America’s First Firsters

Advocates for the new Administration say they don’t take “America First” to mean the isolationist credo of 1940 that argued against US involvement in World War II (before Japan attacked Pearl harbor).   They say it means putting American interests first in our dealings with foreign countries.

Leaving aside the fact that I and other US diplomats spent our lives advancing American interests around the world for the past decades, that we pushed agreements that expand US values and US benefits, what does the new Administration think it means?

So, I looked back at the first of these firsters:   Teddy Roosevelt.  He was a forceful advocate for America’s involvement in world affairs; indeed, under Roosevelt we became a contender.  He sailed a fleet of 16 battleships around the world, blocked the Europeans from collecting debt in South America, imposed US rules of conduct and order on the hemisphere, built a canal in Panama where the French failed, and called Russia and Japan to New Hampshire to make peace.  In sum, Roosevelt forcefully put the United States at the center of world affairs.  He did it to advance US interests and US power. In the first years of the twentieth century, the US became a world power on the basis of our values.  We began to make the rules.

What lessons can we learn?  Well, that we need to use all instruments of power –diplomatic, economic, military–in concert to advance our values and interests together.   Teddy wasn’t just show, not just shiny ships and bluster.  He marshaled power to achieve goals of justice (as he saw it) and to make America a new kind of world power: one built on principle.

Could we approach the world now as Teddy did then?   With China bulging out, India coming into its own, Europe and Japan finding their feet and Russia lashing out, we need a strategy that fits the times.   Perhaps not exactly Teddy, but  values need to form the core of our power,  our tools need to work in concert and  we need to make –and follow- just principles and rules.   As we approach a confusing global landscape, shouldn’t we ask ourselves:  What would Teddy do today?

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