America's Misdirected Militarism and the Quest for Theodore Roosevelt

Where is Theodore Roosevelt when you need him?

So the Russian Federation swallows the Crimea in direct violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed by the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, one of our principal concerns was the status and disposal of the USSR's nuclear arsenal. The newly independent Ukraine was suddenly the world's third largest nuclear power. In order to persuade the Ukrainians to give up their nuclear weapons (their security trump card), we guaranteed the nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Twenty years later Vladimir Putin and the Russians violate that territorial integrity with all the world watching on CNN, and the response of the United States is—to freeze a few assets, cancel a G-8 meeting in Sochi, and prevent a few high level Russian playboys from traveling to European pleasure capitals. I hope the Ukrainians are grateful!

What would TR do? We Americans engineered that 1994 nuclear disarmament treaty and solemnly promised to stand up for the Ukrainians in the unlikely event that Russia attempt a land-grab. Now that precisely that scenario has unfolded, we are, well, expressing our displeasure and wringing our hands.

This is more or less what Woodrow Wilson did in the run-up to the First World War. When the German navy sank the RMS Lusitania (an ocean liner) on May 7, 1915, killing 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans, President Wilson responded by sending a polite memorandum of official protest. When the Germans responded to his memo with derision and defiance, Wilson sent a second slightly less polite memorandum. Former President Roosevelt was flabbergasted and appalled. He could not contain his rage at the massive inadequacy of Wilson's response. A man slaps your wife in the face right in front of you, he offered by way of analogy, and you send him a note? Then he slaps her again, just to make sure you understand his contempt for your honor and her security, and you send a second note?

Roosevelt believed that the best way to assure peace is to be genuinely ready to wage war—by sending unmistakable signals to potential aggressors that you are not even slightly afraid to let loose the dogs of war when your national interest is at stake. President Putin—a "rational actor" who wishes to restore Russian pride and return Russia to superpower status—shrewdly waited until the Olympics had been successfully hosted on Russian soil, then pounced on the Crimea knowing full well that he would get away with it. Putin recognized the sad truth that the European Union, NATO, and the United States would stand around wagging their rhetorical fingers, not even their rhetorical fists, while he did precisely what the Ukrainians reckoned he would do when they demanded (and obtained) the 1994 territorial guarantee from the world's so-called unipower. Putin knows, too, that he can next swallow the ethnically Russian sectors of Ukraine and almost certainly get away with it (sterner note), and then Moldova, and possibly even portions of the Baltic states (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania). Very stern note at this point. If you could put truth serum into Putin and ask, "How much of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc would you swallow up if nobody fired a cruise missile to stop you?" what do you think he would say? Does anyone believe he factored in the possibility of a US-European military response to his Crimea adventure?

So let's review. We invade Iraq in 2003 for the fun of it, even though we knew then that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 9-11 attacks, and we were in a position to know that there was no viable nuclear weapons program in Iraq. In doing so, we bankrupt America, cost ourselves much of the moral authority and respect we earned in our careful but resolute handling of the Cold War, shatter the political career of England's Tony Blair, cost the lives of 4,489 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (many of them mere civilians), wound tens of thousands of Americans (many grievously), and then merely walk away to leave Iraq to pick up the pieces and see the sectarian civil war we touched off through to its grim end. If you want to enrage an American GI, just mention Fallujah, which we took in 2004 at enormous cost in lives and materiel, now casually abandoned to the very forces we sought to defeat.

But in 2014 Russia swallows the Crimea in direct violation of a sacred American commitment, and we just wring our hands. Crimea is infinitely more important than Iraq, partly because of its geopolitical location, mostly because of its intense symbolic importance in defining what sort of power we intend to be in the twenty-first century, and what international promises we really mean to keep. We were once prepared to go to nuclear war over the city of Berlin (1961). Now we are not even willing to station an American or NATO fleet in the Black Sea to honor our international agreements.

Theodore Roosevelt believed you cannot secure peace unless you are actually willing to wage war. He would make it unambiguously clear to Putin that any further incursion into Ukrainian sovereignty will be met by an armed response led by the United States—and TR would not be bluffing. His logic would be that the Russians will almost certainly back down at the prospect of a real war against the United States and—if they don't—well, then, war is preferable to national dishonor. In other words, to avoid war you actually have to be willing to fight one, and if you are truly willing to fight one, you probably can avoid war.

In 1985, a scholar named John Milton Cooper wrote an important dual biography of Roosevelt and his nemesis Woodrow Wilson called The Warrior and the Priest. It takes you about 200 pages to realize that the pacific idealist Wilson, not Roosevelt, turned out to be the warrior (World War I), and the militarist Roosevelt, not Wilson, turned out to be the priest. Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for his successful brokering of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Wilson campaigned in 1916 on the slogan, "He kept us out of war." Then, in April 1917, he took us into that war. Roosevelt's greatest regret was that his 7 year, 171 day presidency glided by without a major domestic or world crisis, the kind of pressure cooker that tests presidential character and makes for lasting greatness—the very kind of crisis that his fifth cousin Franklin led us through in 1932-45. That "limp-wristed" Wilson got the crisis that TR dreamed of handling, and to his mind would have handled infinitely better than the former professor and president of Princeton University nearly killed poor Roosevelt.

I do reluctantly believe that Roosevelt was right about the dynamics of peace and war in a world of thugs like Putin. Of course, if TR were around now, he'd also want to put together a "harum scarum group of cowboys and Indians" and Yale yachtsmen and Harvard tennis champs, "a voluntary cavalry unit," and march them off to the Crimea whilst reciting Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade."



Theodore Roosevelt postcard portrait by Detroit Publishing Company, c. 1902 - 1903. Public domain via the New York Public Library.