James R. Holmes. Theodore Roosevelt and World Order: Police Power in International Relations. Washington: Potomac Books, 2006. 328 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57488-883-6.
Reviewed by Julia Irwin (Department of History, Yale University)
Published on H-SHGAPE (March, 2008)
In the first three paragraphs of Theodore Roosevelt and World Order, James R. Holmes makes no mention of the book's central figure. Discussions of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and the United Nations treaty all precede Roosevelt's appearance, establishing Holmes's presentist objectives from the start. Writing just over a century after Roosevelt famous 1904 proclamation to "speak softly and carry a big stick," Holmes argues that a focused study of Roosevelt's diplomacy might "provide a fresh perspective on the use of American power in the early twenty-first century" (p. 2). It is Holmes's contention that the United States needs "a benevolent, self-limiting doctrine of intervention" (p. 4) to redirect its flawed contemporary foreign policy. To locate this set of principles, he bids readers to turn their gazes to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, and in particular to Roosevelt's philosophy of international police power.
Central to Roosevelt's notion of policing was his conviction that "power was a tool to be deployed for the common good" (p. 9). Holmes uses chapter 2 to identify the philosophical underpinnings for Roosevelt's views about the responsible use of state power. Although individual freedoms were important, he believed that they could not be protected at the expense of law and order. Holmes paints Roosevelt as opposed to extremism and self-interest, be it rooted in large corporations or the labor movement, in the great powers or insurgent colonized peoples. Under his worldview, government had an obligation to intervene in public affairs if any party threatened the principle of "ordered liberty" (p. 21). It was from this essential philosophy that Roosevelt developed his concept of international police power.
Roosevelt made his idea of international police power explicit in his 1904 annual message to Congress when he declared his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, but Holmes demonstrates that he had been conceptualizing the philosophy since the 1890s. Nevertheless, few historians--and indeed, few of Roosevelt's contemporaries--have engaged significantly with the doctrine. To rectify this neglect, Holmes analyzes Roosevelt's vision of international police power, charts its development in his domestic and international political activities, and examines its application in several specific case studies.
After laying these intellectual and historiographical foundations, Holmes next turns to Roosevelt's domestic political career in the 1890s. Several examples shed light on the influences that contributed to Roosevelt's thoughts on the role of police power. Chapter 3 examines the role of the courts and legal precedents in Roosevelt's thinking on importance of the activist state, while chapter 4 turns to his views of the capital-labor dispute. Although Roosevelt understood police power as an important component in preventing and quashing labor unrest, he also maintained that corporations and the government should acknowledge workers' real and worthy demands and should assuage them to prevent social disruption. He believed in the federal government's right and obligation to intervene if absolutely necessary but prized preemptive regulation and appeasement over force. Chapter 5 examines Roosevelt's presidency on the Board of Commissioners of the New York Police Department and his commitment to good, clean, and responsible government. In each of these cases, Holmes demonstrates that Roosevelt understood police power as necessary for a government to exercise its sovereignty. Good governments had a responsibility to mediate disputes and to improve public welfare. Only strong, activist states held the power to intervene in an effective and salutary way.
These first five chapters, which together comprise only sixty-two pages, are essentially introductory material for Holmes's larger project: an examination of Roosevelt's vision for an international police power. Just as the federal government held the right to intervene in the lives of private citizens who threatened the public good, Roosevelt believed that "advanced nations" had both a right and an obligation to intervene in foreign affairs to assure order and justice. Roosevelt, Holmes argues, "sincerely believed that the growth of American power would benefit the peoples who fell within the American sphere of action" (p. 64). In chapters 6 and 7, Holmes examines Roosevelt's belief that U.S. expansion was a natural, inevitable process with a long history. The claim that Roosevelt understood Anglo-Saxon expansion as a civilizing force for barbaric peoples and a revitalizing influence for U.S. citizens is not a novel one, and Holmes does little to probe its potential ethical pitfalls. His project is not intended to question the legitimacy of Roosevelt's views, but to understand Roosevelt's commitment to U.S. global intervention and his faith in its righteousness. International police power, Holmes contends, was a reaction to European great-power diplomacy and colonization, an "anti-imperial imperialism" (p. 84) rather than an excuse to control weaker nations in the Western hemisphere and beyond. Of course, as Holmes acknowledges, historians and Roosevelt's contemporaries have understood his claim to intervene in Latin American affairs as overreaching bullying. Even Roosevelt's Secretary of State Elihu Root labored to distance the administration from Roosevelt's avowal of the U.S. right to exercise police power in Latin America, hoping to remove the suspicions that many national leaders harbored in response to the corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.
