Home/Daniel Larison/We Don’t Need Teddy Roosevelt’s Foreign Policy

We Don’t Need Teddy Roosevelt’s Foreign Policy

illustration by Michael Hogue

Walter Russell Mead pines for Teddy Roosevelt’s third term that never came:

The great tragedy of American foreign policy after World War I wasn’t the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles. It was the empty chair. Theodore Roosevelt, at the time the unquestioned favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, died unexpectedly in January 1919 at 60; a Roosevelt presidency would have been America’s best hope for a policy of realistic engagement. Roosevelt knew the U.S. needed to play a larger part in the world; he also knew that the League of Nations, though not without its uses, could never substitute for the leadership of great powers. No American politician of the day was as respected, admired or eloquent as TR. Would Roosevelt have been able to guide the American people onto a path that could have prevented a second world war?

We will never know, but if the next century is to have a happier history than the last, the U.S. badly needs leadership of his caliber today.

As strange counterfactual histories go, this is one of the strangest. Supposing that Roosevelt had lived and somehow managed to win the presidency again, what does Mead think that the U.S. could have done that would have altered the course of events so drastically? To ask whether Roosevelt could “guide the American people onto a path that could have prevented a second world war” is to misunderstand the causes of the war. It grossly exaggerates America’s ability to “prevent” something that was driven by political changes in other parts of the world that were far beyond our government’s influence. It also ignores the extent to which the American public had no interest in this “leadership” role. Roosevelt would have been a very poor fit for the political mood of post-WWI America. While individual leaders may be able to shape events, the implication that having a different president for a few years in the 1920s might have averted a global conflagration almost two decades later is just silly.

No one should be sorry that Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t directing U.S. foreign policy after WWI. Roosevelt was an unabashed imperialist, and he was an enthusiastic cheerleader for entry into WWI long before the U.S. joined. A considerable portion of his time in office as president was taken up with the brutal suppression of rebellions in the Philippines, which stands out as one of the most shameful periods in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Whatever else we call Roosevelt’s foreign policy, it wasn’t “realistic engagement.”

Mead’s fan fiction about Roosevelt comes from his need to caricature and dismiss the views of those he calls “neoisolationists” and “Wilsonian internationalists.” He misrepresents both camps to different degrees, and he sets them up as the extremes to be avoided. Roosevelt is conjured up as the exemplar of the militaristic and imperialistic foreign policy that Mead thinks the U.S. needs to have. One problem with this is Roosevelt’s own ugly record that I just mentioned, and another is that there are no “neoisolationists.” The people that Mead is smearing with that label are presumably advocates of restraint. Supporters of restraint have no problem “grasping” what he calls “the global nature of vital U.S. interests,” but they define those interests more narrowly and they disagree with the “leadership” fetish that keeps luring the U.S. into unnecessary conflicts. Americans today don’t need Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy or anything like it, and many Americans are realizing that the costs of “leadership” are far too high and have nothing to do with keeping the U.S. secure.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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