It’s almost too obvious to mention: The planes crashed into the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and fields of Pennsylvania, and George W. Bush’s foreign policy shifted drastically. As a presidential candidate in the 2000 election, Governor Bush held fast to the Republican line that America should take a realist approach to its foreign affairs. “The vice president and I have a disagreement about the use of troops,” candidate Bush intoned in the 2000 debates. “He believes in nation-building. I would be very careful about using our troops as nation-builders. I believe the role of the military is to fight and win war.” In this view, America does not go abroad, in the oft-cited words of John Quincy Adams, “in search of monsters to destroy.”
This realist line was in part a reaction to the actions of the Clinton administration. The immediacy of Clinton’s mistakes or perceived mistakes made it expedient to contrast Bush’s stand with his predecessor’s, but it should be remembered that the ascendance of realism in Republican circles predated the Clinton presidency.
It had come about in the later years of Vietnam, when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sought a way to win the Cold War without getting America mired in small fights around the world. Even with the United States disgusted with foreign affairs because of the mess in Vietnam, the American people did not become pacifist, far from it. The Republicans needed a tough line; realism fit the bill.
Realism had the added benefit of being the apparent opposite of the Democrats’ favored foreign policy tradition: idealism. Modern American idealism (or liberalism or liberal internationalism), the story goes, was laid out by President Woodrow Wilson in the dark years of the First World War. Wilson offered a way out, a way to escape the utter devastation of modern war. The position reached its fullest exposition in Wilson’s ill-fated peace plan, the Fourteen Points. Most of the points dealt with the specifics of territories at play in the war, but the overall platform committed America to open markets, free seas, disarmament, decolonization, self-determination for all nations, and internationalism. This last point had special importance for the former professor. Point after point disappeared in the peace talks at Versailles, but Wilson held on with white knuckles to his ideal: “A general association of nations must
be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” He got his League of Nations.
Unfortunately for him, he did not get the United States into the League. Isolationists at home blocked American entry. But a new worldview was born, and like so much else about these United States, the next war, America’s great war, brought forth its true importance. The lesson of World War II was that the United States could no longer afford to stand aloof while the rest of the world ate itself up. President Franklin Roosevelt looked to his Democratic predecessor for the answer, and espoused Wilsonian internationalism, idealism, as the foundation of America’s new foreign policy. The United Nations was born.
Republicans faced a serious problem: The American public, nearly all veterans or families of veterans, had learned the lessons of Munich and would no longer accept isolationism (read appeasement) as a viable aspect of American foreign policy. The specter of a new totalitarianism, the Soviet Union’s, made the retreat into isolation all the more impossible. Not that some Republicans didn’t try, led by the indefatigable Senator Robert A. Taft. But Taft-style isolationism clearly had lost its appeal, and the Republicans found themselves grasping for a response to the newfound aggressiveness of the Democrats. The result was internationalism with the claim that we can do it cheaper, and Republican luminaries with names like Vandenberg and, yes, Eisenhower essentially supported the foreign policies of Roosevelt and Truman. Wilsonianism triumphant.
Then came Vietnam, Nixon, Kissinger, and realism. The failure of internationalism in southeast Asia meant that it was time for Democrats to flounder for a viable foreign policy, leading them to flirt with the radical socialism of the New Left. The new problem was that both parties found themselves hemmed in by definitions.
In true post-World War II fashion, when the United States believed science and technology could solve all of its problems, the social scientists set the terms. Foreign policy and diplomacy defined international relations. Idealism and realism became rigid theories. Flow charts, graphs, and rubrics forced positions into well-defined boxes: Democrats = idealists; Republicans = realists. Isolationists, socialists, and world government types existed on the extremes, while idealism and realism were the only acceptable and widely understood positions on foreign policy. Democrat Woodrow Wilson had provided the idealistic response to Republican Theodore Roosevelt’s realist pursuit of America’s imperial interests. Realist George H.W. Bush intervened when Iraq invaded Kuwait because the war threatened to destabilize the region. Wilsonian idealist Bill Clinton intervened in the former Yugoslavia to stop a human rights disaster.
Which brings us to President George W. Bush, who, as a candidate, embraced this paradigm, and clearly aligned himself with the realist camp. Only in America’s interest, he said. No nation-building, he said.September 11, Afghanistan, Iraq, and nation-building followed. Aha! The leopard had changed his spots; the realist had become idealist. The experts came out in droves and described the president’s turn to Wilsonianism. Pick your criticism. To the isolationist right, the president was abandoning a time-honored tradition. The rabid left predictably called it a ruse to cover some sort of elaborate money-making scheme (pipelines from the Caucasus, contracts for Halliburton, etc.). The less charitable of those in between called the president a hypocrite, while others simply labeled him unprepared.
