President Theodore Roosevelt was fond of quoting the African proverb, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” 

For Roosevelt, the big stick was the U.S. Navy, which he deployed frequently to underscore that America’s words were not empty – and that its interests would be defended. 

Neither he nor the United States invented what’s known as “gunboat diplomacy.” Egyptian ruler Ramses III likely employed it before and after he engaged in the first recorded naval battle in 1186 B.C. Many seafaring powers followed suit in the intervening centuries – especially the United States. Throughout America’s history, presidents have used this unique form of statecraft to promote the national interest and preserve some semblance of international order – all without going to war or actually using the big stick.

MESSAGES A good definition of gunboat diplomacy is any deployment of military assets or implied use of them – gunboat diplomacy is not solely the province of the Navy – intended to coerce or persuade an adversary to alter its behavior. The operative words are “deployment” and “implied.” Once military assets are used in anger, once bombs start flying, gunboat diplomacy has passed from the threat of war into actual war – and has failed. 

A Congressional Research Service tally of U.S. military deployments since the nation’s founding includes dozens of maneuvers and shows of force aimed at securing U.S. interests without going to war. The first of these dates to 1815, when Commodore Stephen Decatur’s naval squadron conducted maneuvers off Tunis and Tripoli, securing indemnities for offenses during the War of 1812. Other examples include naval maneuvers off the Ivory Coast to discourage piracy (1843), near Turkey “to remind the authorities of the power of the United States” (1850s), around Japan to enforce treaties (1850s and 1860s) and in Haiti to gain the release of a captured ship (1888).

Roosevelt elevated gunboat diplomacy into an art form. While there are many examples of him brandishing the big stick, two stand out. 

The first came in 1902-1903. After Venezuela’s failure to make good on its debt payments, German and British warships began prowling the Caribbean – and threatening America’s special role in this hemisphere. Historian Edmund Morris captures Roosevelt’s sentiment: “If Germany and Britain wanted to splash in the same water, they must play by American rules.” 

The rules would be enforced by the Navy. Roosevelt dispatched 53 warships to the region. Knowing that Britain and Germany had just 29 ships in the region – and that Britain had no desire for war with America – he gave Germany 10 days to pull back. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, Roosevelt privately explained to a German emissary, the U.S. armada was there on routine, preplanned maneuvers. But he warned, “If Germany took any action that looked like the acquisition of territory in Venezuela or elsewhere in the Caribbean ... I should be obliged to interfere, by force if necessary.” The kaiser got the message and backed down.  

Morris also recounts the strange story of Ion Perdicaris, an on-again-off-again American citizen who had been kidnapped by Moroccan warlord Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli. After Roosevelt dispatched seven warships to the Moroccan coast, his secretary of state issued a blunt telegram: “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” The Moroccan government, pressured by the gunboats, found a way to free Perdicaris.   

As he approached the coastal city of Tangier, Perdicaris caught a glimpse of the source of his regained freedom: “the mastheads of Adm. (F.E.) Chadwick’s ships.” Overcome with emotion, he whispered a quiet prayer of thanks for “that flag ... that people ... that president ... those frigates.” 

After the world wars, when gunboats were used for combat rather than diplomacy, President Harry Truman returned to Roosevelt’s playbook – albeit with a new kind of “gunboat.” During Stalin’s blockade of West Berlin, Truman deployed nuclear-capable B-29 bombers to Europe to bolster the Berlin Airlift – and send a signal to Moscow.

In 1950, Truman dispatched the 7th Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to prevent the two Chinas from attacking each other.

Likewise, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered warships to the waters around Taiwan, this time to protect Taiwan after mainland forces began shelling Taiwanese territory. He also updated gunboat diplomacy for the nuclear age, with what came to be called “atomic diplomacy.” 

In 1953, Eisenhower effectively ended the Korean War by warning the Chinese he was prepared “to expand the war outside of Korea” and “use the atomic bomb.” In 1955, he suggested he was willing to use atomic weapons to defend Taiwan. He underlined the strategic-deterrence concept known as “massive retaliation” by deploying 36 percent of America’s hydrogen bombs and 42 percent of its atomic bombs overseas – and expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal 18-fold during his presidency. Eisenhower’s steely response to Khrushchev’s boast about the Red Army’s overwhelming conventional edge in Germany captured the essence of his updated version of gunboat diplomacy: “If you attack us in Germany,” Eisenhower explained, “there will be nothing conventional about our response.” Khrushchev got the message.  

