From Roosevelt to Wilson: America’s Internationalism

America is a strange thing in history. While other European powers practiced imperialism openly, America did so quietly and with a sense of faux moral restraint.

All while post-civil war America would serve as the symbol that stood above the petty, backward, and unenlightened affairs of Europe, it still ironically held the same goals that her European adversaries overtly professed: power and property.

After all, as Kissinger once noted, Andrew Johnson’s dream of an empire including Canada and Mexico and Ulysses Grant’s vision of an American Dominican Republic and Cuba were ideas not too unlike that of European imperialists Bismarck and Disraeli. Yet America, brash and new, seeking to illustrate the boldness of her own newly-honed sovereignty, could, at the time, justly wield such imperialistic prospects and get away with it.

Relative to now — after fighting two World Wars, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and countless others in the Middle East and Asia — many may ask: who or what caused such an acceptance of foreign entanglements in the name of liberty? After all, American involvement in these wars could have been avoided simply by remaining neutral. Who or what served as catalysts to our plunging into the center of the international arena?

Teddy Roosevelt, elected in 1901, was the first president to outwardly claim it was America’s duty to propel its beliefs abroad, and that it was in its national interest to do so. He too believed America’s strength was a tool to be used when interests collided between states.

“….[T]he adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine [in the Western Hemisphere] may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power,” evoked Roosevelt in his “Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine.

Roosevelt made intervention America’s new global policy. He provoked Panama into war of independence from Colombia with the intention of building an American canal that would link the Atlantic to the Pacific. He would flex his muscles in the Caribbean by forcing Haiti to clear itself of European debt (in fear of Europe taking action for such debt) and he would send troops to occupy Cuba, among other things.

Roosevelt’s big stick diplomacy was arrogant and entirely fitting of its phallic name. No other president since Teddy Roosevelt has practiced power politics so overtly nor has any president since. He believed so strongly it was America’s duty to intervene, despite clear warning from the founders. Surely he was a realist; an international Darwinian. He wanted America to play a large, international, hegemonic role, no matter the burdens; no matter the costs.

Roosevelt was the Cardinal Richelieu or Metternich of his time, as he played the balance of power system like the ‘petty, backward, unenlightened’ European leaders. His power politics would make the statesmen of yore – Johnson and Grant – smile with glee, but they indeed left our founders frowning with bitter grief.

Things would take a slight turn in cause but not in any sense effect, when Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1913. Rather than justifying foreign intervention through blatant use of American authority, Wilson would assure Americans that it was in their best interests. He, like Roosevelt, would go against the word of those who wrought our country, and would continue to entangle America in the web of foreign affairs.

He assured the American people that America, the great fabled city on the hill, was, as he said himself, “in Providence of God. “ If anything, Wilson’s international dreams were much more grandiose and far-reaching than Roosevelt’s “big stick” could ever even hope to touch.

While they did not directly preach action, they still stood for ‘democratization’ of the world and the infallibility of the American democratic way. He believed, similar to Roosevelt, that it was America’s role “not to prove…our selfishness, but our greatness.” History shows that Roosevelt and Wilson indeed had the same goal, just different fighting styles.

Wilson clearly butters up the thought of intervention and the suggestion that it is America’s duty to oppose aggression (which in later cases would be the formation of any ‘unapproved’ state) anywhere at anytime during his annual State of the Union address to congress: “We insist upon security in prosecuting our self-chosen lines of national development. We do more than that. We demand it also for others. We do not confine our enthusiasm for individual liberty and free national development to the incidents and movements of affairs which affect only ourselves. We feel it wherever there is a people that tries to walk in these difficult paths of independence and right.”

He went from being known as a proponent of isolationism and neutrality, to one hell bent on committing his nation to a crusade for “liberty.” He, as Romney critiqued Obama, went “from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week.”

Kissinger, in his Diplomacy, draws a very interesting parallel on this subject of comparing Roosevelt to Wilson: “[Roosevelt] was the warrior statesman; Wilson was the prophet-priest. Statesmen, even warriors, focus on the world in which they live; to prophets, the ‘real’ world is the one they want to bring into being.”

Wilson’s philosophy of neutrality and the doctrine he espoused were in total contradiction. What Wilson did was make America seem righteous, benevolent, and merciful. He created a mask of American innocence so successfully that when the Lusitania was shot and sunk by Germany as it ventured into enemy waters, it painted a black and white picture: America was victim and Germany was an immoral attacker.

It’s been argued by countless historians that the explosion of the Maine was used to propel America into the Spanish American war, and the sinking of Lusitania, allegedly with ammunition on board, was used to propel war with Germany. The Maine brought Roosevelt and his Rough Riders to the Cuban battlefield while the sinking of the Lusitania sent Wilson to lead the fight against the Central Powers of World War I.

Even after the war had been won, Wilson was not done. America, to him, was just not involved enough. Wilson wanted to create the ‘League of Nations,’ a world organization that would create a sense of international law in anarchical world. He ignored the fact that our Earth is a hodgepodge of cultures with differing ideals. He blindly assured objectors that such a union or league, (if one could achieve any sort of use, let alone exist), could be of some use and could become a reality. The League of Nations would wither away and fail without even its founding country joining.

These two statesmen — or as Kissinger cleverly put it: Roosevelt the warrior-statesman and Wilson the prophet-priest — forever altered the American perception of foreign policy. Through these men and their actions, our policy makers have become complacent with overbearing foreign alliances and entanglements.

Because of Roosevelt and Wilson, invading sovereign countries like Iraq with ‘preemptive strikes’ is now seen as acceptable. Legislators now seek a similar solution with Iran.

Because of Wilson, we now have a United Nations, which is as wrongheaded as the League of Nations, striving to create international law that will possibly supersede our Constitution. The high cost paid by America for a United Nations inept at peacemaking and peacekeeping is a Wilsonian legacy us taxpayers have to bear.

And so the question is raised: was it all worth it? The founders are still frowning.

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