One hundred twelve years ago, standing confidently on an American-flag festooned platform at the Minnesota State Fair, his frock coat open, his hands in motion, his weight forward on the balls of his feet, his head tilted back, projecting his voice to the thousands in attendance, then-Vice President Theodore Roosevelt delivered one of the most memorable speeches on foreign policy in our nation’s history.
In the clear, crisp black-and-white photo capturing the event, Roosevelt jumps out from the background, a body in motion, a force of character unconstrained by the camera’s film, an iconic image of American determination, only 12 days and an assassin’s bullet away from the presidency. Roosevelt, arguing in favor of the Monroe doctrine that eschewed interventionism in other countries, yet concerned about America’s lack of influence on the world stage, proposed that the United States adopt the West African proverb to “speak softly, and carry a big stick.”
Over the past century, the “speak softly, and carry a big stick” dictum has become ingrained in the American psyche. We carry the biggest stick. We have the strongest military in the world, able to strike anywhere, at any time, often without obvious repercussions, projecting power as no other nation in the history of mankind.
So why does it seem like we are losing influence? In part, I believe it is because we have neglected the counsel to speak softly, to be thoughtful and deliberative in our words and actions, to show discipline and self-restraint in how we talk with and to the world. It is also because we seem to feel the need to weigh in on every single regional conflict or civil war, whether or not we have a legitimate national interest at stake.
In his Minnesota State Fair speech, Roosevelt explained what he meant by speaking softly. “If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble . . . So it is with the nation. It is both foolish and undignified to indulge in undue self-glorification, and, above all, in loose-tongued denunciation of other peoples. Whenever on any point we come in contact with a foreign power, I hope that we shall always strive to speak courteously and respectfully of that foreign power . . . Let us further make it evident that we use no words which we are not prepared to back up with deeds, and that while our speech is always moderate, we are ready and willing to make it good. Such an attitude will be the surest possible guarantee of that self-respecting peace, the attainment of which is and must ever be the prime aim of a self-governing people.”
Last year, President Obama unilaterally threatened Syrian President Bashar Assad with “consequences” should Assad’s forces use chemical weapons in the bitter civil war raging in Syria. I do not believe that President Obama actually thought Assad would use such weapons when he made the threats (although there is some debate about who actually did use them).
Now that it is clear that the war-weary American people, including me, have no interest in another conflict in the Middle East, President Obama has had to backtrack from his previous “red-line” ultimatum, instead turning to Russian President Vladimir Putin to negotiate a peaceful resolution. That is exactly how a nation loses influence in the world.
It is my hope that our leaders will learn from the Syrian debacle. That we will be more careful than ever when we consider intervening in the affairs of other nations, and that we will relearn the skill of speaking softly. Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.
Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.