Put up or shut up

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE - By Lucy P. Mar­cus

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 ma­te­ri­alise, 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 civilised 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 be­hav­iour. 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.

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