Academic journal article Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law

Rereading Root

Academic journal article Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law

Rereading Root

Article excerpt

Elihu Root was a Wilsonian living at the dawn of a new century, a time that he perceived as an age of globalization and democratization. "The greatest change in the conditions of national life during the past century," Root wrote, "has been in the advance and spread of democratic government," an advance that he argued was necessary for international law to survive. (1) Root was also an idealist who believed in practical problem-solving. "Politics is the practical exercise of the art of self-government, and somebody must attend to it if we are to have self-government." (2)

Sound familiar? The 2006 National Security Strategy announces that "the goal of [U.S.] statecraft is to help create a world of democratic, well-governed states that can meet the needs of their citizens and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system." Moreover, the U.S. approach "is idealistic about our national goals, and realistic about the means to achieve them." (3)

But how can this be? Elihu Root, revered founder of the American Society of International Law and champion of a law-governed international system'? And George W. Bush, the president who, in his first term, resolutely set the face of his administration against international rules and institutions and indeed international constraints of any kind?

There are many answers to the question, and many differences between Bush and Root. But there are in fact many similarities, which means that rooting around in the differences is an interesting, if sometimes dark, mirror on the nation we were then and the nation we have become.

I propose to reread Root for three purposes: as revelation, as revisionism, and as ritual.


It seems meet and fit to reread Root on the occasion of the centennial of one of the great societies he founded, the other two being the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Law Institute. As members of the Society, we can steep ourselves in the verities of our past. Unexpectedly, however, rereading Root sheds a very interesting light on the direction of present American foreign policy. As just noted, he shared not only the goals but in many ways the worldview that our present secretary of state and secretary of defense do, but he had quite a different vision of how they should be pursued.

The Similarities

Let's begin with the similarities. In 1908 Root gave a presidential address at the second annual meeting of the Society, entitled "The Sanction of International Law." He framed his entire discussion of international law in the context of globalization. "In former times," nations were isolated from one another and "regarded only the physical power of other nations." "Now, however,"

there may be seen plainly the effects of a long-continued process

which is breaking down the isolation of nations, permeating every

country with better knowledge and understanding of every other

country, spreading throughout the world a knowledge of each

government's conduct to serve as a basis for criticism and

judgment, and gradually creating a community of nations. (4)

As is often noted, the period of globalization just prior to the first world war was as intense, and perceived as such, as is the period of globalization that has occurred over the past several decades, accelerating after the Cold War.

Nine years later, Root gave another presidential address at the Society's annual meeting, this one entitled "The Effect of Democracy on international Law." His context for this address was unavoidably "the great war, which is steadily drawing into its circle the entire civilized world." He acknowledges indirectly the dashing of his great hopes for the steady progress of international law governing a community of nations, asking his audience to "consider how it may be possible to reestablish the law of nations upon a durable basis," and, specifically, to "inquire whether the political and social conditions" after the war would permit the establishment "upon some basis of principle a system of international law which can be maintained and enforced. …

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