Soft Speech and Big Sticks By Mark Van Proyen
“Speak softly, carry a big stick, and you will go far.” Thus spoke Teddy Roosevelt over a century ago, establishing the template for American foreign policy since that time. Fast forward to San Francisco during the second week of November 2023 for an updated illustration: the time of the Asian American Economic Cooperation (APEC) Conference, convening representatives from 21 Pacific Rim countries who came to speak softly about trans-Pacific international commerce. The conference brought an extraordinary dose of spectacularized hoopla with it. For example, it shut down twenty city blocks around the Moscone center, creating havoc for motorists and pedestrians alike. It filled hundreds of otherwise empty hotel rooms, giving the city a much needed economic and public relations boost (achieved at the expense of small businesses unattuned to eight days of urban disruption). Homeless encampments vanished, only to reappear a few days after the event’s conclusion.
John Singer Sargent, “Theodore Roosevelt,” 1903, oil on canvas.
Courtesy of the White House Collection, Washington D.C.
The conference also occasioned a world class light show illuminating the night skies from the old Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street. This made for spectacular television images designed to contradict the well-circulated media narrative of San Francisco being a failed city. In short, it was an opportunity for the City by the Bay to roll out a red carpet, one that had fallen into prolonged disuse during the Covid years.
While all of this was going on, another meeting took place thirty miles south, near the sleepy hamlet of Woodside in the Santa Cruz hills. It was there that President Joe Biden and his team met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his for a six-hour summit. Sitting at Biden’s side at the negotiating table were Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken perched not far away. The news media’s synoptic takeaway was alarmingly brief and alarmingly soft: there is to be a crack-down on the distribution of precursor chemicals for the manufacture of fentanyl. Panda bears would be allowed to visit American Zoos. And Chinese and American military aircraft and warships would again be able to communicate with each other so that collisions in or above the Straits of Taiwan might be avoided.
Photo of the Ferry Building, San Francisco, courtesy of Equity Office.
This last point is of particular interest, in that it signals Xi’s reluctant admission that the Straits are not mainland China’s exclusive territorial waters — an admission that subtly contradicts the “strategic ambiguity,” of the One China policy. Clearly Xi wanted something on the economic front and was willing to pay for it. It has been reported that the Chinese economy is finally contracting after many years of double-digit growth. Xi’s domestic popularity in China is waning, in part because that country’s urbanized citizenry is growing nostalgic for the bygone prosperity of the pre-Xi era. Perhaps these facts bear upon the recent micro-thaw in US-China antagonisms. On the other hand, when diplomatic speech becomes too soft to be audible, it is best to make a quick inventory of nearby sticks.
Who was it who said that international geopolitics was little more than professional wrestling in suits? On this question, memory fails, but the world of professional wrestling does give us another useful term, kayfabe, referring to the theatrical exchange of hyperbolic threat displays preceding a pantomimed contest. Kayfabe are almost always buffoonishly comical. They are much less so when they manifest as rattled sabers in advance of geopolitical negotiations.
Kayfabe: The presentation of fake or pre-determined wrestling events as real. Sin Cara and The Miz perform. Photograph courtesy of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).
By the time that anybody reads these words, the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower with escort vessels will have moved southward in the Red Sea to take up position in the Indian Ocean. According to the information provided by Fleet Tracker, they will come close enough to drop fire on the ongoing proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen. It is also close enough to make the Iranians think twice about closing the Straits of Hormuz. Additionally, the group would also be close enough to interdict any sea traffic headed to or from Iran. The Eisenhower battle group had been deployed in the eastern Mediterranean along with a similar carrier strike group associated with the Gerald R. Ford in the Eastern Mediterranean, giving Hezbollah something to think about should they up the ante in Lebanon in relation to the Hamas-Israel conflict. An added benefit to this deployment is its proximity to the Bosporus, choking off the Russian Navy’s ability to project force beyond the Black Sea.
John Singleton Copley, "The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar,” 1783-1791, oil on canvas, 214 x 297”. Courtesy of the Guildhall Art Gallery, London.
More to the point of the Biden-Xi summit are the two American carrier strike groups in the eastern Pacific, both in the general vicinity of Taiwan. One is the Ronald Reagan group, home ported in Japan, and the other is the Carl Vinson group operating near Guam. The U.S. has seven additional aircraft carriers in various other locations and states of readiness, plus nine smaller helicopter carriers with the ability to launch vertical take-off combat jets. Xi has made public statements about having the Chinese military ready to invade Taiwan by 2027, backed up by three recently built small aircraft carriers and a fourth larger one to be launched in 2025. What should we make of all these big sticks sailing around? The obvious starting point is the recognition that empires be empirin’, regardless of any softly spoken chin music broadcast in any news media soap opera. In the short term, these big sticks are kayfabe, enacted on a grand geopolitical scale. It is impossible to know what the long term will bring.
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, “The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment,” 1985, installation. Courtesy of the Centre George Pompidou, Paris; AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko.
In the case of the United States and its neoliberal allies, the guiding principle has always been containment, which is implicit constriction when played out over several decades. This policy was originally formulated by George Keenan in 1947. Kennan was a shadowy figure, part academic and part spook, undeniably the major influence on the brothers John Foster Dulles and Allan Dulles when they founded the CIA and the Cold War that it was designed to fight. Keenan famously wrote that “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”
Since that time, the same policy has also been applied to China, and is now being applied to Iran, which may or may not be a proxy actor for China. The current stalemate in Ukraine can be understood as a fight over the keystone of the European containment zone (not too long ago, East Germany was that keystone), while Taiwan is perfectly positioned as the keystone of the eastern Pacific containment zone. All of it is a powder keg awaiting the dangerous possibility that Donald Trump could be elected the next President of the United States. If that were to occur, you can bet on an increase in American bellicosity toward China even as Ukraine would be handed to Vladimir Putin on a silver platter.