Theodore Roosevelt's Diplomacy and the Quest for Great Power Equilibrium in Asia

By Russell, Greg | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Theodore Roosevelt's Diplomacy and the Quest for Great Power Equilibrium in Asia


Russell, Greg, Presidential Studies Quarterly


In his treatise on modern diplomacy, Henry Kissinger (1994, 38-39) argues that Theodore Roosevelt approached the global balance of power with a sophistication matched by no other American president and approached only by Richard Nixon. Roosevelt was the first president to insist that it was America's duty to make its influence felt globally and to relate America to the world in terms of a concept of national interest. The successful operation of the global balance required American participation on the international stage. President Roosevelt underscored the point in a 1902 message to Congress: "More and more, the increasing interdependence and complexity of international political and economic relations render it incumbent on all civilized and orderly powers to insist on a proper policing of the world" (quoted in Blum 1977, 127). Realizing that a series of technological changes had ended America's geographic isolation, he sought to convince European and Asian powers that the United States was a serious new actor as well as a civilizing force at the beginning of a new century.

Kissinger's assessment of Roosevelt's fit in the American diplomatic tradition is problematic in that he provides few details about how this American president "adapted traditional principles of European statecraft to the American condition" (1994, 43). Kissinger's Roosevelt looms as a skeptic who rejected the idea that peace is the normal condition among nations, who rejected the proposition that there is no difference between personal and public morality, and who embraced spheres of influence while rejecting the assumption that America could distance itself from upheavals around the world. Kissinger ultimately finds Darwin's theory of survival to be a more reliable compass for Roosevelt's understanding of international politics. Although Kissinger may be correct in affirming the nuances of Roosevelt's worldview, his cannot be the last word on how Roosevelt resorted to traditional diplomacy and the balance of power against a backdrop of American idealism. Historians and political scientists have generally neglected the moral desiderata that loom large in Roosevelt's own judgment about the purposes of power and diplomacy in world politics. Contrary to the stereotypical profile of Roosevelt as an architect of Realpolitik, or ruthless man on horseback, he held a complex set of beliefs about international relations that transcends familiar academic theorizing about either power politics or universal principles of morality. Moral principles, Roosevelt claimed, help make clear the inescapable tension between ideals and reality. The moral problem persists, he thought, because diplomacy involves choices often obscured by faulty perception, controlled by national interests, and complicated by multiple purposes and goals.

This paper examines how balance of power considerations shaped Roosevelt's role as a mediator in the 1904-5 war between Russia and Japan. Attention is devoted to his use of personal diplomacy as well as to the political and foreign policy rationales behind his overtures to Japanese and Russian leaders. To what extent did Roosevelt justify his actions as consistent with American interests and American values? If American national interests were not immediately threatened in East Asia, then what kind of concerns prompted him to intervene in the affairs of other states? Was the quest for equilibrium simply an expedient tactic by which to further the offensive power, both military and political, of the United States? The paper begins by providing a brief overview of Roosevelt as strategic thinker and then moves on to take up his personal style of diplomacy.

International Strategy and Roosevelt as Diplomat

Any understanding of Roosevelt the diplomat would be incomplete without due regard for Roosevelt the strategist, especially the mix of personal and historical factors that shaped his view of America's strategic role in the world. …

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