© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Three presidents, two views of empire, one prize

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 13, 2009 - Even the White House seemed off its game. That was the clear impression from Washington when Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. And that surprise seemed justified.

As so many critics were quick to point out, Obama is early in his administration and it seems a little premature to celebrate his achievements in the interest of peace.

Besides, it’s been almost a century since a sitting U.S. president won the Nobel Peace Prize. The other winners, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (Jimmy Carter won the award for achievements after his presidency), seem worlds away, but there is a lot to learn from their own circumstances, lessons that inform both the power and the limitations facing the United States today.

Indeed, if we can actually stand clear of the noise that immediately surrounded Obama’s selection (Did he deserve the prize? What was the prize committee thinking? Is it politically beneficial to the administration?), what emerges is a central debate about the U.S. role in the world, one with direct consequences for the nation’s politics and for national policy.

Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson both won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end wars. Roosevelt had acted as an outside arbitrator at the end of the Russo-Japanese War, while Wilson had established himself as a major player in brokering the final peace that ended World War I.

At the same time, however, but both men also saw the prize as a validation of their efforts to make the United States into a world power, a process that they assumed granted the United States a unique right to shape the domestic affairs of foreign nations.

As president and assistant secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt had orchestrated a vast increase in U.S. territorial holdings (the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, Cuba, Puerto Rico). Wilson had reaffirmed these holdings and had authorized major interventions in Nicaragua and Haiti. And then, in his greatest act of statesmanship, Wilson sought to guide the treaty negotiations at the end of World War I.

Roosevelt and Wilson both argued that the United States had the responsibility to dictate terms to other countries, especially those that were not great powers. While both men celebrated the right of self-determination, they did not apply those principles to much of what is now called the developing world. Roosevelt was eager to acquire colonies for the United States, and Wilson helped preserve the colonial possessions of the victories Allies after World War I.

At first glance, Obama finds himself in similar circumstances. Some of the criticism at his selection for the prize has emphasized that the United States has yet to extract itself from its intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to this direct intervention, the United States has influence extending throughout the world.

Yet the circumstances could not be more different.

First and foremost, Obama is separated from Roosevelt and Wilson by the transformation of geopolitics brought about by World War II and the Cold War. The United States is no longer a peripheral nation making its claim to be a great power (the process at work during the lives of Roosevelt and Wilson). It enjoys a pre-eminence that may now seem precarious but is nonetheless the starting point for any evaluation of American action.

Equally important, the capacity of powerful nations to dictate the affairs of less powerful nations has lost much of its appeal. Consider the reaction to Obama’s presidency. Much of the comparison between Obama and George W. Bush has been a larger argument about whether the United States can or should intervene in other countries. The Europeans have been particularly revealing. Many have claimed that Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize as a grand statement by Europeans who were trying to shape the future rather than reward the past. Further rejecting their own imperial past, many Europeans have said that the United States should not proceed down the same path.

And those realities capture the fundamental challenges facing this administration. Unlike Roosevelt and Wilson, who hoped to make an empire for the United States in the heyday of empires, Obama finds himself deploying American power and governing foreign countries at the moment when imperialism is a weighty criticism.

Peter J. Kastor is associate professor of history and American culture studies at Washington University. He is the author, most recently, of "America's Struggle with Empire: A Documentary Reader."

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.