Sometimes the smartest way to deal with extreme aggression is to keep calm and say nothing. That emotional intelligence was on full display this week in President Joe Biden's non-response to Russian president Vladimir Putin's order to transfer its nuclear arsenal to "a special mode of combat duty." Biden stayed silent in the face of the most overt threat of a nuclear attack to the United States or its allies since the Cold War. To some, that might look like weakness. In fact, it was true leadership.
If you're like most leaders, when a malevolent bully issues an open threat, your first instinct is to react swiftly and decisively. The president of the United States might respond by announcing an equivalent increase in our own nuclear readiness. Former president Donald Trump once responded to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's nuclear testing by saying that "they would be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."
There are lots of situations when a quick show of force like that is exactly the right thing to do. But leaders with real emotional intelligence also recognize that sometimes, anything you say will make matters worse, and your best option is to say nothing at all. Here's why this is one of those times.
1. The less I say, the crazier you sound.
Have you ever watched an argument where one person yelled, screamed, jumped up and down, and threatened violence, and the other person just stood and faced them without reacting at all? Which of the two seemed more reasonable to you? Who seemed most in command of the situation?
If the United States, or any Western nation, responded to Putin's threats of nuclear war with threats of their own, it would give those threats more legitimacy. And, it would confirm that nuclear war between the two great nuclear superpowers would be a reasonable result of the current conflict in Ukraine. Instead, Biden's silence just underscores how irrational Putin is being in both words and actions.
2. Sometimes it's better to let others do the talking.
Taking a seat and letting others speak up can be challenging for most leaders. But there are many times when that's the most effective approach. Biden's low profile thus far has left the spotlight to others, particularly Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, who has become an international symbol of resolve and bravery. It also makes it clear that--despite Putin's repeated claims that Ukraine is a puppet of the United States--this is truly a European conflict, and European voices should be heard.
Biden, who is well aware that the office of president comes with an outsize megaphone, has let those who work for him speak for his administration. For example, on January 3, less than two months ago, the five nuclear states issued a joint declaration that said this in part:
We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
The nations that signed this statement included the United States, France, the U.K., China -- and Russia. Biden must have been sorely tempted to point out this flip-flop himself, but instead, that reminder came from an unnamed defense department source. If Biden had said it, he would in essence be calling Putin a liar. That would escalate the war of words even further.
3. Smart leaders focus on facts, not rhetoric.
Biden's non-response has also given the world plenty of time to ask what Putin's threats actually mean, exactly. If you haven't watched the video of Putin giving the order, it's well worth the 48 seconds of your time. The first thing you'll notice is that it's clearly intended as a made-for-TV moment, with the generals sitting off to the side as Putin faces the camera to give the order. The second thing you'll notice is that he says the nuclear alert is a response to sanctions and "aggressive statements" from Western leaders, as opposed to any immediate military threat.
What you might not notice, unless you're an expert in geopolitics, is that the wording he uses is "deliberately ambiguous," as one analyst put it. It's been translated as a command to put Russia's nuclear arsenal in "a special mode of combat duty." No one seems to know what that phrase means beyond the obvious intention to make nuclear weapons readier than they were before.
Whatever Russia actually does with its nuclear weapons, the U.S., and many other nations, will almost certainly get a bird's-eye view from the many satellites that surround the Earth. Defense experts note that all these observers know exactly what standard readiness exercises look like, and will immediately recognize anything that deviates from that norm.
Experts also note that Putin is in the habit of making nuclear threats--this is the second time he's done it in less than a week. That's a stark contrast to longstanding U.S. policy. Not only would no U.S. president ever announce a change in nuclear readiness on television, but our Defcon level always remains secret for security reasons. That is definitely a case where the less you say, the better off you are.