And unprepared he certainly was, and in some very important ways still is, but not for the reasons his opponents or supporters usually maintain. The given in nearly all of the discussions of President Bush’s foreign policy is that he has embraced the idealism of the old Democratic party and become a Wilsonian. Even the president himself has in some sense accepted this idea. When questioned about the turn to nation-building after his campaign promises of 2000, he usually provides a bland response about the new realities of the post-9/11 world. There is no reason to doubt that the president changed after 9/11. That terrible day changed lots of things. But what it hasn’t changed, yet, is the way Americans understand their foreign policy. And
so a humble suggestion: Look a bit further back, past Wilson. There an individual can be found who better portended the foreign policy of the current administration and who had a better grasp on the motivations and goals of American policy as a burgeoning great power: Theodore Roosevelt. George W. Bush, in deed if not in word, is a Rooseveltian.
Theodore Roosevelt, unlike the professorial Wilson, has become a caricature in American memory. He’s the wild blustering cowboy, climbing mountains and stick-fighting in the White House; known best as the guy for whom the Teddy Bear is named. At best he is treated as a proponent for progressive change at home who was a blowhard and a bully in foreign affairs. But there was much more to Roosevelt’s foreign policy than “speaking softly and carrying a big stick.” More than anyone, Roosevelt oversaw America’s entrance onto the world stage, and he did so with a well-defined conception of the importance and means of that entrance.
It was no mistake. From very early on, he believed that the United States had no choice but to become a world power. As he said in a speech in 1899, “We cannot sit huddled within our own borders and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond. Such a policy would defeat even its own end; for as the nations grow to have ever wider and wider interests, and are brought into closer and closer contact, if we are to hold our own in the struggle for naval and commercial supremacy, we must build up our power without our own borders.” In a shrinking world filled with aggressive states, projecting power abroad became essential to survival.
But the duty to project power came from more than just economic and security interests. “Our wealth and power have given us a place of influence among the nations of the world,” he maintained in another speech. “But worldwide influence and power mean more than dollars or social, intellectual, or industrial supremacy. They involve a responsibility for the moral welfare of others which cannot be evaded.” Critics of TR, knowing racism and imperialism when they see them — and they see them everywhere — have dismissed such entreaties as Roosevelt’s own warmed-over White Man’s Burden. And no doubt he gave them plenty of material with which to work, repeatedly insisting, in the roughest of language, that the stronger races had the responsibility to take care of weaker races.
What the critics too often miss is that not all imperialisms were created equal. The Spanish, Portuguese, Belgian, German, French, Italian, and British empires were all very different things. And though Roosevelt admired much about each, he also thought they all failed in one critical aspect: They weren’t American.
Above all things, Theodore Roosevelt was a nationalist. He made no apology for his nationalism, and gladly accepted the label jingo, because for him excessive Americanism was not a problem. For him ‘American’ was synonymous with ‘good.’ He wrote in 1890 that he could not stress enough to his countrymen “the necessity for a feeling of broad, radical, and intense Americanism, if good work is to be done in any direction. Above all, the one essential for success in every political movement which is to do lasting good, is that our citizens should act as Americans.” This broad mandate, of course, included foreign policy.
Roosevelt was calling for a distinctly American projection of power — he rarely, if ever, used the word “empire” to describe the United States — one that strived for a higher ideal than any of the European powers. He believed that the expression of American ideals and the exporting of American institutions in foreign policy served a similar but higher purpose than merely acting in American economic and strategic interests. Protecting the weak from tyrannical predators, internal and external, and teaching them American-style liberal democracy would elevate them to what Roosevelt would call a higher level of civilization. It would make them part of the peaceful and prosperous international world.
That belief is at the very core of the Rooseveltian worldview. Because, most important of all, Roosevelt believed that the genius of American foreign policy was that its ideals and interests were inseparable. He would have rejected the distinction between Wilsonian idealism and realism in American foreign policy as foolish and misguided. American institutions, properly applied, were perfect. Theoretically, the rest of the world needed only to copy them or, when necessary, be given them to achieve the perfect balance of economic, security, and moral interests for everyone.
Roosevelt was too realistic to expect such a utopian end anytime in the foreseeable future, but the essentials of Rooseveltianism were clear in the policies of his administration. The Roosevelt Corollary gave teeth to the Monroe Doctrine to protect weak Latin American republics, still copying the American system of government, from meddling European powers. He himself explained the intervention in Panama to build the canal as a result of a combination of factors:
The effort to build a canal by private capital had resulted in lamentable failure. .The United States had repeatedly announced that we would not permit it to be built or controlled by any old-world government. Colombia was utterly impotent to build it herself. . . . We were dealing with the government of an irresponsible alien dictator, and with a condition of affairs on the Isthmus itself which was marked by one uninterrupted series of outbreaks and revolutions. . . . We had assumed the position of guarantor of the canal, and of its peaceful use by all the world. The enterprise was recognized everywhere as responding to an international need. It was a mere travesty of justice to . . . close the gates of intercourse on one of the great highways of the world.
