How to Talk to Tyrants

When Presidents talk to tyrants they do it in a particular way – it’s done through intermediaries and third parties with preset conditions, or its done through speeches and the press. To understand why you first need to understand how not to talk to tyrants.

After President Kennedy was elected he held direct policy talks with Kruschev in Vienna in which the main topic was Berlin, and access to East Berlin. It was initially seen and ballyhooed as a foreign policy coup; one sorely needed after the Bay of Pigs debacle.

39 days after the talks in Vienna construction started on the Berlin wall, and that’s about the length of time you would need to plan the construction and logistics if you were a Soviet tyrant in a hurry. That was followed later by the Cuban Missile Crisis, probably the closest America ever came to full on nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Prior to Kennedy, the US policy towards Berlin was firm, unwavering, and resolute. (as you will see later, bear with me a moment.)

In another example of how not to talk to tyrants, even newly budded, you see President Carter working with the Khomeini camp and expressing support through intermediaries here.

The first contact between the US and the mullahs was established in November 1978, soon after Khomeini set up shop in a suburb of Paris. George Cave, the CIA’s Iran specialist traveled to Paris and met Khomeini’s close aides at the time: Abol-Hassan Banisadr and Ibrahim Yazdi. The message from President Jimmy Carter was one of support for the ayatollah and his Islamic Revolution.

So how do you talk to tyrants if you are President of the US?

Here are some examples:


Another from Eisenhower here,  here’s another way to talk to tyrants, but all talks with tyrants are fruitless and meaningless unless the tyrant understands that this day could come for them.

Why is it important to talk to tyrants only through intermediaries with set bounds and limits or only through speeches?

As President you don’t want to open negotiations on anything but the urgent, immediate issue that forces negotiations, and you want to circumscribe the playing field. An example of this is the negotiations held with North Korea over the captured US plane at the beginning of the GW Bush’s Presidency.

The rest of the time you speak to them and the world at large in clear obdurate phrases because it’s important to speak not just to the tyrant, but to the people enslaved under them.

More on this from John Bolton – the distinction between preparation, and preconditions or limits.