Senator John McCain (R-AZ) lectured Secretary of State John Kerry recently on the Obama administration’s conduct of foreign policy. One of McCain’s heroes, he said, is President Theodore Roosevelt, who is identified with the maxim, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” McCain thought that was a good practice for U. S. foreign policy in the Obama era and chastised Kerry for speaking loudly and carrying no stick at all. Secretary Kerry didn’t take it very well. He responded with a metaphor from an actual Roosevelt speech (1910) the pertinent part of which goes like this.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Needless to say, Kerry had McCain in mind as “the critic, who does not count,” and himself as “the man who is actually in the arena.”
The question Sen. McCain was getting at is interesting. It is not really whether we are carrying a big stick. He presumes that we are not. It is the effects of our neglecting to carry a big stick. The United States does not have the automatic compliance of its allies or the automatic prudence of its enemies as it once did. Of course, “once” we had the only nuclear weapons in the world. And after that, the world was divided into “ours” and “theirs” and “the third world,” purportedly trying not to get sucked into the Cold War or hesitating between potential allies.
That’s not where we are anymore. China is making a claim to the status in the world that its population, industrial base, and military strength entitle it. Russia is headed back toward Stalinism. There is a robust international middle class whose needs must be taken into account if we are going to sell American goods there. The European Union is friendly—they are our allies, after all—but they know that if Russia cuts off the flow of natural gas during the winter, we will not replace it. Our “Berlin Airlift” days are well behind us. There are new non-state actors who have terrorism in mind and are heedless of the cost in human terms.
You can see the colors clearly, but the nations are a little blurry. They are, in order, USA. Russia, China, India, Brazil, and Canada. The place the U. S. occupies in the world in now smaller by comparison with other actors. I think that’s a good thing, all in all, and it has nothing to do with President Obama’s clear preference for diplomatic solutions rather than military ones. If John McCain has won the presidency in 2012, we would continue to see America’s relative power decline and no “stick” President McCain had would affect that. He would continue to bluster because it is, after all, his shtick. In all likelihood, it would involve us in several foreign wars. And as we know, when a foreign war is not going well, it because we have not put the resources of blood and treasure into it (so we should send more troops and spend more money) than we should have, or because we have not unleashed the military commanders to do whatever they think best (without adequate regard to other considerations, international treaties, etc.) That is where we would be under President McCain.
The perspective I have just introduced is a little bit on the long and argumentative side. It would make a really bad bumper sticker. McCain’s preference for “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” is much better as a bumper sticker and it is superb as a tool in domestic political conflicts.
This is, as are most of the things that catch my attention, a causal attribution problem.
Anyone who reads the foreign news knows that American power is declining relative to other powers. Why? My reading is that the whole structure of global power is shifting. Other nations, other armies, and other consumers are gaining power, therefore, we are losing power by comparison with them. That’s a causal attribution; it is my saying why this is happening.
Sen. McCain looks at the same news I am looking at and explains it differently. He says it is caused by our failure to threaten military retaliation on those who defy us. That’s what “the big stick” comes to. He says the frequency with which nations violate our wishes and flaunt their ability to get away with it is a result of our failure to punish them for it. That is his causal attribution; it is his saying why this is happening.
Jonathan Haidt, in his marvelous book, The Righteous Mind, argues that American politics runs on six “moral foundations.” He uses the analogy of “taste buds.” The more taste buds you reach in making your argument, the more richly it will be received. Here’s a summary by William Saletan.
You don’t have to go abroad to see these ideas. You can find them in the Republican Party. Social conservatives see welfare and feminism as threats to responsibility and family stability. The Tea Party hates redistribution because it interferes with letting people reap what they earn. Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order — these Republican themes touch all six moral foundations, whereas Democrats, in Haidt’s analysis, focus almost entirely on care and fighting oppression. This is Haidt’s startling message to the left: When it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. They serve a more varied diet.
Here you see why Sen. McCain’s argument is going to be so much more successful than mine. My argument that the U. S. is losing influence because of a rebalancing of world powers is a very unsatisfying argument. McCain’s argument that people are taking advantage of us—how about “spitting on Old Glory?”—because we don’t “carry a big stick” anymore is a much more satisfying argument. It touches on: a) faith, b) patriotism, c) valor, and d) law and order. That’s four of the six “taste buds.” The fact that Sen. McCain is personally offended by the conduct of U. S. foreign policy helps sell his point. He does not “regret” our weakness; he “despises” it.
So, as I have indicated, I think he is wrong and I am right. But I want no part of duking it out in public with him or anyone else who represents his views. Their arguments are emotionally resonant and powerful. They seem to give us some action to take; some way to fight back. And, in the absence of a Democratically declared war that is successfully prosecuted in the very short term—is it too soon to invade Grenada again?—the Republican argument will be successful. And then we will start going to wars in places where our honor is challenged and our supply lines are impossibly long.
 Roosevelt said it was a West African proverb but Gary Martin, of The Phrase Finder, can find no record of its use anywhere, including in West Africa, before Roosevelt used it. Martin suspects that Roosevelt made it up himself and “ethnicized it” by attributing it to Africans.
 This criticism is, in fact, McCain’s shtick. You can count on him for it no matter what office he is running for.