The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners, by David Fromkin, Penguin, 256 pp., $25.95
I once had a professor—a lapsed ambassador, as it happens—who described the realist theory of international relations as “the billiard ball school of thought.” Realists, he said, thought of nations as billiard balls, moved about by the impact of outside forces, their behavior explainable in terms of external circumstances. In his new book, The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners, the distinguished historian David Fromkin presses a dissenting view. No doubt the momentous events in the history of nations are due partly to “vast, impersonal, and complex forces,” Fromkin says. But he insists that such “cataclysmic shiftings” are also the product of individual action—circumstantial, contingent, individual choice.
Fromkin’s case in point is the 1906 Algeciras Conference, an often-overlooked gathering of the European powers and the United States that, in Fromkin’s view, cemented the emerging alliance between the United States and Britain and adumbrated the shape of the postwar world to come. The outcome of the conference would not have been possible, Fromkin argues, but for the secret partnership between President Theodore Roosevelt and Britain’s Edward VII.
Fromkin certainly has a point. The Algeciras Conference demonstrates the pivotal role statesmen can play in the workings of the international system. But the story of the conference is not the “special relationship” between Roosevelt and Edward VII, for which little evidence exists. The story is the emergence of the United States as a world power, facilitated by Roosevelt’s deft diplomacy and skillful leadership.
The conference convened in January 1906 in Spain but, as Fromkin ably explains, its origins had been established two years earlier in a series of diplomatic agreements between France and Great Britain. The agreements themselves focused on long-festering colonial disputes; the final pact, called the Entente Cordiale, however, represented something more momentous. Abandoning its centuries-old policy of avoiding any alliance with a continental European power—its “splendid isolation”—Great Britain committed itself to an informal partnership with France on issues of mutual concern relating to the European continent. And the issue that concerned Britain the most was Germany.
“Retrenchment,” Fromkin notes, “was the order of the day in London.” Chastened by its recent losses in the South African Boer War, Britain felt increasingly vulnerable and overextended. Fromkin might also have mentioned Britain’s declining economic output relative to that of other industrialized nations—a decline that was making it ever harder for Britain to maintain its vast colonial holdings. But perhaps the most important factor in London’s policy shift was the behavior of Berlin. In the late 1890s, the Germans, already owners of the strongest land army in Europe, launched a rapid naval buildup along with an aggressive campaign of colonial acquisition. London had been willing to concede military preeminence on the European continent to Germany for years, but an expansionist Germany in possession of a world-class navy was another thing entirely: that was a direct threat to the security of the British Empire. The entente with France was Britain’s way of checking the German advance.
The Germans were surprised by the new Anglo-French understanding and almost immediately looked for a way to disrupt it. They did not have to wait long. As Fromkin explains, Britain had agreed, in one of the entente’s constitutive treaties, to permit France a free hand in Morocco. The French soon attempted to force the Moroccan government to accept French control of its affairs, violating an 1880 treaty guaranteeing Moroccan independence. Sensing an opportunity, Germany’s Kaiser William II denounced French policy in Morocco and declared that his nation would defend Morocco’s political integrity. He demanded an international conference to settle the dispute.
Berlin was bidding to divide Britain from France, but had another aim as well. The Germans hoped to draw in the United States as an informal ally. Enter Theodore Roosevelt. Even before the kaiser’s public statement in support of Moroccan independence, the German foreign office had attempted to enlist Roosevelt’s support for the German position. When France resisted calls for an international meeting and Britain refused to intervene, the German government went back to Roosevelt, raising the prospect of war unless the French capitulated. Roosevelt reluctantly agreed to mediate and succeeded in prevailing upon the French to attend a conference of European powers.
According to Fromkin, what happened when the conference finally convened in early 1906 was due to a secret relationship between Roosevelt and Edward VII. After weeks of negotiations, France and Germany deadlocked on the question of how Morocco would be policed. German representatives refused to accept French policing and renewed the threat of armed conflict. With the outcome of the conference in the balance, Roosevelt proposed his own plan, ostensibly a compromise but in fact strongly weighted toward France. With the plan on the table, the president cabled the kaiser, reminding William of his pledge from a year before to accept, in exchange for Roosevelt’s help in convening the conference, whatever outcome Roosevelt found most just and fair.
In reality, the kaiser had made no such pledge. The German ambassador in Washington had exaggerated to Roosevelt Berlin’s willingness to follow the president’s lead. But when Roosevelt threatened to make the ambassador’s pledge public, the German government opted to honor its surrogate’s commitment. Germany swallowed Roosevelt’s compromise, and the Algeciras Conference ended with the Entente Cordiale intact, France’s continental position strengthened, and the United States as a major player on the world scene.
What any of this had to do with a secret friendship between Roosevelt and Edward VII is hard to see. Fromkin contends that the two men’s cooperation was close and consequential, but he offers virtually no evidence that they shared any relationship beyond that typical of friendly heads of state. In particular, he fails to show that Edward VII played any role in Roosevelt’s attempt at Algeciras to secure an agreement favorable to France.
