Presidential Temperament & National Security

Presidential Temperament & National Security
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This election cycle has seen more than its fair share of discussion about “temperament.” Particularly when it comes to Donald Trump, his opponents have consistently described him as lacking the necessary temperament to be President. What does all of this talk of temperament actually mean? 

The concept of temperament is essential to of the Office of the President of the United States, but it is particularly salient in U.S. foreign policy. A crucial aspect of diplomacy where international relations require a firm grasp on nuance, signals, and the complexity of dialogue between nations. 

For example, in the lead-up to WWI, Kaiser Wilhelm consistently looked for signs the British might intervene in a war on the European Continent. Not until the Kaiser received what he thought was an unambiguous signal of British neutrality did he feel he had a free hand to back his Austro-Hungarian ally. Celebrating with champagne that evening, he acted as if the war was already won. Of course, he was wrong and disaster ensued for Germany and the world.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy acutely understood the art of diplomatic signaling. After the discovery of ballistic missiles, most of the President’s advisors saw only two options: diplomacy or war. The President demanded a third option, the imposition of the “quarantine” (again, a diplomatic nuance, as calling it a “blockade” would be an act of war) signaled American resolve while giving Premier Kruschev the time and space back down from a fight whilst saving face.

Henry Kissinger once described diplomacy as “the art of restraining power.” To use a (somewhat) fictional example, it is about understanding the difference between having American aircraft carriers “on their way” to the Taiwan Strait and actually being in the Taiwan Strait. The former shows resolve while giving time for peace. The latter provokes conflict. The art of projecting strength yet pursuing peace. Allies must be reassured continually and enemies must always be aware of American resolve. 

Answers are not always easy. In the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea, NATO’s Eastern members needed reassurance that America remained committed to them, while NATO’s Western allies feared provoking further Russian aggression. It was, and continues to be, a delicate balancing act to reassure, deter, and hold alliances together, all in the pursuit of peace and national interests. One can argue the Obama administration’s response has been too weak or too strong, but clearly the President understood the complexities and made a sober calculation.

As historical examples show, the stakes of diplomacy could not be higher. In a dangerous, nuclear world, the signals the President sends and the way that he interprets them from others can be the difference between peace and war, between calamity and crisis averted. 

There remain simmering crises throughout the South China Sea, Eastern Europe, South Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere. The fight against ISIS, of course, requires no diplomacy, but does require diplomacy with the anti-ISIS coalition. The remaining crises, a complex multi-party negotiation, requires a deep understanding of the motivations of allies and adversaries, and a consistent message with a steady hand.

The cause of war is often misunderstood, many people assume that countries go to war consciously and deliberately, looking for a fight. However, history tells us a different story – wars are often the result of miscalculation, and missed or misinterpreted signals. 

In this election, the discussion of temperament is about this very issue – whether our next President has the ability to distinguish between bluster and genuine threats, whether he or she understands the core motivations of other actors in the international system.

This is what is meant by the temperament needed in the Office of the President of the United States. History shows that Presidents must not be rash in conducting the nation’s foreign affairs. Instead, he or she must wield the power of this nation intelligently, calmly guiding the good ship of state toward the calm waters of peace and prosperity. 



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