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Hassett: Tip-toe diplomacy

BY NICK HASSETT | MARCH 06, 2014 5:00 AM

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At the beginning of the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt uttered the phrase that shaped American foreign policy for decades to come: “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

Roosevelt’s view of diplomacy saw America as a peaceful giant: Our might was self-evident, and we didn’t need to flaunt it. The core tenet of “Big Stick” ideology is that even the latent threat of American force is a powerful deterrent. If necessary, however, the wielder of the stick must be ready to use it in order to maintain its legitimacy.

More than 100 years have passed since Roosevelt’s presidency, and military might is no longer the driving force shaping the geopolitical landscape. But the core theory of Roosevelt’s worldview remains true as ever. Whereas once interlopers had to contend with the threat of American missiles, they now face diplomatic and economic quarantine. In this era of hyper globalization, that threat is potent.

Yet our current Commander-in-Chief, it seems, has no interest in modernizing Teddy’s policy. Recent events have revealed certain reluctance in President Obama. On diplomacy, he still speaks softly, but he has left the stick behind. No, Obama seems more interested in what I’d like to call tip-toe diplomacy.

Tip-toe diplomacy is a worldview that sees America not as a leader but as a manager. Instead of blazing trails, the focus is on causing as little disruption as possible, to move around crises without taking a decisive step in addressing them.

Take Russia, for example. Under Putin, the country has made a blatant power grab for the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. Like Bush before him when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Obama blinked in the face of Russian aggression. As thousands of troops rolled into Crimea, the president said Russian military intervention would have “costs,” evidently in the form of canceled G8 meetings and barebones economic sanctions.

Putin saw this as a green light. “Costs” implies a tradeoff, an exchange. It implies something to be tolerated. As the military standoff between Russian forces and Ukrainian soldiers continues, Putin shows no interest in backing down, and European leaders are deflecting responsibility. It’s clear that Russia’s leader is testing the waters. How far in will he go?

The noncommittal approach and use of empty rhetoric is quite characteristic of tip-toe diplomacy. On Syria’s civil war, Obama said his “red line” was the utilization of chemical weapons. When evidence of their use was discovered, it became “the world’s red line,” not his. In 2011, he declared not just an end to the Iraq war, but a victory: “Everything that American troops have done in Iraq … has led to this moment of success.” Now, not a week passes without bombings even in Iraq’s supposedly secure areas, the death tolls counting in the dozens. This is success?

Americans aren’t convinced of his strategy. Respondents were split on Obama’s foreign policy in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll, with 47 percent approving and 45 percent disapproving.

Still, it’s easy to see why Obama has chosen this path.  After long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military action without U.N. sanction, and the revelation of NSA spying on other leaders, the United States has lost a lot of diplomatic capital. Perhaps the president figures: Why rock the boat?

There are merits to a policy of nonintervention as much as one that sees a proactive American presence in the world. These approaches, when distinct, send a clear message about how and where the United States stands. But Obama’s foreign policy tries to walk the line between them; intervening without stepping on heels, and tiptoeing into conflicts without leaving a footprint.


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