United States President Theodore Roosevelt is often remembered for this succinct bit of foreign-policy advice: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” He took his advice when he ordered a flotilla of naval vessels painted white and then dispatched it in 1907 on a series of “friendly” port visits around the world. The 14-month voyage of the “Great White Fleet” was a graphic demonstration to the rest of the world that the US was no longer a power to be taken lightly.
Recent presidents have failed to heed Roosevelt’s advice. George W. Bush and his colleagues — particularly Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld — spoke loudly and carried a meat ax, when a stick would have done. Barack Obama spoke too softly and carried a twig — or nothing at all.Three months into the new administration of Donald Trump and the forms of speech and the size of the sticks are still being sorted out. Trump’s foreign policy team is remarkably good, especially in the essential positions of secretary of state, secretary of defense and national security adviser. Vice President Mike Pence has also begun to take a major role in foreign policy matters, including international travel on behalf of the president.
US Bombing Against the Taliban was a Big Stick
The stick part of the Roosevelt aphorism was graphically demonstrated by the US cruise-missile attack on a Syrian airfield, and the mega-bombing of an IS hideout in Afghanistan. Military options can consist of showing troops and weapons and actually using them, in a manner less than all-out war. It is still early days, but Trump seems to have chosen the latter, which is all right if used judiciously and strategically.
Where the Trump administration is having difficulty is the “speak” side of Roosevelt’s advice. Senior officials inside and outside the White House — including the President — tend to be all over the place on foreign-policy issues. This is particularly true of policy toward muscle-flexing by China and Russia. And most recently it was on display after the severely flawed constitutional referendum in Turkey, denounced by outside election observers as not free and fair. While the US State Department deplored the way the referendum was conducted, Trump called Turkish President Erdogan to congratulate him on the vote’s outcome.
Conflicting speech within a government is hardly unusual but can be dangerous if it leads to a miscalculation by other countries, which may take measures by what officials say, only to find that those officials did not have the last word on the matter.
There are signs that Trump administration’s policies towards Russia and China are coalescing, with accommodation of the latter and confrontation with the former. It can be argued whether these are appropriate positions, but at least they will add a degree of predictability in the international arena.
Trump Opts to Confront North Korea
The most immediate international threats to the US come from North Korea and Iran. In the case of North Korea, the Trump government has chosen confrontation, with a muscular military display, coupled with threats and attempted coalition-building, especially with South Korea, Japan and above all, China. Whether the mix works to cripple North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs — or even better, sparks regime change — remains to be seen. But it is difficult to envisage a better strategic mix given the manifest failures of the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations to address the North Korean threat.
Iran is another matter. In this case, despite a lot of belligerent election campaign rhetoric, it would appear that Trump has decided on accommodation rather than confrontation. The administration has declared that Iran is complying with the flawed nuclear agreement with the US and five other world powers, despite manifest and manifold instances to the contrary since the deal was announced.
Talk of enhanced sanctions against Iran because of its subversive activities in the Middle East has now apparently given way to discussion within the administration whether existing sanctions should not be reduced because of those activities. We can be sure that there will be aggressive pushback from Congress if that is the case.
In fact, well-conceived and implemented propaganda, economic and military measures would have a good possibility of forcing Iran’s ruling Mullahs to pull back. Such a strategy might even lead to regime change, an opportunity missed by the Obama administration in 2009 (not surprisingly given that administration’s overall foreign policy orientation). It is hard to understand why Trump, who not long ago was calling the Iranian nuclear deal “ … one of the worst deals ever negotiated …” would now decide to forgo firm action against a major current threat to the security of the Middle East and in future to Europe and the US itself.
In short, the first three months of the Trump government’s handling of international affairs have not been nearly the disaster foreseen by his opponents, but there are some curious and disturbing elements to it. So far, however, with the conspicuous exception of policy towards Iran, Trump seems to be following Teddy Roosevelt’s advice better than any of his three predecessors.
* A version of this commentary was published by AsiaTimes.com, on April 21, 2017.