Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

Theodore Roosevelt’s diplomatic maxim; ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ has long been a favourite of mine.  But Edmund Morris’s epic biography of Roosevelt puts the phrase into sharper focus by reminding us of its original context.

Roosevelt had apparently been fond of the West African proverb for some while but he deployed it in public for the first time, to great effect, at the Chicago Auditorium on April 2nd 1903.

“There is a homely old adage,” he told his audience, “which runs; ‘speak softly and carry a big stick: you will go far’.  If the American nation will speak softly, and yet build and keep at a pitch of the highest training, a thoroughly efficient navy, the Monroe Doctrine will go far.”

The Monroe Doctrine was first articulated in 1823 by President James Monroe and held that the United States would regard any attempt by a European power to acquire new territories in the Western hemisphere or  to intervene in the affairs of American nations as an act of aggression requiring intervention.

It was conceived amidst growing American and British concern that other European powers might try to take advantage of the situation in Latin America, where at that time the independence movement led by Simon Bolivar was trying to shake off Spanish control, to gain a foothold of their own.

In 1903 the Monroe Doctrine had been invoked over a stand-off between Venezuela and two European creditors, Germany and Britain whose navies were enforcing a blockade in the hope of forcing Caracas to honour its debts.  Roosevelt’s fear was that Germany intended to seize Venezuelan territory in lieu of payment and refuse to relinquish it thereby gaining a toe-hold in the New World.

Roosevelt’s response was a masterful piece of diplomacy.  He ordered his naval forces to concentrate in the northern Caribbean ostensibly to carry out manoeuvres while signalling Berlin privately that he would act decisively if matters weren’t resolved through arbitration.

There was no public threat.  Indeed the entire affair was kept so secret that all correspondence between Washington, London and Berlin was discretely destroyed once the crisis passed.  Roosevelt, who as Assistant Secretary to the Navy in the 1890s had acted to build up U.S. fleets, brought maximum pressure to bear through unseen diplomatic channels to allow Germany to back down without losing face.  This Germany eventually did.

There’s a deeper lesson in this for us today.  Roosevelt seemed instinctively to grasp that power is often most effective when it is not used.  In other words implicit threat backed up with the apparent means to enforce that threat is in many instances far more effective than direct action.

The use of power always risks demonstrating to ones enemies the limits of one’s power.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Bush years is that the U.S. and its allies made explicit use of such power as they had and in so doing have been shown to be less potent than their enemies feared.  In Iraq and Afghanistan Coalition and NATO forces have struggled to control unconventional campaigns by guerilla movements that have resulted in vast bills and public opposition at home.  Not only have the limits of Western military might been tested but the West’s adversaries have been reminded that those countries have to campaign on at least two fronts; on the battlefield and at home, and must prevail in both to prevail at all.

In short the United States by showing the world what it could do when riled conspired to show the world what it couldn’t.  The thought of what America might do had been an effective deterrent but Iraq and Afghanistan have left it far less so.

Indeed the Bush administration almost entirely disregarded a soft power strategy in favour of a hard power one.  They’d neglected the fact that for millions of people around the world that the idea they had of the United States as a place where personal liberty was sacrosanct and with it the rule of law gave the U.S. allies in almost every town and village on earth.  American values have brought down authoritarian regimes around the world without any American soldier needing to raise his rifle.

Now we see the slow but apparently unstoppable shift of global power Eastwards, towards countries whose democratic traditions are at best still young and at worst non existent.

However if America has forgotten the lessons of the past then I suspect China has not.  What China has in spades is the semblance of military might.  It can put millions into uniform.  It can build rockets and tanks by the tens of thousands.  It can stage mighty parades.  Can it fight a war?

The fact that China appears to be putting huge effort into electronic warfare may be an indication that it realises that the weaknesses that might determine the outcome of future conflicts are in communications and logistics rather than tonnage of armour and the number of polished boots marching to battle.  That in turn may indicate that it is aware of its own command and control shortcomings.

It may not but until conflict comes we won’t know – and in many ways it is in China’s interests to keep it that way.  Would that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld had spent more time listening to Teddy Roosevelt and less time watching John Rambo.  The four thoughtful faces carved into Mount Rushmore were chosen for that honour for a reason and for that same reason one can conclude with reasonable certainty that George W. Bush’s face will never be carved along side them.


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