In Ukraine and elsewhere, our enemies perceive only failure and the lessons of Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick diplomacy

President Biden and the mainstream media can trumpet the supposed success of our intense diplomacy all they like, but Russia remains in Ukraine and has no plans to end the war anytime soon.  Teddy Roosevelt forged a different, far more successful path in his first showdown with a foreign power, preferring secret talks to public bluster, wielding power without announcing it to the world.

Teddy Roosevelt made a West African proverb the foundation of his foreign policy, adding a phrase to the lexicon of American history that still echoes through the ages, “Walk softly and carry a big stick.”  In the early 1900s, the United States had finally recovered from the Civil War and a series of economic shocks to emerge as a world power for the first time.  Even before Roosevelt took office in 1901, America had easily dispatched Spain, freeing Cuba (Roosevelt himself led the charge and was about as single handedly responsible for our victory as anyone could be) and annexing the Philippines.  The quick end to the Spanish-American War served as notice to Britain and Germany that the United States was now a force in global affairs, but how to wield that power was an open question.  Some counseled isolationism, effectively withdrawing from the world unless we were attacked, and others full blown empire, actively confronting foreign powers for supremacy across the globe.  In 1902, these questions quickly turned from matters of principle and philosophy to practice and the possibility of war when Britain and Germany became unlikely allies over a long simmering situation in Venezuela.  Simply put, the Venezuelan government owed both European countries money, a lot of it, and they planned to force Caracas to pay with a naval blockade.  This placed the US government under Roosevelt in an uncomfortable position to say the least.  The debt owed was legitimate, some sixty two million bolivars, and Roosevelt believed the countries had a right to demand payment.  At the same time, Venezuela was part of the Americans and therefore subject to the Monroe Doctrine.  He could not allow the debt to be paid in the acquisition of territory by European powers.

Of course, both nations claimed in public that was not the goal and they were interested in restitution only, and if not restitution, punishment.  Roosevelt himself acknowledged this possibility in his first annual message to Congress a year earlier, saying European countries had a right to seek justice in the New World “provided that punishment does not take the form of acquisition of territory by any non-American power.”  Britain, he believed, could be relied on to honor its commitment to peace in the Americas, but Germany under the imperialist, nationalistic Kaiser Wilhelm II was a lot less trustworthy, especially when Venezuela had no money to make good on its debts and everyone knew it.  A secret memo from Rear Admiral Henry Clay Taylor, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, laid out the likely sequence of events and options.  “Venezuela…could offer nothing but territory, or mortgage her revenue in such a way as to place herself in complete political dependence on Germany.  The United States could not allow either of these, and yet Germany’s right to indemnity would be incontestable.  The only courses open to the United States [would then be] payment of the indemnity, taking what security she can from Venezuela, or war.  The first method is cheapest, the second most probable.”  Roosevelt himself was something of a Germanist; he’d been a student in Dresden as a teenager and had German heritage.  He would not have been averse to Germany investing money in the Americas, believing South American countries benefited from the trade and the resulting infrastructure, but had reason to believe that was not the Kaiser’s ultimate goal.  Germany had announced the blockade by claiming, “We would consider the temporary occupation on our part of different Venezuelan harbor places and the levying of duties in those places,” but had used similar phrasing four years earlier.  Back then, Germany had “temporarily” acquired Kiaochow, China for 99 years.  Venezuela was a far more tempting target.  He could not know it at the time, but Germany was actively working on plans to attack America directly, via Puerto Rico.

