Speech of the Week
Covering speeches made during the week commencing Monday 19th September 2022
The week began with a funeral, which can often be the setting, or at least inspiration, for a great speech.
One thinks of Pericles and his Funeral Oration on the Athenian Dead for instance; and to some extent Gettysburg Address also feels like a funeral oration.
The funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was no exception in eliciting oration.
On a day of sadness and splendour that stopped all the clocks in many countries around the world there many speeches.
And in Westminster Abbey, an address by the head of the Church of England the Archbishop of Canterbury: an opportunity for beings temporal to be prompted by matters spiritual
As the Archbishop reminded that leaders that:
“People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer.
But in all cases, those who serve will be loved and remembered
When those who cling to power and privileges will be long forgotten.”
Overall, however, this was not a moving address.
Although it was interesting for the way it closed and how this close was set up.
The Archbishop recalled the Queen’s rallying call in her speech to the United Kingdom at the height of the Covid pandemic, when she quoted the refrain from a WWII a song:
“We will meet again”
The Archbishop then used this same phrase to end his speech.
This close would not have been nearly so successful had he not mentioned this line earlier.
Thus, it’s a useful insight into how to close out a speech.
First come up with the ending and then engineer a line or section earlier in the speech that will give it force and play
Such that the ending feels inevitable and therefore satisfying and complete.
UN General Assembly.
Indeed, the Archbishop’s remarks may have still been ringing in the ears of the world leaders as they addressed the annual jamboree of rhetoric that is the United Nations General Assembly, which was dominated, without surprise, by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As the UK Prime Minister, Liz Truss, remarked, this was,
“the first time in the history of this assembly
we are meeting during a large-scale war of aggression in Europe”
And President Biden also commented bleakly:
“This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right
to exist as a state plain and simple
and Ukraine’s right to exist as a people
whoever you are,
wherever you live,
whatever you believe,
that should not that should make your
blood run cold.”
A telling phrase.
President Macron, France
President Macron of France addressed the Assembly with passion and a wide ranging call for unity and solidarity, commenting that:
“Today we need to make a simple choice – basically that of war, or that of peace”
And indeed he went on to chastise those in the international community who were “choosing neutrality…. And to stay silent”
Overall Macron’s speech was clear and content largely expected, however President Macron did sum up with what feels like unique succinctness, how this conflict is new and different and dangerous – a hybrid modernisation of war:
“It takes the form of a
linked with a hybrid modernized war that
uses energy prices, food insecurity,
nuclear safety, access to information, and
population movements as weapons for
division and destruction
And that is how the war
undermines all of our sovereignty.”
Suddenly one realises that all significant wars are about testing something new, introducing new ideas, whether that is a new siege engine or motorised cannon, tank, gas, drone – the list will of course develop. But here, as Macron explains with perspicacity, there is new weaponry at play which Russia has been developing quietly in recent years and this “hybrid modernisation” is so difficult for the West to counter.
There was a slightly uneasy moment in the speech five minutes in when Macron realises – after haranguing Russia and Putin and saying there was no middle ground (“war or peace”) – as the consummate politician that he is, that he also has to mention his acts of “engaging in dialogue with Russia since the start of the war” – and one recalls that rather painful photograph of Putin and Macron sitting at opposite ends, of a very long table.
President Biden’s address to the General Assembly was also unequivocal in its condemnation of Russia. And the language he used was also perhaps unusual for a President – see his comment about “blood runs cold” for example – perhaps uncovering a very real sense of alarm at the recent statements by Putin about the nuclear option. Something in that phrase “blood runs cold” revealed a wider, United States, concern; a genuine alarm.
A little later in the speech there was a telling section on the United States’ relationship with China – an issue that always haunts the background of geo-politics today.
President Biden started this section by saying:
“Let me be direct about the competition
between the United States and China”
And then proceeds to speak elliptically about the competition!
“As we manage shifting geopolitical trends the United States will conduct itself as a reasonable leader; we do not seek conflict, we do not seek a Cold War.
We do not ask any Nation to choose between the United States or any other
but the United States will be unabashed
in promoting our vision of a free open
secure and prosperous world
and what we have to offer communities of Nations.
Investments that are designed not to foster dependency
(unlike those from China…. Ed)
but to alleviate
burdens and help Nations become self-sufficient
Partnerships not to create political
(unlike China! ….Ed.)
but because we know our own success
each of our successes increased when
other nations succeed as well
when individuals have the chance to live
in dignity and develop their talents
everyone benefits….. living up to the highest goals of this institution,
increasing peace and security for everyone everywhere”
The rhetorical technique at play here is a form of antithesis (is that now known as “the inside out raincoat” in the US?) but it’s still so effective today as a way of making a point without actually stating it.
President Zelensky, Ukraine
Of course in sharp contrast to such rhetorical finessing, the speech delivered to the UN General Assembly by President Zelensky via video link.
In fact, President Zelensky made use of the fact he was speaking via video link, rather than in person, in three ways which structured and indeed transformed/elevated his speech:
First, he made it very clear that there had to be a vote among UN member states to allow him to contribute in this way. As he said:
“Finally I want to thank
101 countries that voted for my video
address to take place…
not simply because of the format
but for the principle involved.”
But then Zelensky uses the issue of the vote to name and shame those who voted against (and indeed his whole speech could have been nicknamed “Crime and Punishment” – with its deliberate and delicious twist for Russian audiences).
