech writer in search of a clever and provocative phrase.
It is of course quite possible that the President put the phrase in himself. Either way, whether it was his or a speech writer’s contribution, it was and is vintage Bush.
Once again, it plays well in the public opinion polls at home even as it proves awkward abroad.
It has left Secretary of State Colin Powell yet again in the role of global explainer. He has been saying to other leaders near and far that surely everyone knows by now that President Bush is a man who speaks bluntly, that he calls them the way he sees them and, in effect, everybody should just get used to it.
Well, okay. But the truth is that it is diversionary. Such absolutist language scares more people than it reassures. And in at least some circumstances it flies in the face of other positive work that has been done and is being done.
It is a dodge to say that the President doesn’t see or appreciate the subtlety and nuance of language that is integral to diplomacy.
Many of the world’s most difficult situations do not quite come into open conflict specifically because such blunt language is NOT used. The tension between China and Taiwan could serve as exhibit A.
Beyond the use of language that is unnecessarily provocative-such as branding certain countries as evil-there is the other issue, the one my high school English teacher would have found objectionable: the misuse of the word “axis”. It is a word that suggests a common plan or design. The Axis Powers in World War II, Germany, Italy and Japan were an axis-they had a common plan.
Iran, Iraq and North Korea are not an axis. I know of no one who believes that they have a common plan or design-evil or otherwise.
Now, I can even hear some of my friends saying, as Ronald Reagan might have said, “there you go again,” an academic quibble. And so it is.
Do Iran, Iraq and North Korea represent serious issues where the US has interests? You bet. Big time. But I doubt if the President’s pronouncement has made any of that easier or brought any of those issues any closer to positive resolution. We do, of course, know where he stands.
This is Olin Robison.
–Olin Robison is President of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria. Audio versions of Olin’s commentaries are online at the Salzburg Seminar web site.