Of the Philippines, acquired in the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt repeatedly denied that the United States had any interest in maintaining permanent control of the islands. Rather, the goal was always to create a stable liberal democracy on the model of the United States. He declared in 1902, in language that ought to sound familiar, that “each inhabitant of the Philippines is now guaranteed his civil and religious rights, his rights to life, personal liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, subject only to not infringing the rights of others.” He continued, “It is worth noting that during these three or four years under us the Philippine people have attained to a greater degree of self-government, that they now have more to say as to how they shall be governed, than is the case with any people in the Orient, which is under European rule.” The same justifications applied to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and any other place where the United States projected military power during the Roosevelt administration.
Rooseveltianism carried on even into the Wilson administration. Oft-forgot is Wilson’s foreign policy prior to American entry into World War I. Until then, no president had initiated more overseas military interventions than Woodrow Wilson. (Remember, we are only talking about a few years: Wilson became president in 1913 and America entered the Great War in the spring of 1917.) These forays into places like Haiti, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic have been dubbed “Missionary Diplomacy” because of Wilson’s professed goals of converting the unwashed to American-style democracy — “to teach the South American republics to elect good men,” as he put it in 1913. That is, to teach them to behave like Americans, just like a good Rooseveltian.
The First World War changed all that. By then Wilson faced the horrors of modern war, the problems of international capitalism, and the threat posed by Vladimir Lenin’s Communist solution to the world’s ills. Maybe his more vain side wanted a Nobel Peace Prize to match Roosevelt’s (he got it). He needed to cajole old and proud European powers into joining his League of Nations, and heavy-handed Americanism would not serve that end. So he crafted his liberal internationalist perspective, he lauded self-determination, and he decried whole-cloth imperialism and projections of power that hinted of imperialism. Wilsonianism was born, and in the isolationist years of the 1920s and 1930s Rooseveltianism faded, and was not revived, even after World War II.
Until September 11. In the aftermath of that horrible day, George W. Bush found himself searching for a viable foreign policy amidst the idealist versus realist cacophony. The idealists asked him to turn to the international community for help in capturing the criminal terrorists and ameliorating the conditions that supposedly spawned such violent anti-Americanism. The realists, many of them luminaries from his father’s administration, called for a shutdown of American borders and a calculating policy to manipulate local rulers to create a semblance of stability and order in the unstable Middle East. President Bush found neither argument compelling.
Rather he chose to launch military attacks in the area that spawned the terrorists, on two of the countries that most clearly had regimes that were hostile to the United States. The success of the military phase of these operations was never really in doubt, but in Iraq in particular, the Bush administration apparently put little initial thought into the political aftermath of the war. In their defense, the conventional international relations wisdom offered little help. The idealist international world, besotted as it was in corruption, threw a temper tantrum about the United States defending its own interests and surrendered its desire to help in the reconstruction along with what little credibility it had left. The realists offered tired entreaties to appoint a warlord and get out — a policy proven to be immoral and ineffective.
So in the course of the operation the Bush administration took another tack. The United States would stay in Iraq, alone if necessary, and install a democratic government. The American military, along with a few key allies, would preserve some semblance of order until the Iraqis could do so themselves. The so-called neoconservatives in the Bush administration — individuals who have morphed from liberals who rejected the Great Society into nation-builders — supposedly led the way in selling these policies to the president.
Therein lies a serious problem. The provenance is all wrong. There is nothing “neo” about President Bush’s efforts in Central Asia and the Middle East. He is a classic Rooseveltian, and no one seems to know it.
This is not merely a semantic argument. Mired as he is in the realism-versus-idealism paradigm, President Bush has struggled to handle problems for which full-fledged Rooseveltianism offers clear solutions. For example, Roosevelt never would have assumed that the transition to democracy could come quickly for a people degraded so long by tyranny. He also would have realized from the beginning that the insurgents and their supporters were irredeemable, and could only be defeated by decisive, deadly, and horrifying force.
Above all, he would never have minimized or apologized for the efforts of America in this war. In 2003, President Bush said, “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” Poppycock, Roosevelt would say. The sentiment is fine, but why diminish the importance of America? Liberty is America’s gift to the world, and there is nothing wrong with saying so. The United States is trying to give Iraq American values and American institutions. That is the right and proper thing to do, and it should not be denied. Indeed, it should be celebrated. Similarly, Roosevelt would have been aghast at politically correct efforts to indulge native cultures. The point is to give them the best of America, not to coddle the intolerance and barbarity that are antithetical to everything for which America stands.
If George W. Bush wants to be a Rooseveltian, he should be a proper Rooseveltian. The stakes extend beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. Only a fool would argue that the world was not made a better place for America’s efforts over the past one hundred years, and, more than anyone, Theodore Roosevelt was the father of the American century.
The old saw goes “those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.” A true Rooseveltian would reject the negativity of such a statement. For a true Rooseveltian, a true believer in America, those who do not know their history are doomed not to repeat it. The Bush administration does not yet know its history, and so it risks not repeating America’s successes of the past. It is time to embrace America’s Rooseveltian tradition.
Thomas A. Bruscino Jr. is a historian and writer living in Eastern Kansas. He is the author of Out of Bounds: Transnational Sanctuary in Irregular Warfare.