At seventy pages, chapter 8 is the centerpiece of Holmes's book. Through a series of case studies, he compares Roosevelt's application of international policing in several contexts and demonstrates the conceptual development of Roosevelt's theory. Holmes starts with Roosevelt's assessment of U.S. intervention in the Philippines and Cuba. Both before and during his presidency, Roosevelt weighed the principle of self-government with his assessment of whether each population was adequately prepared for it. He believed that the United States had an obligation to govern and act as constable until local governments proved capable of sovereignty. Holmes also examines the pre-Corollary episodes of the European blockade of Venezuela in 1902-03 and Roosevelt's 1903 intervention on behalf of Panamanian revolutionaries against Colombia. In both of these cases, Roosevelt exercised police power on a much grander scale than the model he would propose in 1904, claiming a wide-ranging right of diplomatic and military intervention in Latin America that went beyond any previous limits set for U.S. intervention. Finally, Holmes turns to Santo Domingo, where Roosevelt involved the United States to protect against the encroachments of European creditors and against local revolutionaries who sought to interfere with customs houses. This case, Holmes argues, firmly established Roosevelt's preferred method for wielding police power. He believed the United States and other great powers had the responsibility to use force in their immediate geographic spheres of influence, but should do so only as a last resort. Power by advanced nations was, for Roosevelt, vital to global development. More advanced nations, motivated by intelligent self-interest and benevolence, could justly police other nations if preemptive attempts at uplift had failed to prevent revolutionary disorder. Yet the right to apply force carried with it an obligation to act responsibly and to provide benefits for native populations, such as ensuring their public welfare and preparing them for self-government. In time, Roosevelt hoped this power might be harnessed in an international police force, or a League for Peace. Until the requisite number of nations reached the maturity required for this endeavor, however, it would be up to the United States and other enlightened world powers to ensure ordered liberty.
It is Holmes's purpose throughout Theodore Roosevelt and World Order to delve into Roosevelt's worldview and thinking about international police power in order to consider whether his early twentieth-century statecraft has any place in today's U.S. foreign policy. The book's conclusions are directed less at historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era than they are at contemporary policymakers. Holmes tracks the conceptual development of international police power and demonstrates how Roosevelt attempted to apply the doctrine, but the book does not provide much that will be new to historians of the period, nor does it engage critically with Roosevelt's understanding of civilization and barbarism or of Anglo-Saxon superiority. This lack of engagement occasionally borders on accommodation, as Holmes himself employs loaded terms such as "advanced nation" without sufficient scrutiny. Rather, Roosevelt's interventions are justified even when they may be extreme because we are assured that he believed his efforts were for the greatest good. Holmes's purpose may not be to judge Roosevelt, but it is unsettling to present this as an analytical model for contemporary U.S. expansion without admitting or questioning any of its moral murkiness. Holmes's failure to probe the more questionable sides of Roosevelt's policies and to acknowledge the vast divides that separate the early 1900s from the early 2000s limits his use of history as a model for the present. But "in the final analysis," Holmes himself concedes, "Theodore Roosevelt's international police-power doctrine is better suited for use as an analytical tool than as a direct template for twenty-first century statecraft" (p. 236). And Holmes certainly has a point. The idealized Rooseveltian worldview, which emphasized moral virtue, restraint, and the need to "return practical wisdom to its rightful place in American statecraft" (p. 236), is both a welcome message and a potentially useful way to integrate historical interpretation into contemporary policymaking.
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Julia Irwin. Review of Holmes, James R., Theodore Roosevelt and World Order: Police Power in International Relations.
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