Theodore Roosevelt’s excellent foreign policy advice for superpowers—“Speak softly and carry a big stick”—was uttered a few days before the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 thrust Roosevelt himself into the presidency. He was quoting, incidentally—an old West African proverb. And out of that quote came the phrase, “big-stick diplomacy.”
It was a moment when the United States was coming of age as a world power, and asserting herself in new ways. Yet the phrase developed the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, in which an earlier American president had served notice to the European powers, that while the U.S. would be neutral in rivalries elsewhere in the world, she would not abide any further European imperial adventures in the Western Hemisphere. As late as 1962, this secular doctrine was being invoked by President Kennedy, to warn the Soviet Union off an imperial adventure in Cuba. Yet like most constructions in words, it had borne a variety of interpretations in the intervening time, including Teddy Roosevelt’s use of it to justify the United States’ own imperial adventures in Panama, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
Not that I’m always opposed to imperial adventures; nor opposed to making dogmatic statements about world affairs. There is a time and season for everything, including “big-stick diplomacy” in its broadest sense. This is what the Bush administration is doing today, or trying to do, in confronting Iran. It is a task in which some days their only ally appears to be Hillary Clinton—who, trying for her own purposes to sound presidential, seems no less willing to contemplate the use of force than the current U.S. defence secretary. And just yesterday she repeated Mr. Bush’s exact words in Washington: “All options must remain on the table.”
Well, not quite the only ally in pressuring Iran, for the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has also uttered the words “all options,” and already we see some prospect that the “Bush Doctrine” will outlive George W. Bush. It must: or there will soon be no West.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin, visiting Iran after a little game he played with the Russian media (in which his security services leaked an implausible assassination threat against him in Tehran, so that he could swagger and shrug it off), has been enunciating something like the Monroe Doctrine in Russian.
Russia and China together have been Iran’s chief diplomatic protectors, sheltering the vicious regime of the ayatollahs against sanctions proposals at the UN. Russia has been the principal public source of aid and technology for Iran’s vast nuclear complex at Bushehr.
In Tehran yesterday, speaking directly of a common interest in the resources of the Caspian Sea, at a conference with all the states of the Caspian littoral, Mr. Putin was nevertheless able to insinuate indirectly that the affairs of nations in that region “ain’t nobody’s business but their own.” The general impression in the West, and my own impression, is that he is seeing how far he can get with words alone, since the Russians themselves have been using every available pretext for withdrawing their workforce from Bushehr.
Likewise with Mr Putin’s recent threat to respond very negatively to the new U.S. missile shield, and the advanced bases the U.S. requires for it, on what the Russians call their doorsteps. But Russia is already behaving as if the Cold War never ended. What more can they do?
We now have another profoundly complicating factor, consisting of words, and in the very same region. The Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress, under what passes for the direction of Nancy Pelosi—a great enthusiast for empty gestures—recently proposed a declaration condemning the massacre of well over a million Christian Armenians in the twilight moments of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, 1915-17.
One might say that this remains a sensitive issue in Turkey. And one might add, that the Turkish threat to withdraw American access to NATO bases in Turkey (through which a considerable proportion of supplies are directed to Iraq and Afghanistan), is real. Similarly, the Turkish threat to begin armed incursions into northern, Kurdish, Iraq, to settle scores with Kurdish ethnic incendiaries in Turkey itself. Or the Turkish threat to settle scores with neighbouring Armenia, directly. One might even understand why the Bush administration, from Mr. Bush down, has gone apoplectic in resisting this exceptionally stupid Congressional move.
Which is not to say the Armenian massacre didn’t happen, or that it does not merit the remembrance and condemnation of every sentient being.
My point is rather Theodore Roosevelt’s: that it behooves the U.S. and the West not to waste words in shouting, or in pointless historical scab-picking that will yield unintended present results. It behooves us rather to carry a big stick, and to be ready to use it. That, and that alone, is how peace is maintained, in this grimly real world: by powerfully discouraging potential aggressors.