Roosevelt began making moves to counter these designs before the blockade was officially announced.  First, he planned a massive show of force in the form of naval exercises.  “For the first time in our history, naval maneuvers on a large scale are being held under the immediate command of the Admiral of the Navy.”  Coincidentally, these maneuvers were carried out in the same region as the proposed blockade.  On November 21, four battleships from the North Atlantic squadron met another for cruisers and gunboats from the Caribbean squadron off the coast of Puerto Rico.  They would soon be joined by many others, arriving from ports near and far.  Regardless, it was generally assumed that America would lose a naval confrontation with Germany, largely because Germany had about 50% more tonnage in the water.  The tacticians who conducted war games and simulated possible scenarios had concluded that there was nothing the United States could do to prevent Germany from seizing harbors in any confrontation.  Others disagreed, believing a well armed base at Isla de Culebra, Puerto Rico could provide security all the way down to the Amazon.  Perhaps needless to say, Roosevelt almost limitless in his commitment in American potential, believed America would prevail, and planned to demonstrate how, starting with these maneuvers.  At the same time, he was under no illusion either Germany or Britain would be so easily dismayed and was not surprised when four days later, the two countries officially informed the US government of the blockade.  By December 7, they told the Venezuelan president that they were closing their consulates in Caracas and beginning “pacific” measures to satisfy their claims.  The next day, Roosevelt met privately with the German Ambassador, Theodor von Holleben, telling him point blank that the recent naval maneuvers served another purpose.  He described the meeting in later testimony, claiming he delivered a message with “extreme emphasis.”  The “world at large should know this merely as a maneuver, and we should strive in every way to appear simply as cooperating with the Germans; but that I regretted to say…that I should be obliged to interfere, by force if necessary, if the Germans took any action which looked like the acquisition of territory in Venezuela or elsewhere along the Caribbean.”  Ambassador von Holleben wasn’t a very insightful man, however, and rather than acknowledging the threat, he repeated the canard that the plan was not to take any “permanent” territory, prompting Roosevelt to jest that he was sure the same was true of China, which was “merely held by a ninety-nine years lease.”  Roosevelt ultimately gave Germany ten days to provide a total disclaimer and publicly announce they would not secure any territory.

Violence broke out at the blockade the following day, when Britain and Germany seized four Venezuelan gunboats and then Germany destroyed three of them.  The Venezuelan President begged the United States to publicly intercede and serve as an arbitrator to end the dispute.  Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, John Hay, relayed this message to his counterparts in Britain and Germany while the President himself ruminated on the implications of the sunken vessels, believing them “an act of brutality and useless revenge.”  A man of his word, he was honor bound to refrain from action of his own for nine more days, however.  Four days before the deadline, Ambassador von Holleben returned for another private meeting, and after deflecting for a time, informed Roosevelt that the Kaiser rejected the offer of arbitration and planned to proceed with the blockade.  Roosevelt told the Ambassador point blank that he was “very definitely” threatening war in that case, and he would move the deadline up by a day as a result.  Meanwhile, the alliance between Germany and Britain, always unlikely considering they would be enemies in World War I barely a decade later, was starting to show signs of strain.  King Edward VII was not pleased with the foreign entanglement, and the German refusal to negotiate.  By Tuesday, December 16, the British Cabinet approved a proposal to accept arbitration “in principle,” but Germany still wouldn’t budge.  Ambassador von Holleben spent these days trying to determine if Roosevelt was bluffing or would really go to war over Venezuela.  He met with a German diplomat in New York, Karl Bunz, who assured him Roosevelt was deadly serious, and probably right:  The German naval advantage would not matter if they couldn’t bring all of their strength to bear.  The Americans, on the other hand, had the legendary seaman who took the Philippines from Spain, Admiral Dewey, already in theater with a massive armada after the so-called maneuvers.

Crucially, all of this was happening in private.  Roosevelt maintained to the press that there was no deadline or indeed anything at all to worry about, leaving everyone to wonder why maps of the blockade zone kept popping up throughout Washington.  Still, The Washington Evening Star reported that Roosevelt “sees little reason to be throwing out unofficial intimations to Germany and England that this country has fixed deadlines, which they must not cross,” even as the deadline was rapidly approaching.  Germany, would in fact wait until the very last moment to concede to arbitration, and the actual discussions are lost to history, all records having been destroyed. Ambassador von Holleben filed an official dispatch on December 16, noting “now the cannons have spoken, and Germany has shown the world it is willing to assert its fair rights, we would make a good impression on all Americans if our government were to accept arbitration in principle.”  The next day, the German Reichstag voted in secret to formally accept arbitration.  The blockade would remain in place until a final settlement was reached, but the threat of war was completely removed, there was no further violence, and Roosevelt was triumphant.  Crucially, almost all of these events occurred in secret and were not pieced together by historians until years after.  Roosevelt made no public comments on his ultimatum or threats, and even visitor logs to the White House were scrubbed, any internal communications destroyed on both sides.  This was done to protect Germany’s reputation.  Roosevelt reasoned, rightly, that the Kaiser was not a man who would take well to a public embarrassment, and Roosevelt noted “Supposed we shall never make public the fact of that vital step.”  A few days later, he was publicly praising Germany and all things German in German at a meeting of trade representatives from the Kaiser himself, as if they were old friends.  “He astounded us.  He is as well posted on German affairs as American…his familiarity with the masterpieces of German literature would amaze even the most exact scholar in the Fatherland.”  Later, Roosevelt extended the West African proverb with a little more detail to better describe his philosophy in action.  “If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save from trouble; but neither will speaking softly avail, if the back of the softness there does not lie strength, power.”

