Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Republican candidates should embrace their inner Teddy Roosevelt

In his May 25th Washington Post column, George Will slammed Republican Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty for “sounding like a dime-store Teddy Roosevelt” when the former Minnesota governor called for a tough stand towards Muammar al-Qaddafi.  Will clearly likes Pawlenty, but hates the 26th president, complaining that “the real TR was bad enough” without Republicans emulating ...

By , the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
National Archive/Newsmakers
National Archive/Newsmakers
National Archive/Newsmakers

In his May 25th Washington Post column, George Will slammed Republican Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty for "sounding like a dime-store Teddy Roosevelt" when the former Minnesota governor called for a tough stand towards Muammar al-Qaddafi.  Will clearly likes Pawlenty, but hates the 26th president, complaining that "the real TR was bad enough" without Republicans emulating him with "chest-thumping" today. 

Will is only the latest in a series of political commentators and historical writers on the left and the right who have been piling on the Rough Rider. On the right Glenn Beck has had an ongoing investigation into the supposed excesses of TR's activist policies abroad and progressive reformism at home -- the same themes that seem to irk Will to no end. On the left, Evan Thomas of Newsweek portrays TR as a childish belligerent in his book The War Lovers (2010) and James Bradley seeks to expose how TR's racism and imperialism laid the seeds for the Pacific War in The Imperial Cruise (2009).

Teddy hasn't been President for 102 years, so what is going on here? First of all, TR makes a great proxy for attacking George W. Bush and John McCain for their reformist domestic agenda and their activist and value-driven foreign policies. Will has been after McCain on campaign finance reform for years and lost heart on Iraq after initially supporting the war. Beck sees Roosevelt as an example of what happens when elite Republicans conspire to let the federal government do too much. For the left meanwhile, tales of TR's saber-rattling, racism and imperialism are the perfect allegories for going after Republicans on Iraq.

In his May 25th Washington Post column, George Will slammed Republican Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty for “sounding like a dime-store Teddy Roosevelt” when the former Minnesota governor called for a tough stand towards Muammar al-Qaddafi.  Will clearly likes Pawlenty, but hates the 26th president, complaining that “the real TR was bad enough” without Republicans emulating him with “chest-thumping” today. 

Will is only the latest in a series of political commentators and historical writers on the left and the right who have been piling on the Rough Rider. On the right Glenn Beck has had an ongoing investigation into the supposed excesses of TR’s activist policies abroad and progressive reformism at home — the same themes that seem to irk Will to no end. On the left, Evan Thomas of Newsweek portrays TR as a childish belligerent in his book The War Lovers (2010) and James Bradley seeks to expose how TR’s racism and imperialism laid the seeds for the Pacific War in The Imperial Cruise (2009).

Teddy hasn’t been President for 102 years, so what is going on here? First of all, TR makes a great proxy for attacking George W. Bush and John McCain for their reformist domestic agenda and their activist and value-driven foreign policies. Will has been after McCain on campaign finance reform for years and lost heart on Iraq after initially supporting the war. Beck sees Roosevelt as an example of what happens when elite Republicans conspire to let the federal government do too much. For the left meanwhile, tales of TR’s saber-rattling, racism and imperialism are the perfect allegories for going after Republicans on Iraq.

There is also something deeper in the life cycle of American power and America’s role in the world that have brought TR back from the grave. Roosevelt presided over the emergence of the United States as a world power and represented more than any other president in history a boundless self-confidence and optimism about American ascent. In polls taken last year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, only 33 percent of Americans thought that their country would still be the world’s leading power in 50 years and a meager 8 percent thought the United States should try to remain the preeminent leader in solving global problems. The White House clearly thinks it can ride this seeming wave of defeatism by applauding itself for a prudent strategy of “leading from behind” in response to the Arab Spring. For “realist” intellectuals on both the left and the right, TR was representative of our youthful folly; now we must find ways to retrench and accommodate to other powers and ideals in the world as we approach the dusk of Pax Americana. When Jon Huntsman described his opposition to the Libyan intervention as being “an affordability issue,” it seemed that even he was testing this reductionist view of American power (please say it ain’t so, Jon).

Liberals will always be suspicious of TR, but Republicans should think twice before going after him. To begin with, it is poor historiography. While TR pushed for war with Spain, he also skillfully managed American power in the Pacific after victory through a combination of careful restraint, active balance of power diplomacy, and robust naval-based deterrence. And while he reflected some of the racial attitudes of his era, he was more progressive than some current foreign policy luminaries in arguing that all peoples of the globe are inherently capable of democratic self-government (he also famously made waves by inviting Booker T. Washington to visit with him in the White House).

An anti-TR reductionist foreign policy vision is also a loser for Republican candidates. While the Chicago Council polling found growing self-doubt about American power among the public, it was striking that 80 percent of Americans still said it is desirable for the United States to exert strong leadership in the world. Declinism does not resonate quite as deeply as some intellectual elites might assume. Moreover, a reductionist or “realist” foreign policy vision would offer no contrast with the Obama administration’s muddled lead-from-behind strategy on the Middle East or inconsistency on human rights and democracy in the Western Hemisphere and Asia.

Americans have turned against a robust moral foreign policy before -particularly after nasty counterinsurgency experiences like the Philippines, Vietnam and Iraq, or in the wake of financial crises like the Great Depression or the Lehman Shock. Yet within years of losing its moorings, American foreign policy has always reconstituted around a combination of security, trade and values. The smart bet is that Americans will once again support a well crafted vision of a foreign policy based on moral leadership in the world. As TR himself once explained to a reporter who asked him how he keeps the “pulse” of the American people, leadership is about explaining where the nation should go, not where it is.

Michael J. Green is the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a distinguished scholar at the Asia Pacific Institute in Tokyo, and a former senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @DrMichaelJGreen

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