President George H.W. Bush bemoaned his lack of “the vision thing.” In contrast, George W. Bush was a bold visionary. By acting on his ambitious rhetoric to extend freedom, fight terrorism and wage preventive war, Bush 43 became America’s least admired wartime President since Harry S Truman. (Read it and wince: Bush’s second inaugural address and his September 2002 National Security Strategy.) Truman rebounded from terrible poll numbers after he left office because his accomplishments — the Berlin airlift, the policy of containment, the Marshall Plan, the founding of NATO and the United Nations, among others — outweighed the morass of the Korean War. George W. Bush’s war-time presidency will not be so readily rehabilitated.
Getting the vision thing right is hard. The ability to deliver a stirring speech enunciating idealistic goals is a start, but without successful follow up, the vision seems hollow. On nuclear issues, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama certainly met the rhetorical standard – Kennedy at American University in June 1963 and Obama at Prague in May 2009. Expressing idealistic long-term goals doesn’t help make them happen, however. Presidents who succeed at the vision thing manage to secure way stations along the path to overly ambitious objectives. In this regard, President Obama still has a long way to go to match President Kennedy.
JFK’s speech at American University 50 years ago demonstrates how the vision thing can prompt historic accomplishment. Less than ten months after the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy sought to shift gears from nuclear confrontation to nuclear risk reduction by going out on another limb, seeking a treaty banning nuclear testing. There’s nothing like a whiff of catalytic nuclear war to clarify thinking about the Bomb.
Kennedy engineered this shift through quiet, preparatory diplomacy and through adept stage management. JFK’s masterful commencement address at American University calling for an era of peace between ideological foes was a key factor in success, but there was far more to JFK’s recipe. Presidents who want to bake this cake need the following ingredients:
1. Convey private messages to your competitor that you seek to change course.
2. Make a high-profile public statement calling for a specific, notable result.
3. Take a calculated risk, but avoid making an offer likely to be stiffed.
4. Dispense with harsh rhetoric. Use a tone of respect and empathy instead.
5. Take a verifiable, meaningful, politically risky step as a sign of serious intent.
6. Call for reciprocal restraint.
7. Send a high-profile negotiator who knows his way around both capitals to cut a deal.
8. Seize the moment. Don’t dilly-dally.
If you want to learn from a master about the vision thing, take a few moments to read the key portions of Kennedy’s American University speech, reprinted below:
I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age where great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age where a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn.
Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need them is essential to the keeping of peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles — which can only destroy and never create — is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.
Some say that it is useless to speak of peace or world law or world disarmament, and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitudes, as individuals and as a Nation, for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward, by examining his own attitude towards the possibilities of peace, towards the Soviet Union, towards the course of the cold war and towards freedom and peace here at home…
No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture, in acts of courage.
Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war. Almost unique among the major world powers, we have never been at war with each other. And no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and families were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland — a loss equivalent to the destruction of this country east of Chicago…
So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures…
The only major area of these negotiations where the end is in sight, yet where a fresh start is badly needed, is in a treaty to outlaw nuclear tests. The conclusion of such a treaty, so near and yet so far, would check the spiraling arms race in one of its most dangerous areas. It would place the nuclear powers in a position to deal more effectively with one of the greatest hazards which man faces in 1963, the further spread of nuclear arms. It would increase our security; it would decrease the prospects of war. Surely this goal is sufficiently important to require our steady pursuit, yielding neither to the temptation to give up the whole effort nor the temptation to give up our insistence on vital and responsible safeguards.
I’m taking this opportunity, therefore, to announce two important decisions in this regard. First, Chairman Khrushchev, Prime Minister Macmillan, and I have agreed that high-level discussions will shortly begin in Moscow looking towards early agreement on a comprehensive test ban treaty. Our hope must be tempered — Our hopes must be tempered with the caution of history; but with our hopes go the hopes of all mankind. Second, to make clear our good faith and solemn convictions on this matter, I now declare that the United States does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so. We will not — We will not be the first to resume. Such a declaration is no substitute for a formal binding treaty, but I hope it will help us achieve one. Nor would such a treaty be a substitute for disarmament, but I hope it will help us achieve it.
Kennedy had greater ambitions than an atmospheric test ban treaty, but a complete test ban wasn’t negotiable in 1963. The key sticking point was the number of on-site inspections required to monitor underground tests. While falling short of what he wanted, JFK still achieved concrete results, ending the plague and public health hazards of atmospheric testing. (In the 23 months before Kennedy’s emissary, Averell Harriman, put the finishing touches on the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Soviet Union and the United States carried out no less than 179 atmospheric tests. That averages out to about two mushroom clouds per week.)
President Obama clearly has Kennedy’s chops when it comes to making stirring speeches. What he lacks – so far – is the moxie to replicate JFK’s recipe to reduce nuclear dangers. I have my doubts whether this approach would work with Tehran, but it is worth trying prior to any decision to carry out air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. President Obama might have more success using JFK’s recipe with Beijing. The initiative I have in mind is a symbolically freighted, strategically tinged, cooperative venture between the United States and China in space.