Remarks delivered at Theodore Roosevelt Association Annual Symposium, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Washington, DC, October 26, 2023.
I think Theodore Roosevelt would be dismayed at the state of global order today. It seems to be in retreat, or rather under concerted assault, from Eastern Europe to the Middle East to East Asia. But TR would not be surprised or daunted. His goal was a world presided over by an international League of Peace, a kind of superempowered world tribunal with the authority to enforce its decisions. But he understood that the journey toward that destination would be a long and uneven one. Progress would be fitful; reverses were far from unthinkable along the way. In fact, he prophesied that the time when societies could set aside their differences, constitute a world fellowship, and consent to such a league was “eons distant.”
Roosevelt set forth the logic underwriting such a court in his 1910 address accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. He declared that “it would be a masterstroke if those great powers honestly bent on peace would form a League of Peace, not only to keep the peace among themselves, but to prevent, by force if necessary, its being broken by others.” I should point out that TR did not espouse universal membership in such a league. Hence his reference to great powers honestly bent on peace. Members needed to be likeminded for a league to flourish. Spoilers could ruin it.
He went on. However worthy, the international tribunal at The Hague suffered from “the lack of any executive power, of any police power to enforce the decrees of the court.” TR reminded listeners that in any community “the authority of the courts rests upon actual or potential force: on the existence of a police, or on the knowledge that the able-bodied men of the country are both ready and willing to see that the decrees of judicial and legislative bodies are put into effect.”
So for him the dearth of a “police power” was the main defect in efforts to bring about world order. The idea of a police power—the power to protect and serve, to quote the slogan on your local police cruiser—was a recurring theme throughout TR’s public life, from his tenure as New York police commissioner through his handling of labor relations and public administration. And he applied the concept to the international realm as president, seeing enforcement authority as the substructure for future world order.
To get more traction on how he related the police power to foreign policy, we have to look back before the Nobel speech to his first term in the White House. President Roosevelt spelled out his concept of an “international police power” most fully in his 1904 message to Congress, while laying out the case for intervention in a debt-collection dispute between the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo and European bankers and their governments. His statement came to be known as the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine. Here’s how he put it:
Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly . . . to the exercise of an international police power.
Let’s unpack this grammatically correct but rather longwinded sentence to see what Roosevelt was saying and what it may reveal about foreign policy in our own time:
– Chronic wrongdoing referred to an American government’s repeated refusal to honor its international agreements, especially loan agreements with foreign banks. Defaults threatened U.S. geopolitical interests, which was TR’s chief worry. Common practice for the day was for bankers to appeal to their governments for help recovering debts, whereupon the government sent the navy to seize the customs house in the defaulting country and use tariff revenue to pay back the bank. Roosevelt objected to this practice because it would leave Caribbean territory in European hands in defiance of the Monroe Doctrine. Worse, a European navy might build a base on that territory from which its warships could menace the approaches to the Panama Canal once that artificial waterway went into service. It behooved Washington to act preemptively, denying a potentially hostile great power an excuse to intervene. Preemption would deny a possible foe a naval redoubt in southern waters. For TR, in other words, inaction meant compromising the United States’ strategic position in its own environs.
– If chronic wrongdoing was deliberate malfeasance, impotence meant the defaulting government was unable to honor its international agreements, whether because of revolution, corruption, or simple incompetence. From there the logic of preventive U.S. intervention took largely the same course.
– By civilized society he meant the duty of developed nations to help developing nations even as the intervenors tended to their own interests.
– In America, as elsewhere asserted the United States’ claim to step in when chronic wrongdoing or impotence occurred, raising the specter of Europeans’ seizing American ground or otherwise threatening U.S. interests. But Roosevelt allowed that other developed nations might exercise an international police power under similar circumstances in their own home regions. Elsewhere he specifically mentioned Japan and Europe as powers worthy and capable of performing police duty.
– By intervention he meant deploying the least force possible consistent with achieving his strategic and political goals. In Santo Domingo, which precipitated the Roosevelt Corollary, intervention involved mounting a small-scale naval demonstration to deter European aggression plus stationing a customs agent on the island to apportion revenue between the government and its foreign creditors. No shots were fired. Roosevelt took pride in this.