When Soviet nuclear-missile bases were discovered in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy used gunboat diplomacy to avert war and denuclearize the island. More than 60 warships were dispatched to the waters around Cuba. Ninety nuclear-armed B-52s began round-the-clock orbits over the Atlantic. As historian Paul Johnson details, “800 B-47s, 550 B-52s and 70 B-58s were prepared with bomb-bays closed for immediate takeoff.” Moscow blinked.

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, after Brezhnev threatened unilateral Soviet intervention, the United States “responded by putting its nuclear forces on worldwide alert,” a State Department report explains. The Soviets were “utterly shocked,” as a Nixon Foundation analysis recounts. That, of course, was the Nixon administration’s intent. Moscow got the message and, again, backed down. 

Four months before he unleashed Operation Desert Storm, President George H.W. Bush hoped a massive deployment of U.S. military assets to the Gulf would persuade Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. “Perhaps your leaders do not appreciate the strength of the forces united against them,” he explained to the Iraqi people and military. “Let me say clearly: There is no way Iraq can win ... Iraq must withdraw from Kuwait.” 

As if to underline the point, a Time magazine article featuring photos of the president and America’s gathering naval firepower was headlined “Read My Ships.” Alas, death-wish dictators are seldom persuaded by the mere threat of force.

To show its displeasure with Taiwan’s first direct democratic presidential elections and with Washington’s willingness to allow Taiwan’s president to visit the United States, China launched a flurry of missile drills in the Taiwan Strait in 1995-1996. In response, President Bill Clinton sent the carriers Independence and Nimitz to the region. The latter even transited the Taiwan Strait – the first time a U.S. aircraft carrier had done so since 1979. The missile drills ended, Taiwan held its elections and war was averted.  

Most Americans know about the 1993 gun battle in Mogadishu, which claimed 18 U.S. servicemembers. What’s less well-known is how the Clinton administration secured the release of captured U.S. helicopter pilot Michael Durant. 

As Mark Bowden details in “Black Hawk Down,” Somali warlord Farrah Aidid demanded the United States free 70 of his men in exchange for Durant. In response, Washington sent veteran diplomat Robert Oakley to Mogadishu to paint a picture for Aidid’s interlocutors: “Just look at the stuff coming in here now,” Oakley observed. “An aircraft carrier, tanks, gunships .... The minute the guns start again, all restraint on the U.S. side goes. Once the fighting starts, all this pent-up anger is going to be released. This whole part of the city will be destroyed – men, women, children, camels, cats, dogs, goats, donkeys, everything,” he matter-of-factly explained. “That would really be tragic.” 

Aidid agreed to release Durant “immediately.”  

DETERRENCE Gunboat diplomacy remains a tool of U.S. statecraft in the 21st century. In 2004, the Pentagon simultaneously surged seven carrier strike groups into five theaters of operation. When asked if the global exercise was designed to send any signals, an admiral coyly responded, 

“I think that’s advantageous.” The Navy reprised the feat in late 2017, sending seven supercarriers to sea, with three carriers – Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz – exercising together in the Western Pacific. 

In 2015, two days after Beijing flew bomber aircraft near Taiwan’s airspace, a pair of Marine Corps F-18s landed in Taiwan – the first such landing in 30 years. In 2018, after People’s Republic of China warships conducted drills near Taiwan, a U.S. Navy vessel made a surprising stop to refuel in Taiwan. The Pentagon said the unexpected visit by American F-18s was due to “a mechanical issue.” Taiwan’s military insisted the Navy drop-in was “unrelated to military activity.” But given the timing, it seems Washington was sending a message: Taiwan is not alone.  

In response to China’s construction of illegal islands in international waters, the Obama and Trump administrations ordered U.S. warships to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations around the islands. Not coincidentally, 2018 saw U.S. aircraft carriers make eyebrow-raising stops in Vietnam (the first since 1975) and the Philippines (the first since 2014).  

