The essential paradox underlying Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy and lessons for the modern world

Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy was based on a fundamental contradiction.  He believed in right and wrong, but understood that in the real world might all too frequently makes right whatever we may wish.  The tension between the two during World War I and the potential outcomes that may arise serve as lessons for today.

Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy was both simple and complex, much like the man himself.  At times, he was called an imperialist and a war monger, hellbent on extending the American empire far beyond North American shores.  Some even accused him of wanting to invade Canada.  There was some truth to this.  Roosevelt engineered the expulsion of the Spanish from the Philippines while he was Secretary of the Navy, and continued to operate the country as an American territory throughout his Presidency.  As President, he deployed US troops to Panama under somewhat flimsy legal reasoning to support the overthrow of the Colombian government, setting up Panama as an independent country to facilitate building the famous canal, a project he considered vital for the entire world.  At the same time, he was rightfully proud of his peacekeeping record and had succeeded in bringing independence to Cuba.  As he put it in an editorial during the early days of World War I, “I ask those individuals who think of me as a firebrand to remember that during the seven and half years I was President not a shot was fired at any soldier of any hostile nation, and there was not much of a threat of war.”  At issue was the United State’s neutrality policy at the outset of hostilities in Europe.  In principle, both Roosevelt and the current President, Woodrow Wilson, believed that the war was a European problem and America should not get directly involved.  In practice, that meant something radically different to each of them, so much so that Roosevelt ultimately came to be seen as Wilson’s chief detractor, savaging the President in print and speeches as the war escalated.

Independent of any specific policy, Roosevelt’s feelings on the war were complicated and conflicted in and of themselves.  He understood the horror, but also believed the conflict was inevitable given the constant competition between the major powers involved, Britain, France, Germany, a failing Austria-Hungary, and a Russia desperate to remain relevant.  In that sense, he described it as “grand and noble,” where the great nations of the world were “facing the supreme test of their history.”  He was variously accused of taking different sides, some saying he was a Francophile and Anglo-American in cahoots with France and Britain, others that he was cheerleading for the Germans.  He rejected those accusations, saying “England is not my motherland anymore than Germany is my fatherland.  My motherland and my fatherland are my own land and all three of them the United States.”  He knew that atrocities were being committed by the Germans, had heard reports of children with their hands cut off, and was greatly troubled by it, but neither did he feel any country had a claim to moral superiority once bullets started flying, knowing it will also be the case that “some thousands of unspeakable creatures will commit unspeakable acts.”  Britain had put the Irish through “frightful atrocities.”  The French and the Russians were abominable in China, and in the United States, “I have known Americans who do unspeakable acts against the Indians.”  If there was one country he sympathized with first and foremost, believing they had more moral standing than all others, it was Belgium which had been invaded by Germany without provocation, simply as a means for the German Army to march to France.  Roosevelt had a keen appreciation for the rights of a nation state, and believed that even smaller states without massive militaries served a valuable purpose worthy of respect.  “There could be no higher international duty than to safeguard the existence and independence of industrious, orderly states with a high personal and national standard of conduct, but without the military force of great powers.” Thus, he believed that Belgium’s suffering demanded some form of US engagement which Wilson was not providing.

Ironically, these practical differences with Wilson arose from a fundamentally different set of principles through which both President’s viewed the world.  So radical were these differences, Roosevelt actually accused Wilson and his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, of “living in a world of two dimensions, and not in the actual workaday world, which has three dimensions.”  How could two men who generally shared progressive principles regarding domestic policy and who nominally embraced the same neutrality policy come to see things so differently?  In a sense, the very nature of the men themselves made this inevitable.  Wilson was an academic, a writer and a former President of Princeton University, an expert at many things in the theoretical sense.  Roosevelt, by comparison, was a man defined mostly by action.  He was learned and had contributed much to a wide array of fields from history to zoology, but at heart he was an adventurer.  From an early age, this practical spirit taught him that the “readiness is all” to use Hamlet’s great quote.  Preparedness in his mind was fundamental to achieving success, be it an expedition into the unexplored territory of the Amazon rainforest (which he completed in 1913, covering over a thousand miles of uncharted territory and almost losing his life) or international relations.  Indeed, his entire career in international relations was largely defined by preparing for the worst possible outcome, from building up the Navy while he was in the War Department under President William McKinley to sending the entire fleet around the world for the first time in human history at the end of his Presidency.  In his mind, no military expenditure was too large because the appearance of power alone served a deterrent effect and if war did ultimately break out, it’s always better to have more assets than less.

Roosevelt could not help but ponder a dreadful scenario whereby major US cities would be exposed to attack and how readily the rest of the world would embrace a policy of neutrality in response.  He likened the outbreak of the war to the sinking of the Titanic two years earlier.  “One moment the great ship was speeding across the ocean, equipped with every device for comfort, safety, and luxury…Suddenly, in one awful and shattering moment, death smote the floating host, so busy with work and play.”  Roosevelt believed that a single catastrophic blow to the United States’ Navy could leave San Francisco or New York defenseless, the same as the Belgian city of Louvain, recently savaged by the Germans, literally burned to dust.  “Under such circumstances, outside powers would undoubtedly remain neutral exactly as we have remained neutral as regards Belgium.”  Wilson, however, believed US defenses could be prepared on as needed basis.  The current army was about the size of Persia’s (approximately 81,000 men), but our vast population meant that millions of men could be called up practically on a moment’s notice.  Roosevelt publicly mocked this reasoning, keenly aware that millions had died in Europe in the first few months of the war, quoting the Secretary of State’s version of the policy.  “The President knows that if this country needed a million men, and needed them in a day, the call would go out at sunrise and the sun would go down on a million men in arms.”  A supporter of Wilson in the Senate said that the United States could easily field ten times that number.  Roosevelt replied, “If the senator’s ten million men sprang to arms at this moment, they would have at the outside some four hundred thousand modern rifles at which to spring.  Perhaps six hundred thousand more could spring to squirrel pieces and fairly good shotguns.  The remaining nine million men would have to spring to axes, scythes, hand-saws, gimlets, and similar arms.”

