“Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”
Teddy Roosevelt uttered the famous phrase in a speech in 1901, and for better or worse, the “Big Stick” theory dominated his foreign policy, and colored the foreign policy of the US going forward.
John F. Kennedy used the phrase in 1960 in describing his governing style of being liberal at home and careful abroad. The former naval officer demonstrated the practice during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he used the US Navy to establish a blockade of Cuba, keeping the Soviets from establishing ballistic nuclear missiles on the island. Ronald Reagan also subscribed to the big stick theory, which is credited with having helped the US win the Cold War. During their presidencies, both Kennedy and Reagan gave rousing speeches at Berlin’s Brandenburg gate, pledging America’s might to help defeat the forces of communism.
Last month, President Obama also spoke at the Brandenburg Gate, speaking softly, but without the big stick. The President said the defeat of communism came not from “all the power of militaries” but instead from “the yearning of justice,” which was “supported by an airlift of hope” and the values of “openness” and “tolerance.” The Berlin Wall came down, he said, because the German people wanted it to.
He then told the crowd of Germans something he hadn’t yet mentioned to his own country: “So long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe,” and pledged to reduce US deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third, thereby reducing the US big stick to a medium stick, at best, and surrendering US nuclear superiority for the first time since the invention of atomic weapons.
Meanwhile the US fleet is less than half as large as it was during the Cold War. The defense budget since 9/11 has averaged 4.1% of GDP, but under the budgets projected by the Obama administration, the figure will drop to 2.5% in less than a decade. Last month, Rep. Randy Forbes (R, VA), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on sea power, told a group at Washington’s Hudson Institute, “In 2007, the Navy was able to meet about 90 percent of America’s combatant commanders’ need [for ships]. This year that figure will fall to 51 percent.”
The White House has been embarrassed by a long list of scandals, the latest involving the defection of an NSA employee to China with a USB key full of US State secrets. Meanwhile, China, which remains a communist superpower, wielding a big stick and making no effort at conciliatory speech, continues to increase the size and capability of its Navy. And yet, for the first time in history, the Obama administration has invited China’s People’s Liberation Army to participate in the 2014 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, an annual maritime exercise of US ally nations, where the superpower is likely to learn even more about US military strategy, tactics and procedures.
With participation in the RIMPAC exercise, China’s military and naval intelligence agencies will continue to add to their growing operational and intelligence arsenal, while the US continues to whittle away the stick of naval power in exchange for “yearning, hope, openness and tolerance.”