One hundred and twenty years later, President Joe Biden is no Teddy Roosevelt to say the least.  He has taken precisely the opposite approach to the Russian invasion of Ukraine to all of our detriment, substituting big talk for effective action.  Last month, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, gave the biggest possible talk of all and declared that Russia has already lost the war in Ukraine while it was still going on.  “President Putin thought he could defeat Ukraine quickly, fracture the NATO alliance and act with impunity,” he told reporters following a meeting with NATO defense ministers in Brussels.  “He was wrong. Ukraine remains free. They remain independent. NATO and its coalition has never been stronger. And Russia is now a global pariah, and the world remains inspired by Ukrainian bravery and resilience,” he continued.  “In short, Russia has lost; they’ve lost strategically, operationally and tacitly, and they are paying an enormous price on the battlefield.”  These thoughts have been echoed by the mainstream media and politicians both before and after this speech, always they paint an incredibly brave and courageous picture of defiance and coming triumph however at odds with the facts.  Last year, for example, President Joe Biden declared that our sanctions had destroyed the Russian economy – which is on pace to grow faster than the United States this year. 

Two days after General Milley made his remarks, CNN declared that the “West’s hardest task in Ukraine” was “convincing Putin he’s losing.” A recently declassified intelligence report, however, reveals a far different reality.  Russia is unlikely to make major territorial gains in the short term, but they are dug in to their current gains, far from conceding defeat, and given enough time they will likely prevail.  U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers, “Putin most likely calculates the time works in his favor and that prolonging the war, including with potential pauses in the fighting, may be his best remaining pathway to eventually securing Russia’s strategic interests in Ukraine, even if it takes years.”  In other words, Russia is far, far from being defeated and despite a year of sanctions, hundreds of billions of dollars in aid and advanced weaponry, there is precisely nothing we and all of our allies can do to eject the Russian army from Ukraine.  This is the reality on the ground rather than the blustering fantasy broadcast by politicians and the media, where President Biden is regularly depicted as leading “the free world against Putin” to use NBC News’ phrasing.   “In the battle between democracy and autocracies, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security,” the President himself said at his State of the Union Address.  CNN regularly praises President Biden’s “statesmanship,” claiming recently that “Biden and the West are in an extraordinary position that few strategists would have thought possible a year ago,” and that “NATO is stronger and more unified than it has been for years. And that is a strategic disaster for Russia.”  Overall, they claim, “Biden has restored the US as a strong global leader, reviving its critical transatlantic alliance and steering allies behind the effort with successful and intense diplomacy.” That this supposedly successful diplomacy has not achieved any major objective seems beside the point.

China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and our other adversaries are not as likely to be impressed with what amounts to nothing more than talk in the world of war and power politics.   From their perspective, there is only one important lesson to be learned:  The combined might of the free world is powerless to expel a country with a GDP smaller than Texas from Ukraine.  The Biden Administration, supportive politicians, and the mainstream media can preen about their diplomatic success all they like, but that doesn’t change the fact that Russia remains in Ukraine, has no plans to leave Ukraine, our best intelligence suggests they believe remaining in Ukraine is in best interest, and we have not been change this dynamic in any meaningful way including negatively impacting their economy with sanctions.  China, for example, is overwhelmingly likely to conclude that the free world would be equally powerless should they invade Taiwan, and why wouldn’t they?  Putting this another way, all of the so-called successes we are bragging about only serve to highlight our failure.  If a truly united free world cannot end a single war on their doorstep, what can we do? In the meantime, we’re talking a big game, as in continually blustering, but carrying no stick at all.  Teddy Roosevelt would not be impressed, either.


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