No one talked Roosevelt into his pro-French compromise proposal. The proposal was entirely consistent with his goals for the conference—Roosevelt sent the American delegation to Algeciras with specific instructions to preserve the Entente Cordiale—and with his broader European policy. Roosevelt favored France because of his assessment of American interests and Europe’s shifting balance of power. He believed the United States would soon become by far the strongest, most productive commercial nation in the world and emerge, by virtue of this economic prowess, as a bona fide great power in the international system—maybe the greatest power. But America’s rise depended on safe trade routes and open markets, among other things. Roosevelt feared that Germany’s militaristic belligerence threatened both. Already Germany was fueling a European arms race; German ascendancy might lead to armed conflict on the high seas or to colonial intrusions in the Western Hemisphere. German militarism, Roosevelt concluded, was destabilizing the international system and threatening American security. Roosevelt didn’t need Edward VII to help him reach this assessment or to craft a policy consistent with it, and Fromkin presents no evidence that Edward did either.
Rather than provide support for his claim of a special friendship, Fromkin spends the bulk of his book attempting to develop parallels between the careers of his protagonists. Unfortunately, these parallels are neither significant nor telling. For one thing, despite Fromkin’s best efforts to resuscitate Edward’s reputation, the argument that the king was a serious person with serious influence in the British Foreign Office—that he was a true peer of the American president—never gets off the ground. Fromkin gamely tries to connect Edward’s various yachting excursions and visits to French bordellos with the genesis of the Entente Cordiale. The effort is imaginative, but unpersuasive. Walter Bagehot famously argued in The English Constitution that the modern British monarchy is a dignified, rather than efficient, institution. In short, it exercises no real power over policymaking. Nothing in Fromkin’s sketch of Edward VII challenges this insight.
More troubling, the central parallel Fromkin proposes—that Roosevelt, like Edward, was regarded by the educated public as “something of a clown” when he came to office—rests on a deeply inaccurate portrayal of Theodore Roosevelt. Fromkin’s principal source for this contention is apparently the professional snob Henry Adams, who frequently remarked on Roosevelt’s supposedly deficient intellect. But Adams was not representative: by the time Roosevelt joined the 1900 Republican presidential ticket, he boasted a well-earned reputation as a serious historian, a thoughtful writer on subjects from frontier life to ornithology, and as a reform-minded political practitioner. Indeed, the party bosses who attempted to derail Roosevelt’s career and the many commentators who criticized his political performance over the years did so not because they thought Roosevelt was intellectually callow, but because they thought he was all too serious about pursuing the social and political reforms he had trenchantly analyzed and persuasively advocated for decades.
Once Roosevelt came to the White House, there was no doubt about who was in charge. For nearly eight years, he controlled the nation’s domestic agenda. In foreign policy, he was effectively his own secretary of state. His perception of American interests was sharp and cogent, his knowledge of foreign affairs vast. Between Edward VII and President Roosevelt, there is simply no comparison.
Over the course of his presidency, Roosevelt not only bartered peace in Morocco but prevented British and German military action against Venezuela, negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War, helped preserve the multi-nation Open Door policy in China, and deterred Japanese aggression in the Pacific by sending the American fleet on a world tour.
Along the way, he secured European acquiescence to U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, sealing off the Americas from Europe’s colonial wars. The United States under Roosevelt could be a disruptive and sometimes lawless force—witness Roosevelt’s antics in obtaining the Panama Canal Zone. But Roosevelt’s America was mostly a great-power stabilizer, even a peacekeeper. In this sense, Roosevelt’s performance at Algeciras foreshadowed America’s emergence as the balance wheel of the international system, and eventually, as the system’s indispensable nation.
This was far from inevitable. Though the United States pursued imperial adventures of its own in Cuba and the Philippines in the 1890s, U.S. public opinion at the time of Roosevelt’s presidency remained steadfastly isolationist. Roosevelt opted to take only observer status at the Algeciras Conference because he knew that Congress would regard any direct U.S. participation as violating the country’s long-standing policy of avoiding European controversies. Consistent with this policy, the United States in the opening decade of the 20th century might have remained detached from affairs in Europe or the Pacific and focused on its own domestic troubles. It might have confined its foreign policy to the Western Hemisphere and the Philippines.
But it did not, because Roosevelt would not. He realized that such options were dangerously shortsighted and potentially disastrous. He perceived that the United States was increasingly critical to the international balance of power, and he understood when few others did that American economic prosperity and national security was increasingly implicated by the structure of the international system. Fromkin alludes more than once to Roosevelt’s internationalist vision, but he never pauses to explore its tenets or to mine its significance. And yet it was that vision, informed in equal parts by Roosevelt’s racialism, his belief in the civilizing force of democracy, and his hard-nosed realpolitik, that inspired Roosevelt’s consequential foreign policy. Fromkin’s study demonstrates, perhaps above all else, that a full-scale examination of Roosevelt’s foreign policy is overdue.