The Realistic Roosevelt

The Realistic Roosevelt

Mini Teaser: As president, Teddy Roosevelt was not the Bull Moose of his earlier years. His prudence and respect for the balance of power are a model for any future president.

by Author(s): Tom Parker

Theodore Roosevelt's foreign policy career lends itself easily both to hagiography and hostile caricature--particularly in a presidential election year. American advocates of the robust use of military force to deal with current challenges ranging from the terror threat to China often cite Roosevelt as a model statesman who wielded military power unapologetically and unilaterally for the sake of the national interest and thus see TR as the precursor of "national greatness conservatism." His swagger is best captured in his ultimatum to the kidnapping of an American citizen, Ion Perdicaris, by Ahmad ibn Muhammad Raisuli, a Moroccan warlord: "We want Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead." Carving Panama out of Columbia, winning a difficult counter-insurgency campaign in the Philippines, and warning Japan with the display of the Great White Fleet were successful policies that can guide the conduct of a second Bush Administration or any other.

In contrast, liberal detractors are uniformly critical of Roosevelt's perceived arrogance. For example, his aggressive policies in Central America fostered an anti-Americanism that bedeviled U.S. relations with the region through to the 1980s. He (and by implication President George W. Bush) belongs to the 19th-century age of imperialism with its black-and-white verities rather than to the more complicated, multilateral world of today.

While there is some truth to both of these images before he became president, Roosevelt in office preferred to "speak softly and carry a big stick" rather than make good on the braggadocio of his younger days. He carved out Panama as a last resort, not a first; regretted the annexation of the Philippines; and sought to accommodate, as well as to warn, Japan. Thus the lessons that Roosevelt has to impart for today are those of a statesman who combined periodic audacity with methodical political realism.

Early Years

The "unilateralist" advocates of Roosevelt can certainly cite his early years to buttress their case. While initially a sickly, asthmatic boy, Roosevelt took up boxing lessons as a teenager to stop other boys from picking on him. By his twenties, he had developed a reputation as a walking battering ram, who once leaped off a horse out west "into a pack of hounds, kicked them aside and knifed a cougar to death." Not surprisingly, this combative and self-confident Roosevelt shared the prevailing Victorian political ideology of "Anglo-Saxonism", the belief that European peoples, and particularly North Americans and Britons, had a right and duty to expand throughout the world to spread their superior institutions and values.

Roosevelt and his expansionist friends, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, lobbied successfully for his appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy after McKinley's victory in 1896--despite McKinley's views that TR was too pugnacious. Coming to office several years into the Cuban insurgency, TR's top priority was expelling Spain from the Americas, but he had to contend with a variety of naval war plans on how to do it. In the event of war, the Office of Naval Intelligence advocated an attack on not only Cuba but also the Philippines to force a Spanish war indemnity and to tie down their fleet. The Naval War College planned for a defensive coastal war if Britain joined Spain in defending Cuba, but an attack against Spain itself if Britain stayed out. Typically, TR favored the most aggressive option--attacking Spanish forces more or less everywhere.

The relatively easy, six-week war produced euphoria, even hubris, which bolstered those, including Roosevelt, who wanted to annex the Philippines from Spain. What was missing was an analysis about the islands' intrinsic importance and whether the United States could defend them (not to mention Wake Island and Guam, which were also taken), against a rising Japan. The predominant temper of the times, the expansionist "Anglo-Saxonism", resulted in a decision that Roosevelt would come to regret deeply.

Roosevelt as President

As president, Roosevelt would move beyond the simple bromides of Anglo-Saxonism, which saw expansionism as an end in itself. While he would sometimes resort to bold and even ruthless "unilateralism", as he did in creating the Panama Canal, his main focus was encouraging a favorable balance of power in Europe and Asia through diplomacy that recognized the limits as well as the possibilities of growing American power.

