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.
Then an additional complication arises. Lower officials in the country may warn the American envoy that the proposed action would cause real problems; they strongly suggest that the Americans rethink their policy. Such assessments may be the most honest, but they get lost in reporting because there are those in Washington who will say, ``Well, that may be true, but what is really important is that the leader of the country is with us.''
French President Fran,cois Mitterrand may have put still another twist on this political device. Some reports suggest that his response to the US attack on Libya was to say that he could not support the minimal action being taken; if the US was to do much more, he could support it. His statement did not suggest what France's role might be in a larger action against Libya, but nevertheless, it became a part of the litany of private European support in the US debate on the action.
The US political system makes it extremely difficult to consult in any genuine way with foreign governments before a decision is taken on a major action. Members of Congress and neglected parts of the bureaucracy object if they hear of a proposal being discussed with a foreign government before it is thoroughly aired at home. Internal deliberations and decisions almost always become public before a discussion of options with friendly nations has taken place. At best, there is only the appearance of consultations.
Frequently, as in the case of the recent action in Libya, a special envoy is sent on an urgent mission, often just before the action takes place, to ``consult'' with friends. The political reality is that the purpose of the mission is less to consult than it is to herald the degree of foreign support. Stress on the private ``yes'' follows naturally.
The US cannot let policies to protect national interest be determined by public reactions in other countries. But we should not be surprised at foreign reactions, as we often seem to be, when we focus only on the encouraging words of a foreign leader and ignore what the leader may really be saying about the sentiment in his or her country.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.