This idea of peace through strength as it would come to be known later in the century was founded on yet more philosophical and practical grounds.  The practical is obvious:  Righteousness must be backed by force to be effective, and the international tribunal at the Hague in his day lacked the ability to act as it does in ours.  He imagined something stronger that could police the world with the consent of sovereign nations.  The “posse comitatus,” consisting of neutral nations with the power to wage war.  At the same time, Roosevelt rightly recognized the inherent duality in the idea of righteous or moral actions, which he considered to be necessary for an orderly world, and the simple fact that far too often than we like, might ultimately makes right.  He believed it “impossible that any many can fail to feel the deepest sympathy with a nation which is absolutely not guilty of wrongdoing,” but that national interests, especially when engaged in a war, would ultimately trump moral concerns.  A country will justify its actions one way or another, the same as a person would.  A century earlier, Britain had no qualms about violating Denmark’s neutrality and sovereignty while battling Napoleon, nor did Americans much care about Spain’s rights in Florida in the same time period.  If “the same is true of our conduct toward Spain in Florida” and it is true “with less excuse” than the current situation, what other principle prevails than “the supreme law of national self-preservation” whatever the theorists may say?

This is where Roosevelt the man of action could only reject Wilson, the man of talk.  Merely talking about peace, in his view, was never going to end the conflict and would likely lead to more violence.  To achieve true peace, more direct intervention was required.  Roosevelt, at least in 1915, did not believe that intervention had to mean military force, but even an attempt at mediating a settlement was doomed to fail if the parties involved believed you lacked the will to act.  He was appalled that Wilson had not issued so much as a strongly worded letter, much less done something meaningful about the unprovoked attack on Belgium in particular.  “President Wilson has been much applauded by all the professional pacifists because he has announced that our desire for peace must make us secure it for ourselves by a neutrality so strict as to forbid our even whispering a protest against wrong-doing, less such whispers might cause disturbance to our ease and well-being.  We pay the penalty of this action – or rather, supine inaction – by forfeiting the right to do anything on behalf of peace for the Belgians at present.”  Roosevelt concluded that the desire for peace at all costs was an immoral position, one that was born primarily out of fear of the threat to our own lifestyle, railing against those “living softly and at ease,” and which cost us any ability to meaningfully intervene.  “For us to assume superior virtues in the face of the war-warn nations of the Old World will not make us more acceptable to them as mediators…Untried men who live at ease would do well to remember that there is a certain sublimity in Milton’s defeated archangel, but none whatever in the spirits who kept neutral, who remained at peace, and dared side neither with hell nor with heaven.”

In our own day, war rages in Europe once more.  A nation has invaded another without provocation, and there remain no easy answers because the fundamental paradox underlying Roosevelt’s foreign policy is irreconcilable.  What can truly be done in a world where might makes right and only might can right any wrongs?  This does not mean there are no lessons to be learned.  President Biden and the broader establishment have not repeated Wilson’s mistake of refusing to pick a side and attempting to remain strictly neutral, but they have made its opposite.  They have picked a side with no plan to secure the peace, and have therefore eliminated our ability to serve as mediators to end the conflict, effectively reducing our sphere of action to a course of total victory on behalf of the Ukrainians.  This may be the most desirable outcome, but by alienating Russia and refusing to recognize that they have legitimate grievances both over contested, Russian speaking portions of Ukraine and NATO’s ever westward March, we have lost all credibility as a peacekeeping force and instead assumed the role of an aggressor in a proxy war.  China is already positioning itself as a potential mediator in our place, and if they should succeed in brokering a deal, the entire balance of power in the region will shift.  We have done this without any real plan to achieve our objectives save to continually escalate our investment, even as there are many indications that Ukraine is not likely to prevail.  As a by-product of this policy, we have reduced our own stockpiles of munitions, missiles, and other necessary equipment, weakening our ability to respond to another potential threat lest we send men and women to war with hand-axes and scythes as Roosevelt mocked.  This will not likely matter if Russia is defeated in Ukraine, but what if they are not as seems increasingly likely?  In that case, the United States will have simultaneously lost the proxy war and be in the weakest military position in recent memory, all in a world where Russia is not the only country with designs on their neighbor.  Roosevelt’s Titanic analogy still rings true.  We in our ease and our splendor have blithely pursued a course that could lead directly to a collision with an iceberg, and we have done so based on the establishment belief that morality demands it.  Whether for peace or for war, the end result is the same. In his day, morality demanded peace and neutrality.  Today, it demands a defense of democracy.  In both, the end result can be equivalent.  The current President is just as readily “living in a world of two dimensions, and not in the actual workaday world, which has three dimensions.”  The choice before is not simply victory or defeat, war or peace.  It is the third dimension of what comes after if our policy fails.


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