Unlike the modern-day GOP, FDR understood that securing peace required both massive military power and massive diplomacy.
The permanent security of America in the present crisis does not lie in armed force alone. What we face is a set of world-wide forces of disintegration—vicious, ruthless, destructive of all the moral, religious and political standards which mankind, after centuries of struggle, has come to cherish most…
Overstatement, bitterness, vituperation, and the beating of drums have contributed mightily to ill-feeling and wars between nations. If these unnecessary and unpleasant actions are harmful in the international field, if they have hurt in other parts of the world, they are also harmful in the domestic scene. Peace among ourselves would seem to have some of the advantage of peace between us and other nations. In the long run history amply demonstrates that angry controversy surely wins less than calm discussion. – Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940
In the vice presidential debate between Vice President Biden and Congressman Ryan, the latter reiterated the now-familiar Romney campaign charge that the Obama administration has projected “weakness abroad,” and that as such the world has become “more chaotic and less safe.” In the Romney-Ryan view, it is critical that the United States exude strength at all times, and above all stop “apologizing” for America. The logic behind this view is based on the argument, put forward by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others, that American weakness or even the perception of American weakness is provocative. Based on this analysis, it would seem that Governor Romney’s foreign policy has been reduced to the idea that the first responsibility of the president in foreign affairs is to turn Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim on its head by speaking loudly and carrying a big stick.
In essence, it is this idea—that the president needs to “get tough” with our enemies and adversaries—that has formed the core of the Romney-Ryan critique of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, whether it’s toward Iran over its nuclear ambitions or toward China over its trade policies.
But as any expert in the field of foreign policy will attest, securing America’s interests abroad involves far more than the mere projection of strength. It also involves a realistic understanding of the limits of military power and the ability to exercise restraint in times of high tension, the ability to understand and interpret other people’s histories and cultures, and most important of all, the ability to inspire in others the same respect for human rights and the rule of law that we aspire to here at home in our yet-to-be perfected democracy. At times—as much as Governor Romney or Congressman Ryan might not like to admit it—this involves a certain degree of humility and willingness to acknowledge our own shortcomings. Qualities that stem not from weakness but from strength, a deep and abiding faith and confidence in our ability as a people to learn from past mistakes and fashion a better democracy.
Seventy-plus years ago, in a world that in many respects was far more dangerous than our own, Franklin Roosevelt understood this. He knew better than anyone in the dark days of 1940-41 that there was an urgent need to build up America’s military capabilities, to render our nation second to none in armed strength. But he also knew that such a military buildup would be useless in the long run if people around the world did not believe that America’s cause was their cause, that what we were fighting for was not to establish an “American century” but rather to join with what he called “the anguished common people of this earth” in building a world where freedom would mean “the supremacy of human rights everywhere.” The United States, he believed, could play a unique role in this effort, not by virtue of our military or industrial power, but rather because of our willingness to lead not by force but by example. As he said in 1941,
Since the beginning of our American history, we have been engaged in change—in a perpetual peaceful revolution—a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly adjusting itself to changing conditions—without the concentration camp or the quick-lime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.
To Roosevelt, then, even in a world ravaged by war, “the mere conquest of our enemies [was] not enough.” It was also critical that the United States do all it could “to conquer the doubts and the fears, the ignorance and the greed, which made this horror possible.” As such, the American people had to face “the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together, in the same world, at peace.”
By reaching out to the world in Cairo, Indonesia, Moscow, and elsewhere, President Obama has shown that he understands the need “to cultivate the science of human relationships.” He has also made it eminently clear that he can be a ruthless adversary when dealing with the Taliban or the top leadership of al Qaeda. Based on the bluster and saber-rattling tendencies of Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan, however, it would appear that they still have much to learn about exercise of foreign policy. In this sense, Vice President Biden is surely correct when he says that “the President has led with a steady hand and clear vision” and that all of the “loose talk” the Romney-Ryan team seems to relish in risks “painting the United States into a dangerous corner.” After all, as the Vice President, also said, the “last thing” the American people want or need “is another ground war in the Middle East.”
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.