Put Up or Shut Up

NEW YORK – In public policy, peace talks, election campaigns, or corporate strategy, laying out intentions, promises, and commitments is never enough. It is merely a first step toward a desired end – and entirely meaningless unless the second, third, and all subsequent necessary steps are taken. Moreover, taking the first step starts the clock on others’ trust and confidence that the next steps will in fact be taken, or else risks creating the false impression that the failure to achieve a particular goal reflects mistaken (or irrelevant) intentions, not inadequate execution. We can see examples of this virtually everywhere we look.

Consider the European Central Bank’s announcement in January that it would implement quantitative easing. At the time, many leaders seemed to think that the ECB’s move would be enough: Announcement made, money printed, economies back on track. Unfortunately, that is not how monetary policy works: QE will not be enough, and no one should be naive about that.

In order to get economies back on track, QE is a useful step, but only as part of a larger package of measures. In the absence of other economic reforms, QE on its own cannot effect the changes needed to kick-start growth. And if the reforms are not implemented and growth fails to materialize, politicians are likely to blame QE, not their own failure to take all the other steps that must follow it on the path of economic recovery.

Now consider free speech. Following the massacre at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris last month, world leaders dashed to the scene, locked arms, and marched in support of freedom of expression as a bedrock principle of civilized societies. The natural next step for many of them should have been to return home and immediately implement that principle. Instead, they returned home.

True, Egypt’s military regime – whose foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, raised eyebrows when he appeared near the head of the march in Paris – released the Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste from prison, and has since freed two other journalists, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, on bail. But where is the regime’s renunciation of the authority to have imprisoned them in the first place?

In another arena, peace negotiations, the recent ceasefire agreement in Ukraine is but the latest attempt to end the war between the country’s government and Russian-backed separatists that has been raging for much of the past year in the eastern Donbas region. Throughout the fighting, attempts to stop the killing have come and gone, and the war’s innocent victims – not to mention much of the international community – have grown weary and cynical.

The most effective peace agreements are part and parcel of a peace process. The first step – signing the agreement – represents the parties’ commitment to take the necessary subsequent steps. Everyone walks away knowing exactly what they are supposed to do, what to expect others to do, and what the consequences will be if they do not. When agreements fail, it is usually not because of what they contain, but because of what is missing, or because of what the signatories do despite what they have agreed. A roadmap to peace is useful only if everyone follows it. Otherwise, the goal is lost.

Election campaigns are the example par excellence of the phenomenon, and the world is now entering another “Season of the First Step.” At least seven general elections will be held in European Union member countries this year (and France will hold regional elections in March). Greece has already voted (electing a government that so far seems unable to move beyond intentions and commitments), and the coming months will bring elections in Estonia, Finland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Portugal, Poland, and Spain. Add to this the US presidential election next year – preceded by a campaign that has already started – and we can expect a lot of promises floating around.

As voters in these countries are inundated with good intentions, ringing assurances, and solemn commitments, they will expect parties and candidates to follow through if they are elected. Certainly, parties and candidates attempt to persuade voters on the basis of their track records (and by impugning their opponents’ track records). If they do not follow through on their intentions, promises, and commitments, access to information and instant communication is such that empty promises simply will no longer persuade most people.

Companies campaign, too. They send their leaders before law-making bodies to express contrition for grave malfeasance and promise future good behavior. And yet the headlines are as filled as ever with stories of unethical, if not outright criminal, corporate behavior. Unfortunately, too many corporate leaders persist in viewing the world as “us” versus “them,” rather than attempting to understand why, in the absence of vigorous action, no one trusts them.

Beginnings are vital; but they are just that. There is no easy solution for the eurozone economy, for Greece, for Ukraine, or for any of the other major challenges we face today. But unless protagonists are sure that announcements, campaign promises, and peace agreements will give rise to clear, purposeful action, they should think twice before opening their mouths.

This column is also available in Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish.

Date

17 February 2015

Organisation

Project Syndicate

Put Up or Shut Up

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