US taking 'Big Stick' diplomacy with Russia [Op-Ed]

Contributor: Matthew Shoemaker
Posted: 03/01/2017
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The Deputy National Security Advisor, KT McFarland, has indicated that American strategy towards Russia may be changing. Indeed, President Trump signalled this shift repeatedly on the campaign trail, viz. a throwback to speaking softly and carrying a big stick. It’s the American way.  

One of President Theodore Roosevelt’s many iconic phrases is his summation of American foreign policy: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’ Over the past century, however, American presidents have enjoyed doing the exact opposite. Indeed, since it became a superpower in the middle of the 20th century, America’s favourite pastime has been to carry a big stick and speak in a loud voice. That is to say, presidents and policy makers instinctively raise a commotion whenever America’s honour or prestige is insulted on the world stage.

Over the past year, the general consensus amongst American political and media elites has been that President Trump is a modern day Manchurian candidate. Indeed, criticism from both Democrats and Republicans has been unrelenting on this front. They point to former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s discussion with his Russian counterpart to ease sanctions as evidence the Americans are becoming subservient to Putin’s ambitions. While the general consensus predicts a thaw in Russo-American relations – like so many things in the past year – the general consensus is once again incorrect. Although there will be a change in tone and tactics in handling Moscow, watch for tell-tale signs as President Trump begins to pressure and contain Russia. 

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American tone, and the tactics towards Russia over the past eight years, began with the now infamous ‘reset’ in 2009. For all the good intentions surrounding the endeavour, it failed for a multiplicity of reasons, not the least of which was that it was a reset on America’s terms. The Obama administration announced that it would wipe the slate clean, forgive past offenses, and move forward on equal terms with President Putin. As a sign of goodwill, Obama even cancelled the planned missile defence shield in the Czech Republic and Poland. However, since this reset did not coincide with a change in expectations or a shift in mindset, both Russia and America continued to behave towards each other as they had prior to the reset.  

The early years afterwards did offer some hope that a new relationship between Russia and the West had dawned. By 2010, President Obama had scored victories with the New Start Treaty to reduce nuclear weapon stockpiles, as well as an agreement allowing NATO to transport its equipment and supplies out of Afghanistan through Russia. Some in the US hoped the days of realpolitik were a distant memory and that all had been forgiven between the two former rivals.  

However, by the time of the Russian parliamentary elections in December 2011, the precarious era of goodwill between Russia and America vanished when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a scathing indictment of ostensible election corruption in Russia. Reports at the time indicated that Putin was genuinely concerned and outraged that American meddling might spark an overthrow of the government. The Arab Spring was at its height, deposing governments in the Middle East through popular protests, and now massive political demonstrations were being held on the streets of Moscow calling for reform. The view of the world from the Kremlin evoked memories of the collapse of the Soviet Union barely 20 years prior.  

Although Putin viewed Clinton’s rebuke as having poisoned the well for Russo-American relations, he weathered the political storm. Today he commands an approval rating of 87%. Even after the collapse of the ruble in 2015, he remains as popular as ever. Survival of the Russian government in its current form rests squarely on President Putin’s popularity. To that end, he has had to grapple with a deep recession over the past two years in which the Russian economy has contracted annually by 3.7% on the back of falling oil prices. To accommodate the dwindling government coffers, November 2016 saw Putin submit a draft budget to the Russian Duma which, if passed, will result in a 26% reduction in military spending.   

The American media and the political elite, on the other hand, have been too focused on the perceived threat to America’s honour and prestige to concern themselves with Russia’s internal problems. Trump administration officials such as KT McFarland, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have all indicated that Russia ought to be respected but dealt with sensibly. If the goal were to appease the Russians, Trump would try to restrict fracking as much as possible, allowing oil prices to recover, negotiate a nuclear arms reduction treaty freeing up vast capital for investment elsewhere, and he would reduce military expenditures to give Russia the illusion that parity with the United States is within reach. 

Instead, the Trump administration announced recently that it will increase defence spending by $54 billion. The total Pentagon budget, therefore, will be brought to roughly $602 billion whereas Russian defence spending last year was expected to be merely $67 billion. Additionally, President Trump has signalled his support for expanded use of fracking for the US energy sector, further pressuring the Russian economy. Finally, Trump expressed his support for expanding and modernising the American nuclear deterrent which would outpace and outspend Russian efforts to reach parity with the United States. If Reagan brought the Soviet Union to its knees through an arms race, Trump appears to be willing to do the same. 

The new administration in Washington is indeed taking a novel approach towards Russia; instead of reprimanding them in public and consoling them in private, as the previous administration did, Trump officials have stated they plan to be respectful of Russia in public and hold them to account in private. Although this approach is a break from the recent past when America’s honour was in jeopardy, it does evince a calm and sensible approach.  

Theodore Roosevelt would be proud, American foreign policy may be returning to era in which it does indeed speak softly and carry a big stick.   

Matthew Shoemaker is an analyst for BAE Systems at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Matthew specializes in nuclear war strategy as well as American, British, and NATO security issues. He holds a BA in Political Science and International Affairs from George Washington University, an MA in Philosophy from Mount St. Mary’s University, and is completing his Ph.D. in War Studies from King’s College London.

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Contributor: Matthew Shoemaker