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

Historians believe that Roosevelt would have had a reasonably good chance of getting the Republican nomination and winning the election in 1920 at the age of 62 if he had not died unexpectedly in 1919. The prospect of another Roosevelt presidency probably would have convinced Lodge not to scuttle the League of Nations. And while even as charismatic a leader as Roosevelt would have had a difficult time rousing America from its isolationism, he would have pursued as vigorous and assertive a foreign policy as possible. No doubt he would not have withdrawn American forces from Europe in response to France's occupation of the Ruhr valley in 1923. And no doubt he would have made major investments in aircraft, tanks and aircraft carriers. Probably he would have withdrawn U.S. troops from the Philippines.

Lessons of Principle

Roosevelt's world is a very different one from our own. The Spanish-American War ushered in a relatively brief period in America's history when it had become a major power but still had to relate to the other powers as an equal. Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt had to worry more about Germany and Japan projecting their power to the Americas and Hawaii than about using American power on the Eurasian landmass. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that faced with a situation of approximate parity, Roosevelt pursued a realist foreign policy. Might not contemporary observers argue that TR's policy of relative caution as president is less relevant for a superpower?

Yet Roosevelt's policy towards Europe is still relevant. Roosevelt believed that as an island power, America's "natural" ally was Britain, which together with a France that was slowly becoming a midsize power, could counter-balance the strongest continental powers, Germany and Russia. Today, America's interest is still to counter periodically the strongest continental powers, the Franco-German partnership, and Russia. The Iraq War underscored that the medium-sized states surrounding the Franco-German partnership will probably continue to be the more reliable U.S. partners.

Similarly, Roosevelt's Asia policy remains relevant today and may be even more so in the future. Already, American attitudes towards China are similar to Roosevelt's views of Japan after the Russo-Japanese war: a combination of respect, wariness and rivalry. As China's power grows over the decades, the United States may want to emulate TR's willingness to accommodate a rising power--in his case, Japan--when necessary, while seeking clear military superiority. The United States may also want to accommodate a growing India in order to draw it more closely into a circle of partners concerned with China, just as Britain did with the United States during the 1890s.

One principle that has not changed since Roosevelt's presidency is the need to combine assertiveness, and sometimes ruthlessness, with a sense of limits: For power to remain powerful, it must be combined with moderation. The mature Roosevelt, the supreme realist, sought a balance of power in Europe and Asia and used ruthlessness to create Panama, but in a careful manner for important interests. At the same time, he came to realize that taking the Philippines had been a mistake. In doing so, he rejected the facile expansionist Anglo-Saxonism of his youth, a policy based on vague values, in favor of a political realism that focused on tangible national interests. And while Roosevelt was always an intense nationalist, he was sensitive to the differing interests of others and never took those differences personally. The young, somewhat bumptious "cowboy" ended his career as a statesman who spoke with measured courtesy, used guile and flattery, and prepared America to crush those who would not listen.

Essay Types: Essay