In Foreign Affairs, Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

It was Teddy Roosevelt who said “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Obama’s success in taking out bin Laden is a good example. But the principle goes far further than operational details and some people are having trouble with it.

Foreign affairs is about getting a lot of people to go along with what we want. Lawyers deal with that problem all the time. And the only time we make a big deal out of standing up and speaking our mind, so to speak, is when clients demand it. Otherwise it’s a big mistake.

The louder you speak the less convincing you are. The more you tell the world what we want, the more their nationalism fights back. “We’re not the lackeys of the Americans.” “Let them fight their own battles.” Convinced that America should rule the world, we figure everyone should agree with us. But not at the cost of national pride. Let them think it’s their own idea and all of a sudden you get buy in, and people and nations pulling their own weight. Want to get the support of the Arab League and the European Community? Let them think it’s their idea. Does that hurt our pride so much that we can’t enjoy doing the right thing without taking all the credit?

Take that a step further. An irritant that swells the ranks of al Qaeda is American boots on Arab soil. American soldiers have been in the Middle East for decades. America has had close military ties with several Middle Eastern nations, not just Israel. Fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan added predictable blow-back. Not wanting to recruit for al Qaeda, Obama didn’t want to put American troops in Libya. And with good reason. Solution? Let others think they convinced us to join in trying to end Qaddafi’s rule. Keep American soldiers out and limit even the use of American pilots.

Many statesmen have been quoted saying they must follow their followers. The comment that “I must follow them for I am their leader” has been attributed to Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, a 19th century French attorney and leader of French workers, to Mahatma Gandhi, who led the fight for India’s independence, and British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. President Eisenhower said leadership is “the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Some think that’s nonsense but in fact it is a strategy that often works. Franklin Roosevelt knew before many Americans that we would be unable and unwise to avoid the fight that became World War II. But he kept his mouth shut and dragged his feet. In the end he had the country behind him, the crucial condition for a struggle that consumed this country for five brutal years.

The American penchant for speeches often gets in the way of good foreign policy. There is a reason why being diplomatic means being tactful. It doesn’t mean weak. It means smart. Although it hurts the egos of some white supremacists, we can take pride in having a president who is very smart. And in foreign affairs, he clearly values results, not brownie points. The question is whether Americans are smart enough to follow him.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 3, 2011.

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