What Theodore Roosevelt Might Teach Donald Trump About Foreign Policy

By Rob Schwarzwalder Published on November 26, 2016

To say the world is in turmoil is sort of like saying Bill Gates has spare change. The understatement is so great as to invite ridicule.

Things could, of course, be worse, and well could be. Between Russia, China, ISIS, Syria, Boko Haram, the beyond-1984 character of a nuclear-armed North Korea, dirty bombs, electro-magnetic pulse technology, and innumerable assorted brutes and terrorists and gargoylian killers, our globe’s political axis appears to be permanently off-kilter and continuously at risk of spinning completely out of a stable orbit.

Things have not been made better by an administration for which foreign policy seems more a grudging afterthought than a deliberate and serious endeavor. It’s not that Barack Obama and his senior team don’t mean well; they simply have been incompetent. Witness Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the precipitous pull-out of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the inept nuclear “deal” with Iran.

My Regent University colleague Dr. Eric Patterson, the chair of our government department and former State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, has noted in Providence Magazine Augustine’s contention that in the context of Christian faith, “it is lawful for legitimate political authorities to use force to right a past wrong, punish wrongdoers, (and) prevent future wrongs.” In other words, national self-defense and the execution of justice are wholly commensurate with Scripture’s teachings about the duties of the state.

That is why, in part, the President’s lurching from “red lines” to “resets” is more than a matter of ineptitude. Like people of the Left generally, he would prefer to ameliorate threats than prepare for them. And, at root, he would prefer that the rest of the world go away so he could concentrate on his project of “transforming” our country.

His vision of such transformation is, of course, one conservatives reject for a host of reasons. However, even if it were entirely consistent with what the Founders had in mind, the reality is that America’s role in the world and the threats, existential and potential, we confront intrude on the schemes of those who would like our country to live in “splendid isolation,” an invisible and impenetrable bubble holding us internationally harmless.

Such a perspective is a bit like an adolescent’s belief that his is the only true love the world has ever known: Sweet, silly and immature. So, as Donald Trump forms his defense and international relations teams, he would do well to consider that American security and vital national interests are only safeguarded if we have the right number of capable personnel to carry out necessary missions, whether defensive or offensive; the weapons and delivery systems, tactical and strategic, conventional and asymmetric, to complete those missions successfully; and funding streams that don’t evaporate with the latest budgetary compromise struck by thoughtless number-crunchers on Capitol Hill.

Those interests have to be guided by principles that inform their application in the ways just detailed. In the long history of American diplomacy, few people have thought-through what our foreign policy should look like than Theodore Roosevelt and his great friend, the statesman and U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.

University of Illinois historian William Widenor, in his brilliant work Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy, adduces the following principles of what he calls “the Rooseveltian solution” for the execution of America’s international dealings.

First, as Lodge said in a 1913 speech to the Naval War College, those executing America’s foreign policy must “be ever on the alert and to anticipate the development of questions which may lead to international differences.” In other words, as Widenor notes, “foresight (is) so necessary because the people (are) ‘shortsighted’ when it comes to international affairs.”

They are, indeed. Understandably occupied with the daily affairs of their lives, ordinary Americans are inattentive to all but the broad outlines of the multiple international tension points and have no way of keeping track of what’s in our military and diplomatic arsenals. Those charged with being so occupied must do more than react to the crisis of the moment; they must analyze and anticipate global challenges before they bubble-up. They must not only be prepared for them but, in some cases at least, prevent them from emerging.

“To be prepared for war,” wrote George Washington in his first State of the Union message, “is one of the most effectual ways of preserving peace.”

Second, Roosevelt and Lodge called for “the strict observance of all treaties existing with other nations.” Why? Because of some legalistic sense of punctilious gentlemanliness? No: Because the failure of acting in “good faith and upright dealing … are more likely than any others to bring on war.” Put more simply, if we cannot be trusted to keep our word to our friends, our enemies, having taken our measure, will exploit our vacillation through either hostile aggression or the turning of allies toward our adversaries.

Third and, to T.R. and Lodge, “most important … was ‘the maintenance of a complete defense against armed aggression.” At the turn of the last century, said Lodge, “great wars are fought in a few months, while it takes years to build modern ships and cast rifled guns.” How much more in an era when from laser weaponry, interceptor missile systems, almost imponderably complex aircraft, and so forth, will not just appear. They have to be designed, tested and produced, all of which take time. In the moment, time is the one thing war fighters never have. They need the requisite resources when they need them, which means preparation, planning and production well in advance of any conflict. As Widenor notes, “the wisdom of preparation was scarcely new to either Roosevelt or Lodge.”

“To be prepared for war,” wrote George Washington in his first State of the Union message, “is one of the most effectual ways of preserving peace.” The guiding principle of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy — “peace through strength” — was vindicated the day jubilant Germans tore down a certain infamous wall.

Although today Roosevelt is remembered for his “charge up San Juan Hill” and his bellicosity with respect to American entry into the First World War, during his roughly seven and one-half years as President, not a single American serviceman died in combat. His toughness was understood not as a front but as something foreign powers knew to be real. It kept America out of war, unlike the policies of his negligent successor Woodrow Wilson.

These three key elements of Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy — long-term thinking and planning, being known as a nation that kept its word, and a robust national defense, ever prepared to meet the challenges that might emerge — have been deficient over the past nearly eight years. It’s time the wisdom of Roosevelt and Lodge become, again, the foundation of the conduct of American diplomatic and military policy.

A tumultuous world looks to the United States for stability, strength, prudence and principle. It’s time that hungry desire was once again fulfilled by a nation whose leadership is indispensable.

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