“Only seven countries voted against:
Belarus, Cuba, North Korea, Eritrea
Nicaragua, Russia and Syria
Seven who are afraid of the video address.
Seven who respond to principles with a red button.
Seven neatly named and shamed.
Second, Zelensky using the setting of his video ad specifically his dress to make a point which would have been difficult in words: whereas the speeches by other world leaders to the UN General Assembly where clearly set piece speeches. Microphone, multiple teleprompters, flawless presentations against a back drop of marble, Zelensky’s speech was utterly the reverse. He was seated against a simple backdrop and wore a short sleaved, almost battle dress green T-shirt. (NB Ghandi knew the power of dress, always appearing in traditional costume which infuriated Chrichill such that he called him a “fakir”).
He was telling the audience he was at the front line; his words were authentic.
Indeed Zelensky’s speech was drastically different in tone, brutally direct.
Which brings us to his third master stroke: he used his remote location to highlight the irony of those who were actually in attendance – the Russians.
So Zelensky begins by talking of the Russian predilection for castration. Ands then as if turning to the Russian delegation, whom he knows are present in the UN General Assembly, he says:
“Please, representatives of Russia, why are the Russian military are so obsessed
Named and shamed again.
Now his graphic description list of brutalities continues and we are left in no douibt who (in the room) are responsible:
“There is a family
that died under the rubble of a house
after a Russian airstrike –
father, mother, six and eight year old girls along with their grandparents.
There is a man who was strangled with the Rope
There is a woman with broken ribs and wounds on her body.
Bodies burned and left in the street…..”
One feels he could go on; and he is profoundly convincing, precisely because his words ring with the bell of personal experience. We understand his version of “Crime and Punishment”.
Of course Zelensky is also on a mission to gather international aid and support – and, like President Macron, for Zelensky neutrality is not enough. In fact it’s a sham, as fake as a Russian referendum.
And he explains vividly why:
“There will be no vaccine against radiation sickness”.
It’s a remarkable and arresting phrase.
A put down of western complacency that “science” will find conveniently a solution to all problems.
And above all a reminder, indeed a warning, that Putin is capable of using weapons of mass destruction. Few actually believed he would launch a full scale military invasion of Ukraine. But he did….
President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
Which of course brings us to the true speech of the week – by Vladimir Putin, President of Russia.
A rare public address delivered on 21st September, two days before President Biden addressed the UN General Assembly.
And, of note, the text of the speech was published in full, in English, by the Kremlin.#
Putin’s speech starts defensively, explaining the difficulties that Russian troops have faced:
“Over the previous eight years, the Kiev occupation regime created a deeply echeloned line of permanent defences. A head-on attack against them would have led to heavy losses, which is why our units, as well as the forces of the Donbass republics, are acting competently and systematically, using military equipment and saving lives, moving step by step to liberate Donbass, purge cities and towns of the neo-Nazis, and help the people whom the Kiev regime turned into hostages and human shields.”
This is a close as President Putin gets to admitting that all is not going to plan; his explanation is that the troops are simply taking this slow and steady.
President Putin also claims that Kiev had originally wanted a negotiated settlement with Russia but were ordered not to pursue this:
“But a peaceful settlement obviously did not suit the West, which is why, after certain compromises were coordinated, Kiev was actually ordered to wreck all these agreements.”
Repeated reference to neo-Nazis, threats to the motherland, the Kiev regime as a puppet of the west’s ambition – all of these are used as defence of the “special military operation”.
But then the two big statements of the speech. First Putin announces partial mobilisation of troops:
“More precisely, I find it necessary to support the proposal of the Defence Ministry and the General Staff on partial mobilisation in the Russian Federation to defend our Motherland and its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to ensure the safety of our people and people in the liberated territories.”
Of note, President Putin does not own the idea of mobilisation, he suggests he is simply following advice.
Then the second big reveal: nuclear (which he does own).
“I would like to remind those who make such statements regarding Russia that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have. In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.
The citizens of Russia can rest assured that the territorial integrity of our Motherland, our independence and freedom will be defended – I repeat – by all the systems available to us. Those who are using nuclear blackmail against us should know that the wind can turn around.”
It seems significant that Putin ends his address on the nuclear threat. And that he chooses to use the phrase “I repeat” for emphasis here. And of course, even more significant that he should state: “I am not bluffing”.
He wants his speech close to carry as much threat/weight as possible.
The structure of the speech suggests that it is really about a justification for partial mobilisation. In other words the speech would not have been made in this manner and direct to the Russian people, if Putin had not had to announce his Executive Order for partial mobilisation.
The speech is about mobilisation, not about stating his nuclear options.
The nuclear threat is kept right to the end, until after this mobilisation is announced in the speech, such that Putin is able to close on a very strong note. He wants to direct attention away from the mobilisation and towards the shock of a nuclear threat.
And thus the threat, like the direction of the wind, has turned towards the UN in New York – and many of the speeches of the first days of the General Assembly, suggest the speakers felt the breeze.
The general response among speeches was to seek resolve and unity in the face of Russian aggression.
When Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II addressed the United nations in 1957, she stated:
“Common ideals and hopes, not formal bonds, unite.”
That is why, at the heart of the United Nations, there is not a legislature, but a speaking chamber.
If speeches do anything, they seek to illuminate common ideals and hopes.