Saturday, June 07, 2014

Bigger Stick

"I have always been fond of the West African proverb, 'Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.'" So wrote Teddy Roosevelt in a letter to Henry Sprague of the Union League Club in 1900. While he actually used it in reference to the New York Republican party pulling support from a corrupt financial advisor, it became more well known as his approach to foreign policy. It was perhaps best demonstrated in his sending a naval task force of 16 battle cruisers on a circumnavigation of the globe as a peaceful show of force, the so called "Great White Fleet." Now, that's a big stick indeed.

Roosevelt's pronouncement comes to mind as we watch the struggles of the current administration as it copes with a gaggle of overseas challenges in virtually every corner of the globe. (Sidebar: Always wondered about that phrase. After all, how can a globe have corners? But let's not get sidetracked.) Whether you like or dislike the President, it's kind of hard to figure out just how big a stick he actually has. Or more correctly, the question is not how big it is, but how can he can swing it without smashing all the china. After all we have arguably the most professional and efficient military on the planet, yet almost no one wants to commit American troops to any of the world's hot spots. Likewise, our arsenal of frightening weapons is second to none, but nuclear bombs are not known for their pinpoint accuracy.  

So if you take physical force off the table, what else have you got? The current approach centers on the threat and imposition of economic hammers to force others to heel. It seemed to work in Iran, where sanctions resulted in the government finally allowing in nuclear inspectors, and at least saying that they will curtail their uranium enrichment activities. That said, there is still a fair amount of skepticism as to whether they are playing a shell game, and allowing oversight of some areas while hiding others. Only time, and hopefully no mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv, will tell.

But the limits of the economic whip can easily be seen in the current tussle in Eastern Europe. While we have imposed limited sanctions against Russian businesses as well as Putin's buddies, we never had a whole lot invested there to begin with. Or put another way, in the immortal words of Billy Preston, "Nothing from nothing leaves nothing." That was driven home even more so when Russia signed a 30-year-deal with China to sell them natural gas, a deal valued at about $400 billion. In that light, preventing a few oligarchs from visiting their condos at Disney World seems, how shall we say, underwhelming.

The question then becomes this: what do we have that they want? What can we possibly use as a bigger stick, one that gives us leverage when we need it? They've got gas, so that won't work. They've got food, so nix that angle. They've got computers, cars and smartphones, perhaps not as slick as ours, but workable models for sure. And if they have all of those, threatening to withhold ours will mean nothing.  

But what we do have is Pharrell Williams.

And Angelina Jolie. And "Mad Men." And "Grand Theft Auto." American pop culture is without peer in the world. Sure, they have Pussy Riot, but even they aren't known for their music, just for not being allowed to play it. If we treat our movies, music, TV shows and video games the same way we treat our F15's, just think of the leverage we'd have. We'd have to retool them all to work on a limited release, and only with an unlock code that expires every 60 days or so. Toe our line, and you can be in "X-Men" for life. Cross us, and just as you're getting to the chorus of the latest Lady GaGa single, it shuts down hard. Let's see how long they'll last.

Need proof? In Iran, 6 people were willing to get arrested just for dancing to Williams' number one hit. The mullahs go their way this time, and caused all six to recant on state-run TV. The government has drawn the line that you can't dance publicly, just listen in private. But shut that down even that slender thread? Try it, and then we'll see who's "Happy."


Marc Wollin of Bedford dislikes our TV shows, but appreciates their power. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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