“Speak softly, but carry a big stick”.
President Theodore Roosevelt Jr
Alphen, Netherlands. 14 November. Last Thursday I had the honour of addressing some six hundred mainly British military personnel on Russia. Not surprisingly, the issue of President-elect Trump came up. This was hardly surprising given I presented a worse-case scenario which I suggested ‘President Clinton’ might need to deal with. Oops! The subsequent derision was the cause of much fun and ribaldry, and yes I am as surprised as anyone that Donald J. Trump now stands at the portal of the Oval Office. However, it did get me thinking about which POTUS Trump is most likely to, or rather should, emulate. The nearest I can come up with is the 26th President of the United States Theodore (‘Teddy’) Roosevelt Jr.
Teddy Roosevelt was Republican president between 1901 and 1909 during which time he endeavoured to drive forward an activist, progressive agenda, but was consistently thwarted by a ‘conservative’ Congress??? Whatever one may think of President-elect Trump’s presidential campaign it could hardly be called ‘progressive’, at least in the contemporary understanding of the term. Trump will certainly be activist, pending activism reinforced by the appointment yesterday of right-wing firebrand Steve Barrons as his Chief Strategist.
And, I accept that my analogy is not neat as there are many differences between Roosevelt and Trump. The former was 42 when he came to power, the latter 70. Teddy Roosevelt was acknowledged as something of a scholar having published his book The Naval War of 1812 in 1882. Whilst the name of Donald J. Trump adorns the front cover of many books, one would hardly call him a scholar.
Roosevelt was also a soldier and an adventurer. Having served as Assistant Secretary to the Navy he resigned to fight in the Spanish-American War and in 1898 he led the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry (‘The Rough Riders’) with distinction at the battles of Las Guasimas and San Juan Hill in Cuba. Roosevelt was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for helping to bring about the end of the Russo-Japanese War.
So, what similarity, if any’ could (and I stress ‘could’) link Teddy Roosevelt and Donald Trump. Trump, like Roosevelt, is an adventurer, albeit a business adventurer, although ‘Teddy’ too was an entrepreneur. To suggest Trump will be an isolationist seems to contradict the global nature of much of his business empire and the President-elect’s use and understanding of power.
Roosevelt was also an exponent of American power, which I think will come to define the Trump foreign policy far more than the feared/hoped for isolationism. In 1907 Roosevelt ordered the United States Navy – the so-called Great White Fleet – to circumnavigate the world. It was a statement of American power. In the Mediterranean the British made a counter-statement about the limits to then American power by lining up the mighty Royal Navy’s entire Mediterranean Fleet on either side of the American fleet. Still, both sides really knew America’s presence in the Mediterranean was a sign of things to come. President Roosevelt was speaking softly to the British, but the ‘big stick’ was clearly implied.
So, what could this mean in practice for Trump? Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov is causing a lot of mischief by suggesting a de facto Putin-Trump alliance could a) happen; and b) implicitly accept a Russian sphere of influence over Eastern Europe and much of the Middle East. Let’s see. Like many American presidents on taking office President Trump could well seek to find a new way forward in US-Russian relations. After all, that is precisely what President George W. Bush tried as well.
And yes, there is every possibility Transactional Trump will try and do a deal with President Putin. However, far from being a sell-out he will see it as the best way to both protect the NATO allies and reduce the burden of European security and defence on the American taxpayer. What the rest of us have to do is to try and ensure President Trump is not out-manoeuvred by that wily old fox Putin. That important aim has not been assisted by the silly name-calling too many of continental Europe’s leaders have indulged in over the past few days.
It is over the role of institutions in security where there is marked difference between the Trump world-view and the European elite world-view, and thus the most likely source of friction. Trump, like Roosevelt before him, has little understanding for, or empathy with, the values-driven institutionalism of Europeanism (and the Obama foreign policy).
Which brings me to the real challenge of Trumpism for America’s allies; if institutions like NATO can prove they act as multipliers of American power and influence then the Trump administration will likely back them. Allies will be treated in much the same way. If they can add value to American power, as Trump sees it, then they will be listened to by the Trump White House; if they cannot they will not be listened to.
Ultimately, President Theodore Roosevelt Jr, and President-elect Donald J. Trump were/are deal-makers who trade in power and results. Yes, President Trump will likely be an uncomfortable partner, and for the British trying to get close to him will be the political equivalent of riding a tiger. However, if President Trump finally forces Europe’s elite to awake from the slumber of its own self-obsession and re-connect European security with world security then he might just do Europe a favour.
There is one thing President Trump might learn from President Roosevelt – power is best exercised when it speaks softly and the stick is implicit rather than explicit. During the campaign President-elect Trump too often spoke too loudly, and too often threatened a big stick against all and sundry. However, unlike many Europeans I have faith in both Americans and the American political system, and as a matter of principle I always start from a position of respect for the office of president. For that reason I am far less concerned or shrill in my concerns about the Trump presidency than many of my rather silly fellow Europeans.
What can Europeans do? President Trump is fact. We are already suffering from Brexit-denial and too many European leaders seem to be now suffering from Trump-denial. So, stop whingeing Europe and start investing in the power that will both enhance Europe’s security and buy Europeans influence in the Trump White House - be that individually or collectively.
As for President-elect Trump, he could do far worse than try to emulate President Roosevelt.