The slang term “saber rattling” is used to describe shows of military force, and also more generally to any exchange of threats and posturings, especially in politics. As a general rule, people use this term critically, often to refer to actions by foreign governments which are meant to carry implied threats. You may also hear the term in the context of high-powered business dealings.
This phrase is a reference to the saber, a type of sword which was once carried by all high-ranking military officers. Officers might threaten to draw their swords in a variety of situations, and in some cultures, officers would rattle their sabers in their scabbards to underscore the message of threat. Although sabers are typically only used ceremonially today, the concept of saber rattling lives on.
Saber rattling can take a number of forms. For example, a country could publicize military exercises and other shows of force, such as test detonations of new weapons systems. In some cases, nations may even get together to engage in some saber rattling; members of NATO, for example, often perform joint exercises both for the purpose of training and to remind people of the power of the organization. Saber rattling can also appear in speeches made by heads of state, or in the form of blatant movements of troops and supplies.
In politics, saber rattling often appears in the form of thinly veiled threats which may or may not be carried out. Many political candidates engage in saber rattling in an attempt to spook each other, with the hopes of flushing out an embarrassing action or statement from an opponent. Many politicians utilize a variety of threatening techniques in debates and public forums to undermine their opponents.
Some people consider saber rattling an empty threat, implying that in the case of a serious threat, the saber would of course be withdrawn from its scabbard. However, it could also be viewed as a warning, especially when it is carried out by a country with the intention of sending a message to an opposing nation. A decisive show of military force could encourage a nation to reconsider plans of invasion, for example, thereby saving both parties the grief of an actual military action. Intimidation tactics can also be used for the purpose of manipulation, in an attempt to get a country to capitulate to the terms of a particular treaty or trade agreement.