Europe: Roosevelt's growing sophistication was demonstrated by his changing attitude towards Great Britain. In 1895, Britain, recognizing that it was over-extended in the face of a more powerful Germany, adopted a conciliatory strategy towards the United States during the boundary dispute between British Guyana and Venezuela (an example of a strategic change of direction in response to an incident of intrinsically minor importance). During the Spanish-American War, Britain, as part of this new strategy, sold coal and ships to the U.S. Navy and allowed Dewey to communicate with Washington via the undersea cable in Hong Kong--not unlike the low-profile support that the United States was to provide Britain during the Falklands War. As a result, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt approved the Naval War College's decision to hold its last war-gaming exercises involving Britain as a potential adversary in 1899.

Roosevelt's increasingly positive views about Britain were reflected in his attitude towards the Boer War (1899-1902). While he felt that "American values" favored the underdog Boers, he knew that his country's interests favored the British, and as someone who was now increasingly a geopolitical realist, he ranked the strategic pursuit of American interests as his top priority: "If the British Empire suffers a serious disaster [in the Boer War], I believe in five years it will mean a war between us and one of the continental European military nations", he wrote to a British friend. Thus, by the time Roosevelt became president, he had given up his youthful musings about expelling Britain from Canada.

In another sign of growing maturity, Roosevelt took a relatively conciliatory approach to one of his first foreign policy challenges, the Alaska Boundary Dispute. This border dispute between the United States and Canada, which had developed with the discovery of gold in the 1890s, came to a head in 1902. After Roosevelt concluded that he could no longer ignore the issue, he sent U.S. troops to the border, but "as quietly and unostentatiously as possible." He also agreed to the British idea of an arbitration tribunal and rejected the more hawkish Lodge's advice to break off negotiations with London. A tribunal eventually ruled in America's favor, thereby removing an important obstacle to the growing U.S.-British rapprochement. By the end of his presidency, Britain was sharing detailed military intelligence with Roosevelt and the U.S. Navy on its new Dreadnought-class battleships to ensure that America would keep abreast of the latest technical developments. As a result of TR's moderate stance towards Britain's interests in North America, the United States gained a new international partner.

Roosevelt would also come to conclude by the time of his presidency that Germany had become the most serious potential threat to U.S. interests. As a result, he took a hard but subtle line toward German assertiveness during the Moroccan Crisis of 1905-06, when Berlin pushed for a role in governing Morocco in order to undermine the French-British entente of 1904 by demonstrating that London would not risk war to support Paris. Privately, Roosevelt supported the French position and urged Britain not to waiver. He flattered the kaiser's "restraint" in their correspondence while warning the German ambassador that he might regretfully have to publish selected letters. Throughout the confrontation, Roosevelt hardly acted as the blustery "cowboy" of the Spanish-American War period.

Asia: Though Roosevelt believed in maintaining a balance of power in Asia, the region presented a difficulty not found in Europe: The title of dominant power was constantly changing hands. Before becoming president, Roosevelt initially was most concerned with Germany after friction over Samoa in 1889. His concerns shifted towards Japan after it sent a cruiser to Honolulu in response to the expulsion of a thousand Japanese illegal immigrants in 1897. His focus would then shift to Russia, which moved its military forces into Manchuria in 1901.

As a result, Roosevelt was initially pleased with Japan's military victory over Russia at Port Arthur in 1904. At the same time, Roosevelt wrote to Lodge that he wanted a balance of power between these strongest Asian powers:

"While Russia's triumph would have been a blow to civilization, her destruction as an eastern Asiatic power would also in my opinion be unfortunate. It is best that she should be left face to face with Japan so that each may have a moderative action on the other."

After months of mediation, Russia accepted his advice that it give up its attempts to recapture its lost territory, and Japan abandoned its insistence on an indemnity, thereby ending the war and winning him America's first Nobel Peace Prize.

With Japan firmly established as the leading naval power in the western Pacific, Roosevelt reacted with scrupulous public respect, diplomatic accommodation and subtle military threat. When a period of tension erupted after the California legislature segregated white and Japanese students in the San Francisco school system in 1906, Roosevelt publicly criticized the legislature's actions and informed the Japanese that they did not represent those of the U.S. government. Roosevelt also sought to accommodate Japan's rising power by not challenging its new presence in Korea or its probing in southern Manchuria. Roosevelt subsequently wrote to Taft:

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