Leaders, Politics and Decisions: The Media and the Public

Leaders, Politics and Decisions: The Media and the Public

Roberto Di Giovan Paolo | A professional journalist
Announced decisions frequently seem to clash with actual practice, and very often they suffer from unexpected ends

Look at WE 36


The election of Donald Trump is certainly not the first to have brought to power a leader who is so vocal about his hard-line and, in his view, incontrovertible opinions. Indeed, we could say that with him, and to some extent with Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May, the world of what used to be designated as "the leading western democracies" has peaked in its use of language targeted at the public and the media.  This is an approach long used by  Vladimir Putin although certainly in a less "studied" manner, but an approach also closely linked to a former empire in transition. It seems clear that Trump’s announcement that he will not implement and will actually withdraw from, the Paris COP21 agreements is comparable to May’s stance on Brexit and Macron’s decisions to nationalize STX in the face of the deal with Fincantieri. This use of the media can easily be viewed as a sometimes-necessary response to today’s many and widespread populist trends, with associated negativities and psychodramas that generate a strong and decisive language.

The risks of policy announcements

The issue raised here is how much there will be left of these announced choices. How many of these "irrevocable" decisions will truly be such in the contemporary arena of international politics and its agreements? Today many of these announcements have great impact and, thanks to social networks, reach audiences and attract commentary on an unprecedented global scale. This, however, doesn’t necessarily mean these proclamations can be acted upon, and certainly not on the strength of a simple declaration.

This surely has an impact on a leadership’s approval ratings. In this respect, the Trump-COP21 case is exemplary. He declared his intentions related to climate issues as a presidential candidate, and,as soon as he was elected, he immediately reiterated that the United States would "certainly" pull out of the accord.

But is that really possible? And if so, on what terms? Article 42 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on international treaties clearly sets out the conditions for treaty withdrawal, explicitly referring the grounds for termination to each individual agreement. So, what does the COP21 agreement say? The parties, it states, pledge to stay in the accord until 2020 when, individually or collectively, they will be able to re-discuss their participation. Trump could therefore use this argument, particularly in the run-up to the next presidential campaign, and hope that upon being re-elected he would be able to sit at the table and re-discuss the terms of U.S. participation. He won’t be able to do that until then. A similar legal situation applies to Brexit. On March 29, 2017, Britain invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, which provides for the withdrawal of a member state after two years of intensive joint negotiation. The person appointed to deal with the U.K. is French politician Michel Barnier, a tough negotiator who has served several times as E.U. commissioner and as minister in his own country, and who is expected to deliver a draft for the final deal by October 2018. The agreement will then have to be ratified by the European Parliament, the British Parliament and all the other 27 E.U. member states before Britain’s final departure in March 2019. Will Theresa May still be around in 2019?

The game between candidates and voters

And finally, we come to the "grandeur" that characterizes the French presidency irrespective of who lives in the Elysée palace. We could say that, going against France’s proverbial grandiloquence, Emmanuel Macron used the media to show how deeply he shared the economic and social concerns of the French middle classes. His call for an “onward march” (En marche) from the grassroots not only took him to the Elysée but also won him a 90 percent parliamentary majority after France’s latest legislative elections. After focusing predominantly on domestic policy at the start, he then made a choice that strongly affects Italy by nationalizing the STX shipyard, which was about to be acquired by Fincantieri. With this bombshell, Macron in fact falls squarely into line with the "French-style" market control and privatization policies that Gaullists and socialists alike have always embraced both in the name of a strong state and in competition with Marie Le Pen’s FN. Here again, the media impact was the main concern. But what about the actual decision-making aspect? Nationalization, which at first seemed to be an incontrovertible fact, turned out to be an expedient for "negotiating."

A time for greater prudence

Can we draw a moral from this brief overview? Not everything that creates an impact on the old media and the "new" media that includes social networks ultimately delivers the expected outcome. We already knew that. But an era of globalization and multilateralism, including in politics, requires, or rather, would require, political and economic decision-makers to exercise a degree of restraint and prudence perhaps unthinkable in the past. It would be interesting to do a study to verify the percentage of goals achieved by political decision makers from those they explicitly declared outside of election campaigns. Without going into media comparisons, what we find is that multilateralism impacts our lives in a complex world where, in times such as these, political figures, regardless of their ideological background, attempt to simplify their responses by offering immediate relief. And this applies as much to Putin’s reassurances to the "Great Russia," scarred by its loss of power with the ending of the Soviet Union, as it does to Trump’s "call a spade a spade" talk for a "white" America that views itself as the "underdog," even more so than the poor African-Americans subjected to racial prejudice but defended by Obama. To each his favorite cause. But announced decisions frequently seem to clash with actual practice, and very often they suffer from unexpected ends, which means they don’t even provide any certainty about re-election, let alone about real long-term effects.