Recently much has been said about “tweet wisdom,” the appropriateness of certain presidential musings, what was said, what should have been said, what was meant to be said. And because many declarations have contained factual discrepancies, there has been an up-tick in fact checking by the U.S. media. That is good. That is their job.
As a result, however, media critics are evaluating this President and his administration against a standard even his immediate predecessor would not have met. Every statement made by this administration is evaluated for literal correctness. This is not appropriate or helpful.
Take, for example, the media-driven narrative around President Donald Trump’s statements on the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) carrier strike group’s destination. The President said “we are sending an armada, very powerful” to the waters off the Korean Peninsula. Normally, such a statement would have been evaluated on its intended strategic message. Instead, a media frenzy erupted, parsing of the words “armada” and “sending,” and unpacking the timeline that must exist for the word “sending” to be accurate. Rather than evaluating and reporting how strategic moves and countermoves may play out with North Korea, many column inches and hours of airtime were wasted on semantics.
While strategic ambiguity is important in our international relationships, it is particularly important with respect to Pyongyang. North Korea is tactically blind and incapable of determining the location of U.S. naval forces. Unless the U.S. Navy makes its locations public. By focusing on the accuracy of the details, the media missed the larger point.
It can be argued that the administration’s verbal foibles are themselves to blame for the tightening standard against which they are measured, but any vestiges of nuance and necessary, intentional ambiguity were lost from the conversation. What understanding of a delicate diplomatic conversation the administration did not trample on, the media killed outright.
This decline in understanding of the nuance of diplomatic conversation has been progressing for decades, to the nation’s detriment. U.S.- China policy is a great example. The United States’ Shanghai Communique of 1972, for instance, stated, “The United States acknowledges that Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States does not challenge that position.” This was an important, nuanced declaration of policy, as acknowledging that a statement was made is not the same as agreeing with the statement.
In 1998, however, President Bill Clinton unwittingly adopted China’s Taiwan policy as that of the United States when he iterated the "three no's" for Taiwan: “no independence; no ‘two China’ policy; and no membership in state-based international organizations.” Meandering thoughtlessly away from our strategically ambiguous position emboldened China to take a path from which it has not yet deviated. Within days of his inauguration, President Trump essentially repeated the same mistake.
The administration’s verbal missteps and the subsequent media feeding frenzies have sent the United States in a strategic communications death spiral. The point-counterpoint debate not only has forfeited any sense of ambiguity, but it also is causing substantial harm to U.S. security posture.
A former professor once told my class, “If you want to be effective in life, you have to be more interested in making progress than you are in being right.” Currently, it seems neither the administration nor the media is willing to heed that call.
Captain Toti is a frequent contributor to Proceedings and was the 2000 Proceedings Author of the Year.