Nobel Peace Prize: Theodore Roosevelt Was the Most Important Winner Of All Time

The winner of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday. Past winners of the prize have included advocates of nonviolent resistance to injustice (Martin Luther King, Jr., Lech Walesa, Desmond Tutu), leaders who have collaborated to end conflicts and oppression (Mandela and de Klerk; Arafat, Peres and Rabin), and a U.S. President who happened not to be George W. Bush (I’m a great fan of President Obama, but seriously, Nobel Committee?)

Choosing any winner of this prize as the “greatest” of them all is next to impossible. But if one absolutely had to pick one as more historically important than all the others, perhaps the best choice would be the 1906 winner, Theodore Roosevelt. Were it not for some of Roosevelt’s actions during his presidency, some of the other Peace Prize winners would not have had the opportunity to win recognition for their valiant efforts.

Roosevelt was awarded the prize for his successful mediation of a negotiated end to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. His goal in helping to end the war was to create a balance of power in Northeast Asia favorable to U.S. interests, by giving Japan control of Korea and parts of Manchuria, without letting Russia feel completely defeated (Japanese negotiators had originally insisted on a war costs indemnity from the Russians). As Japan’s rise at the time was seen as helping America’s Open Door policy regarding China, Roosevelt’s approach was a wise one.

But mediation of an end to a war is hardly the only accomplishment of Roosevelt’s foreign policy. In 1903, his administration helped organize the Panamanian revolution for independence from Colombia, in order to ease the process of the U.S. getting the Panama Canal built. Roosevelt supported the building of the canal for both military and economic purposes, and though its overall military importance to the U.S. was small during both World Wars, within three decades of its completion, “America's national income was around 4% higher than it would have been without the canal,” according to Noel Maurer and Carlos Yu. Together with the 1898 Spanish-American War (in which Roosevelt fought) and the 1904 Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, the construction of the canal gave a prosperous, confident United States the chance to flex its muscles on the international stage, proving to the world that it was a power to be reckoned with.

What does all this have to do with the cause of international peace to which the Nobel Committee is devoted? Over the last century, Roosevelt’s role in America’s rise to the status of world power has been critical in making America able to help end the horrors of WWI, crush fascism in WWII, and pressure the Soviet Union to give up its hold on Eastern Europe (and then collapse itself) without the need for WWIII. Had America’s 26th President not taken the lead in making the U.S. bold enough to use military force commensurate with its economic might, the country may very well have stood on the international sidelines throughout the first half of the 20th century (it did just that in the 1920s, sadly), allowing totalitarian powers to ravage the Eastern Hemisphere with impunity. The institutions created in the aftermath of WWII, in turn, might never have come about, and thus would never have won Nobel Peace Prizes of their own.

But just as importantly, the fact that the Peace Prize was given to a man frequently regarded as a warmonger illustrates a fundamental truth of international politics: good intentions, however admirable, are rarely strong enough to stand on their own against sheer power. Indeed, such intentions, if they are to be realized in a complex, frequently dangerous world, must have strength of arms to support and defend them.

Today, America and the world are fortunate that one of Roosevelt’s successors, both as President of the U.S. and as Nobel Peace Laureate, understands that violence, ugly though it is, is sometimes necessary as a means to a moral end, and that leadership of a great power frequently entails making difficult decisions about life and death. Let us hope that President Obama’s successors in both roles possess the same understanding.