– In the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine meant that, since the Monroe Doctrine forbade external great powers to wrest away land in the Americas, the United States must mediate or no one would do justice to Europeans who deserved to have their loans repaid.
– By reluctantly he set the bar high for intervening in the affairs of sovereign states. He affirmed that this was a decision with potentially grave consequences. It should not be taken lightly.
– By international police power he meant the authority to use force to preserve order—that’s the protect part—while promoting the health, welfare, and morals of the populace of a country in which the United States had intervened—that’s the serve Proper, self-restrained deployment of the police power would allow Washington to defend U.S. interests while gradually helping developing nations join the developed world. Humanity as a whole would benefit as the advanced world grew to encompass the entire planet.
TR gave us a set of standards grounded in law, diplomacy, and military strategy for thinking about when and how to intervene in sovereign states’ affairs, then and now. I think the paramount pointers from his 1904 message are:
– S. geopolitical interests come first. For him those were safeguarding the canal approaches—which would become the United States’ gateway to the Pacific Ocean for commercial, diplomatic, and naval endeavors—from hostile outsiders looking to ensconce themselves in the Americas. TR insisted the U.S. Navy must remain predominant in American waters to protect the nation’s seaborne pursuits.
– While upholding U.S. interests, intervention should also help a targeted state become more fully sovereign, able to take its station among developed peers.
– At the same time intervention must be as circumspect as possible. He implied there should be a kind of Hippocratic credo for intervention: do no harm.
That’s not a bad mix between self-interest and altruism. Nevertheless, skeptics voiced concerns about the Roosevelt Corollary even back then. A unilateral, extralegal doctrine that abridges sovereignty, the most basic principle underlying the Westphalian international system, is a dangerous tool to hand any policymaker. Not everyone is a Theodore Roosevelt, an enlightened statesman who can be trusted to wield such a tool with precision and restraint. There is a reason that by the 1920s presidential administrations started distancing themselves from the Corollary. They muffled it into irrelevance to help make way for the inter-American system we have known since the 1930s. We should look to the lifetime of TR to help us think through vexing questions; we should revive his ideas only with extreme care, if at all.
Let me close with three observations inspired by TR and the Roosevelt Corollary:
– First, an interventionist foreign-policy doctrine needs a TR to preside over it, as I noted a minute ago. Police work is subject to abuse. How you guard against unenlightened and unaccountable leadership remains as pressing a question as ever in politics, diplomacy, and military affairs.
– Second, TR seemed to assume the developed powers, the regional “policemen,” would be at least roughly likeminded. In other words, they would enforce similar rules in their home regions, helping narrow differences in worldviews among peoples, establish common standards of conduct, and thus usher the world along toward a League of Peace. The world wars, the Cold War, and the traumas of our own time call that assumption into doubt if not debunk it altogether. A multipolar world with the likes of China, Russia, or Iran making the rules in key regions would be a dark world indeed. Deadlock in the UN Security Council—a body descended from Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Policemen” and, I believe, ultimately from TR’s notion of regional policemen—underscores the limits to concerted great-power action. One imagines TR’s dream remains eons distant. And how to move forward is unclear beyond agreeing to stand together for the current rules-based order.
– And three, what happens when one policeman has vital and enduring interests in another’s “jurisdiction”? I refer of course to the U.S. alliance system, in which the United States maintains intimate commercial, diplomatic, and military ties with allies deep within spheres of interest dominated by fellow great powers. We should ask ourselves whether TR’s vision of a world where great powers keep order and foster uplift among their neighbors is achievable without dismantling our alliances. I would certainly never advocate cutting and running from East Asia, Western Europe, or the Middle East. That would amount to abandoning allies, partners, and friends of long-standing to crooked cops. But that is where Theodore Roosevelt’s logic takes you. He was writing for a different America. I wish we could summon him up and ask him about these matters.
So there’s your wisdom from beyond the grave. TR still renders good service a century after his passing.
About the Author
Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College, a Distinguished Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University, and the author of Theodore Roosevelt and World Order. The views voiced here are his alone.