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Democracy, Lies, Deceit and Coercive Diplomacy

The ghost of Woodrow Wilson applauds Tim Brown: "Perhaps others have had different experiences, But actually I do equate lying to the press and lying to colleagues. During my service I dealt extensively with the press, and never, ever knowingly lied to reporters because that would have been at least as damaging and counterproductive as lying to a colleague. True, I often did not always tell them everything I knew and often refused to answer questions. But my rule was that when I met with reporters I always told them in advance that I would tell them that I did not know everything, and did know some things I had to reserve. But, in so far as possible, I would tell them as much as I could as accurately as I could, and would explicitely tell them whenever I could not comment to them on a topic. I was also very careful to set ground rules in advance and, when the topic was especially sensitive, always had a press officer present, especially during my three and a half years managing the Contra program in Central America, which was a hot button public issue to say the least. In my personal experience, the serious press always respected and honored this approach. They would often object to the ground rules, and say for the record that they believed I should tell them everything "because the people have the right to know." But then they would just smile and we would get on with the matter. I like to believe that, as a result, reporters with whom I met came to see me as a trustworthy interlocutor, as I did them, and credibility with the press is also a precious commodity that can be destroyed by a single lie. In one instance, the credibility established by this dialogue made it possible to reverse a major propaganda campaign by opponents of US policy based on fabrications, simply by my saying that was what it was and the press believing me. Had I had a reputation as a liar, that would never have happened.

A comment on Public Diplomacy. As practiced during my service, it was, and was never intended to be a substitute for traditional diplomatic dialogue. It was simply a name for public relations. Diplomacy still meant dealing with relationships between countries, both governments and peoples, as it always has, and diplomats still do it. That amateur diplomats still, on occasion, screw it up, is not new either.

On coercive diplomacy, in the long run there really is no other kind. The stronger one's country is, the more one leads. The weaker one's country is the more one must either follow or keep out of the way".

Ronald Hilton - 2/2/02