Since Teddy Roosevelt counseled, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” U.S. presidents mostly have followed his advice, cautioning adversaries to resolve conflicts peacefully or suffer consequences.
Even President Carter brandished America’s big stick upon learning that bad things happen when you’re not respected, prompting him to Think Again about deterrence given “the Soviets’ ultimate goals.”
But today, after unilaterally “resetting” relations with repressive regimes including Iran and Russia — whose Ukraine incursion is “the gravest threat to European security and stability since the end of the Cold War,” proclaimed NATO’s chief — America’s posture is more akin to “speak imprudently and carry a toothpick.”
By not anticipating and mitigating gathering threats or adhering to our peace-through-strength tradition, America now “leads from behind.” We neither back good actors nor punish bad, nor are we perceived as tough and reliable enough to deter menacing behavior, rendering us “harmless as an enemy and treacherous as a friend,” as Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis feared.
Conversely, on the domestic front, President Obama speaks powerfully and wields a bludgeon — a pen, a phone and a pledge to circumvent Congress by unilaterally re-writing, ignoring or negating laws he is constitutionally bound to “faithfully execute.”
Testifying before Congress on accumulating separation-of-powers violations, constitutional law professor and Obama voter Jonathan Turley warned that Obama is “not simply posing a danger to the constitutional system; he’s becoming the very danger the Constitution was designed to avoid — the concentration of power in any single branch.”
To assert its branch’s authority, the House passed legislation providing legal recourse when the executive branch disregards the law, provoking a veto threat despite remedying the power abuses for which then-Sen. Obama lambasted President Bush.
Meanwhile, though Obama declared Washington a negotiation-free zone on spending and debt issues, ruthless dictators like Syria’s Assad and Iran’s Rouhani are acceptable negotiating partners whose interests we’ve accommodated, distressing our allies.
Consider Ukraine, which exchanged its nuclear weapons in 1994 for assurances that its sovereignty and borders would be respected. Post-Russian invasion, what prevents militarily insecure countries like Ukraine from pursuing nuclear weapons, never mind aggressive ones like Iran?
American “redlines” to limit bad behavior now signal the point at which we give up, devaluing our credibility while bolstering adversaries. Though a valuable escape hatch for ill-conceived redlines, accepting Vladimir Putin’s offer to oversee the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons stabilized mass-murderer Assad and elevated Putin’s stature — and boldness.
In this power vacuum, Putin commands influence disproportionate to Russia’s economic strength, as did pre-World War II Japan and Germany, whose playbook Putin follows. He claims the right to use “any means” necessary to protect Russian minorities from “extremists,” even insinuating “do as I say, or Iran gets a nuke.”
Seeking to unite Slavic people by repackaging the Soviet Union — whose collapse he called the 20th century’s “greatest calamity” — Putin laments that millions no longer live miserably behind the Iron Curtain. His greatest threat is the allure of freedom in stable and prosperous countries that respect the rule of law and human rights.
As if foretelling this crisis in a 2009 Moscow speech, Obama declared, “State sovereignty must be a cornerstone of international order,” arguing, “A great power doesn’t show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries.”
But given Russian aggression and America’s widely ridiculed response — called a “slap on the wrist” by the Washington Post editorial board — whose authority is more respected, America’s or Russia’s?
Calling Obama’s foreign policy “based on fantasy,” the Post argued it centers more “on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality.” In fact, the tide of war isn’t receding because 21st-century behavior — invasions, brute force, great-power games and shifting alliances — mirrors prior-century behavior.
Deterring tyrants like Putin, the Post contended, requires getting “ahead of him in adopting measures that inflict real pain, rather than waiting to react to his next act of aggression.”
Such measures include: providing defensive weapons to Ukraine; reinstating European-based missile defense, canceled to appease Putin; renouncing the 2010 arms-reduction treaty favoring Russia; and hurting Russia’s wallet and energy sector by restricting credit and approving measures to develop and export North America’s natural-gas bounty.
The best retaliation is a strong, free and prosperous America, one that protects liberty by preserving our framers’ system of separated powers and dispersed authority — history’s most successful political experiment.
To imagine the world without America— and appreciate our founders’ fear of concentrated and unchecked power — examine Putin’s Russia, whose nascent democracy was destroyed by constitutional changes granting him more authority.
Voters opposed to authoritarian governments with rubber-stamp legislatures — and their lawlessness — must stop the assault on America’s uniquely calibrated political system by speaking loudly and badgering politicians with big electoral sticks.
Think Again — Isn’t it our obligation to remain a “government of laws, not of men” so future generations can inherit a secure and strong America?
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.