Romneyshambles: Eight rules for politicians abroad

By Matthew Ashton

Politicians have to be careful about what they say and do, even at the best of times. It's even trickier when they're abroad as Mitt Romney discovered this week, to his cost. His comments about the London Olympics led to him being attacked by both David Cameron and Boris Johnson, not to mention a barrage of negative publicity back home.

In all fairness politicians often have to visit several countries during a relatively short period of time, fitting in hundreds of events and people. Jet lag can also be an issue that makes gaffes more likely. In this case none of these really apply as Romney was on the first few days of his mini-European tour. In his defence he isn't the first politician to make a fool of himself in a foreign country and doubtless he won't be the last. Here then are some things they should all keep in mind when journeying abroad.

1) Actually know which country you're in

Ronald Reagan once ended an official trip to Brazil by stating, "I'd like to thank President Figueiredo and all the people of Bolivia". It's probably best if you get an assistant to write the name of the country you're in on a piece of card, possibly phonetically if it's hard to pronounce. That way you can carry with you at all times in case of emergencies.

2) Try to remain politically neutral

Obviously politicians sometimes share a political ideology and worldview with one of the political parties in their host country. However they should try to avoid getting involved in internal politics if they can possibly help it. Mitt Romney is a Conservative like David Cameron, but made a point of visiting Ed Miliband. Unfortunately David Cameron wasn't quite so cordial towards François Hollande of France. Don't snub the opposition, even if you don't agree with them. They could be in power before you know it, making future diplomacy tricky.

3) Unless you're fluent don't try to speak the language

By this I mean don't try to make an entire speech. Normally a few well practised words, preferably rehearsed with a native speaker and approved by a reliable translator, will be enough to keep people happy. Tony Blair just about got away with addressing the French parliament in their native tongue, and most European leaders can speak English better than some British people. However in all other cases attempting to curry favour by speaking another language often leads to problems. At best you embarrass yourself, at worst you risk offending the host nation. The reverse is often true, as well. The fact that Nick Clegg can speak Spanish, German and Dutch is often seen by some sections of the British media as a symptom of his rampant pro-European views, while in the USA the ability to speak any foreign language, apart from Spanish, can actually be an electoral disadvantage.

4) Be careful who you visit

George Galloway will probably always be remembered for praising Saddam Hussein. Equally there are plenty of photos of a smiling Tony Blair shaking hands with Colonel Gadaffi. Obviously sometimes you have to meet people with less than stellar reputations, to put it mildly, but wherever possible try to make sure it's in private where the press corp can't record every moment. Likewise try to remember what you've said about the country before. If you've previously criticised a place and its people, don't suddenly start to go overboard on how you've always admired them. It makes you look like a hypocrite.

5) Don't be over eager to embrace foreign cultural traditions

When in Rome do as the Romans do, unless you're a politician. Politicians should always try to strike a balance between being a good sport and a willingness to offend their hosts. Otherwise before you know it you could be dancing round a May Pole or worse. John Major reportedly refused to wear a Shapka (the classic Moscow style furry hat), when in Russia, because he thought it would lead to him being put on the cover of Private Eye. Today a good rule of thumb should be to ask yourself, is this something that could be repeatedly used as a clip on Have I Got News For You? The same goes for trying some of the more exotic meals you might be offered; although President Bush Snr still swears blind that it was a flu bug, rather than anything he might have eaten, that led to him throwing up over the Prime Minister of Japan.

6) Be careful when claiming links to a place

Many US politicians at some point or another have attempted to claim they have roots in whatever country they're visiting. For instance most US presidents have visited Ireland or Scotland and declared that some distant relative, umpteen times removed, was from there, giving them a special affinity for the country. The trouble is journalists have easy access to Google and genealogy records can quickly establish if you're lying.

7) Always keep in mind the electorate back home

Remember, while it's nice to be popular abroad, they're not the ones voting for you back home. Everybody remembers Obama's victory tour round Europe, mainly because he did it three months before he actually won. In this case it just deepened Republicans suspicions of him, on the ground that if Europeans liked him there must be something wrong with him and he was clearly a socialist.

8) Don't criticise the country you're visiting unless you have to

Sometimes this is unavoidable. Any Western politician visiting China has to at least mention the subject of human rights abuses. But whatever the criticism is, it should be limited to the political. Don't say anything about the food, weather, dress sense or history of a country, that might be considered less than positive. For instance the British love pointing out the faults in Great Britain. It's practically a national pastime. However nothing turns a hardened cynic into a steadfast patriot quicker than foreigners saying exactly the same thing. It's a classic case of "we can say this because we come from here". Anyone else is on thin ice. The Romney Olympic quote is the perfect example of a politician ignoring this rule to his cost.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.