The Air Force also brandishes the big stick. As part of its “continuous bomber presence,” the Air Force has been flying B-52s above the South China Sea since 2004 to maintain open skies and prevent Beijing’s de facto annexation of international airspace and seaspace.  

In 2009, B-52s flew from Guam to Australia, F-22s deployed from Alaska to Guam and Japan, and B-2s were dispatched to Alaska in high-profile shows of force. In 2013, when China declared an air-defense identification zone over a vast swath of the East China Sea, Washington sent a flight of B-52s through the area to enforce freedom of the skies. Likewise, in 2015, B-52s flew within two miles of the “Made in China” islands to reject Beijing’s illegal claims. 

Much of the Air Force equivalent of gunboat diplomacy in the Pacific is directed at North Korea:  

When North Korea began threatening war in early 2013, Washington deployed F-22s to South Korea and sent B-2s on unusually – and purposely – high-profile maneuvers over the peninsula.  

The Obama administration deployed B-2s to Guam in 2015, and flew B-52s over South Korea in 2016.  

In 2016, Air Force officials made a point of noting that a B-1B’s “low-level flight near the DMZ” was “the closest a Lancer has ever flown to the border of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and North Korea.” It also marked the first time in 20 years B-1Bs had landed in South Korea.

Only twice in history – in August 2016 and January 2018 – have B-52s, B-2s and B-1Bs deployed to Guam at the same time. 

In 2017, B-1Bs flew from Guam to South Korea, where they conducted bombing drills alongside U.S. F-35s and South Korean F-15s “two to three times a month,” according to ROK defense officials. 

In December 2017, a week after North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, the United States and ROK conducted joint drills involving 230 warplanes, including long-range bombers and stealth fighter-bombers. 

Ahead of the 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea, the Air Force deployed three B-2s to Guam in a deterrent signal to North Korea. 

In response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Washington rushed F-15s and F-16s to the Baltics and Poland. B-52s and B-2s deployed to Britain. F-22s were dispatched to Britain, Poland, Lithuania and Romania. A strike force of 16 B-52s and B-2s conducted strategic exercises. And Exercise Polar Roar sent B-2s and B-52s on nonstop flights over the Northern Pacific, Arctic and Baltic Sea. 

Again in 2017, B-2s, B-1Bs and B-52s deployed to Britain “to demonstrate ... flexible global-strike capability,” the Air Force explained.  

Jim Lewis of the U.S. Naval Institute and Robby Harris of the Naval War College note that a mid-2018 deployment of the USS Harry Truman carrier strike group “sent a message to Iran and our partners .... Then, in a very unexpected move, Truman left the Mediterranean to operate in the North Atlantic ... to send a signal to the Russians.”  

Land-based units also conduct a kind of gunboat diplomacy. The Pentagon returned heavy armor to Europe in 2014 as a message to Moscow: crossing this line means you are going to war against the United States – no ambiguity or doubts about the consequences. That certainty of response – the promise that the costs of aggression will be greater than any potential benefits – is the essence of deterrence, and it works.

WHITTLED Gunboat diplomacy is the power of persuasion on an international scale. Like their predecessors, Presidents Obama and Trump have employed it to defend U.S. interests, promote a liberal international order, reassure allies and deter foes. The Trump administration credits “our campaign of maximum pressure” – all that saber-rattling around North Korea – with “creating the appropriate atmosphere for dialogue with North Korea.” 

To be effective, gunboat diplomacy requires guns and boats – and planes, tanks and personnel. Regrettably, sequestration hacked away at these precious resources. A Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments study notes that in constant dollars, defense spending fell by nearly one-fourth between 2010 and 2015. 

As a result, the Army’s active-duty end strength by 2016 was smaller than it was on the eve of 9/11.  The Air Force is “the smallest and oldest it has ever been,” the branch reports. In 2016, after five years of sequestration, Marine aviation units were forced to salvage parts from museums.  

By the end of 2016, the Navy had only 275 ships, down from 316 on 9/11. The fleet’s current size isn’t close to America’s maritime needs. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert observes, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.” 

Recent defense budgets have ended sequestration’s maiming of the military. However, a couple of budget cycles are not enough to repair the damage. “It took us years to get into this situation,” Defense Secretary James Mattis concludes. “It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.”

In the interim, presidents will have to make do with a whittled-down big stick. 

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