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Historiography on Roosevelt’s diplomacy

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1.4 Historiography on Roosevelt’s diplomacy

Historiography on American foreign relations was for most of the 20th century divided amongst three major groupings: “traditionalists”, “realists” and “New Left”. The traditionalists were near-unanimous in assessing nineteenth-century American diplomacy as "successful," and, if having more doubts about the twentieth century, still felt that the United States had achieved world leadership while simultaneously following policies supportive of other nations' aspirations to self-determination, democracy, and prosperity.

The realists gave nineteenth-century American diplomacy high marks for the pursuit of generally limited and attainable objectives, but lamented the tendency in the twentieth century to embrace abstract and universalistic goals without regard to power realities. The rise of the New Left school in the 1960s would cut a wide swath through the study of American diplomacy. Reacting in part to the catastrophes of the Vietnam War, their model emphasized economic factors as the driving force behind American foreign policy. The major thrust of New Left revisionism has been toward rewriting the history of the Cold War to place major responsibility upon the United States, but there was also an accompanying reading back into the past to enhance the image of an expansionist and aggressive America.37

The dominance of these three groupings was challenged in the twilight of the 20th century however, as the historiographies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft demonstrate. In 1990, it was judged that William Appleman Williams’s economics-oriented “Open Door” thesis was the “dominant interpretive paradigm in American diplomatic history”38 and that a hegemony paradigm had emerged as the consensus in relation to the literature on Roosevelt and Taft. This paradigm was regarded as originating from the common emphasis on Roosevelt’s “big stick” method of diplomacy and placed a keen emphasis on dependency theory.39 Yet as the twentieth century drew to a close, there began to emerge a challenge to the consensus.

Richard H. Collin was one of the chief proponents of this challenge. In a 1995 article of significant importance to the debate on Roosevelt/Taft historiography, he identified weaknesses with the hegemony paradigm and put forward his own competing concept of “symbiosis”, which emphasizes cultural affairs more than strategic and economic ones and looks for contextual interrelations in a broad international perspective to help explain conflicts between specific nations.40 Collin actually argues that scholars of the hegemony paradigm recognize the importance of cultural relations between peoples but choose to emphasize power contests either among great powers or between imperial powers and weaker ones. His concept, by contrast, more centrally emphasizes cultural interaction and corrects what he sees as a blemish in the hegemony approach.41

Collin judges that his “symbiosis” approach is perfectly suited to considering the context of crisis and global change that confronted Taft and his predecessor. Having remarked that he regards David Healy’s Drive to Hegemony: The United States in the Caribbean, 1898-1917 as being the “high point of the hegemonic framework”, Collin suggests that this overly determinist interpretation of conscious empire can be better explained by going beyond the hegemonic concepts of power- economic, strategic and military.42 While economics, strategy and power may explain much in the history of U.S. relations with Latin America, to Collin these explanations are incomplete and unsatisfying. In an excellent example, he cites the Caribbean’s love for baseball and Latin America’s fondness for U.S. comic books. While earlier scholars had regarded this as an instance of cultural imperialism43, Collin chooses to see it as a natural happening that occurred without conscious design.

The historiography on the Panama Canal – a much discussed legacy of the Roosevelt presidency- is regarded by Collin to be a prime area for implementation of his symbiosis concept. He believes that his new approach can revise the standardly hegemonic consensus on the subject. The historiography on the Panama Canal had been overwhelmingly condemnatory of Roosevelt throughout the 20th century, with a 1940 publication even comparing him to Hitler.44 The standard, hegemonic interpretation was summed up as follows: Roosevelt and the United States wanted a canal, Colombia objected to giving up its rights in Panama, and Roosevelt encouraged, fomented, or caused a “revolution” in Panama, which then was “free” to negotiate its own canal treaty with the United States. The result gave the United States what it wanted, left Panama in a state of permanent dependency as an American protectorate, and made Colombia an example of what happens to a small Latin American nation that tangles with the Colossus to the North. Collin’s symbiosis framework leads to a radically different interpretation in which he argues that the conflict was cultural, driven by Colombia’s President Marroquín.45 In choosing to avoid the overemphasis on two nations in diplomatic conflict that is inherent in the hegemonic framework, he argues that the religious character of the conflicts between the U.S. and Spain, Latin America and the Philippines has been overlooked so far. To him, the U.S. position as a Protestant nation protecting the Catholic majority of Filipinos from a militant Muslim minority was perhaps naive progressive paternalism, but it was far different than simple economic or strategic expansionism.46 Edward Crapol’s essay is further evidence of a broader trend during this period, one that sought to craft a less moralistic historiography of imperialism.47 His work is reflective of an attempt to advance the primacy of moral responsibility as a motive, rather than the economic and strategic policies so stressed by proponents of the hegemonic network of scholars.

The most substantial disagreements on Roosevelt/Taft-era historiography center on Latin America and Central America, where the memory of the big stick and of later U.S. interventions has created a sense and historiography of victimization. There is a consensus that the United States was paternalistic and insensitive in the region.48 In stressing the cultural exceptionalism that lay at the heart of Latin American nationalism and its resistance to foreign domination, these scholars were instrumental in shifting the historiography on Roosevelt-era diplomacy away from the dominant materialist, hegemonic framework that had for decades been unchallenged.

It is also worth noting a further splinter group in the historiographical debate over American diplomacy. This is the corporatism school, which moved away from the hegemonic diction with its linkage of domestic, diplomatic and economic policies in an internationalized context. While corporatism’s primary focus is still economic, Collin’s “symbiosis” uses whatever defines the interactive elements at a particular time, be they economic, domestic politics etc.49 His is a fluid framework that is not rigidly aligned to material concepts like the hegemony school. As he concludes, “symbiosis can accommodate a wider cultural corporatism, internationalized not only in its economic focus but also in its eagerness to emphasize domestic politics of all nations, imaginative culture, and intellectual change… Symbiosis is a framework for the new internationalist, modernist, cultural community that began in earnest with Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency and influenced more of the events and peoples in the world than the receding nineteenth century’s nationalist economic interest conflicts”.50

Interpretations on the motives and legacy of Roosevelt are still the source of dispute. While some rush to label Roosevelt an imperialist with an appetite for conflict, there are scholars who counter with the fact that the country experienced no major war on his almost eight year watch, a record rarely mentioned by his enemies who represented him as always bellicose and belligerent.51 Ninkovich refers to the touchstone of Roosevelt’s diplomacy as being right rather than might.52 There remains no consensus on his presidency, which is not surprising given the magnitude and fallout from it.

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