THE adage “speak softly, and carry a big stick” is popularly associated with Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy strategy. It means diplomacy must be backed by credible threats of force. However, credible threats of force are no longer enough to remain effective. In the current information-based world, it’s not sufficient to have the most powerful military, one must also have the “best story,” as US political scientist Joseph Nye puts it. And having the best story also means that one must not only speak softly, one must also tell a compelling tale.
“It is influence, not power,” Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth wrote in American Primacy in Perspective, “that is ultimately most valuable.” So even if it is the dominant military power, the US will not be able to gain the cooperation of other nations in issues that require multilateral action, if it has a weakened ability to influence. And we have already seen a persistent erosion of US influence in the world because it’s losing its ability to tell a persuasive story.
The ramifications of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq demonstrated this: The US may have solidified its military dominance, but this came at a cost of engendering resentment among its partners. During the 2014 Crimean crisis, a former US ambassador gave a talk at our university (Leiden) about Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The former US ambassador of course talked about how the annexation was illegal under international law. One student stood up and asked this: Isn’t it hypocritical for you to call out Russia? The invasion of Iraq was also illegal. The US ambassador was taken aback. He just said: But that doesn’t make Russia right. Audible gasp in the room. A lot rolled their eyes.
US insistence that China abides by the decision on the South China Sea arbitral case filed by Manila against Beijing has also fallen into deaf ears. How could the US expect China to do what the US didn’t do when it lost an International Court of Justice (ICJ) case to Nicaragua in 1986? The ICJ ruled that the US violated Nicaragua’s sovereignty when it supported the Contras against the Sandanistas. As I wrote in my column on May 25, 2017 (“The Nicaraguan option wishful thinking”), contrary to what Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and political pundit Richard Heydarian said, “the US didn’t comply with the ICJ decision at all. Actually, it violated Nicaragua’s sovereignty, again, by meddling in its internal political affairs, when it financially supported Chamorro. What the US did was pressure Nicaragua to discontinue the proceedings in exchange for aid. The US maintained its position that the ICJ had no jurisdiction over the dispute and Nicaragua’s application was inadmissible.”
And this leads us to understand what Nye meant with the “best story.”
The US will retain its power to influence if it can convince, through its actions, that it will play by the rules of the current world order, which after all it champions. The disconnect between what the US preaches and how it acts in the world is the reason why its ability to influence is eroding, despite having the most powerful military in world history. Uncle Sam is carrying a big stick, he could speak softly, but the story he’s telling is unconvincing. Actions instruct better than words. The best teachers show rather than simply tell.
Thus, to remain influential, the US can’t keep on relying on its military. It has to offer the world a better story, a story informed by its demonstrated magnanimity, restraint, and humility towards other nations. To this end, it’s worth remembering what George W. Bush actually advocated before he got elected and before September 9/11 happened: “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us; if we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us…we’ve got to be humble, and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.”