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The Intellectual Foundations of the Biden Revolution: Why Is There No Rooseveltian School of Foreign Policy?

Authors: Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry  

Affiliation: Johns Hopkins University, Department of Political SciencePrinceton University, Department of Politics 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Policy 

Date/Place: July 2, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 5054


Keywords: Modern Liberalism, Liberal Internationalism, Rooseveltian School, Biden Administration, and US Foreign Policy


This article advocates for rediscovering the political legacy left by former US President Franklin Roosevelt in order to successfully deal with the familiar and new challenges facing the US today under the leadership of the Biden administration, as well as liberal democracies around the world, especially since the conditions experienced by the US and the free world in the Roosevelt era are relatively similar to the conditions the world is passing through today. The program that the liberal Biden administration embarks on locally and internationally is also similar in its ideological foundations to the one that Roosevelt established before World War II. Thus, understanding the basics of the “Rooseveltian tradition” and its impact in the twentieth century will enable us to understand the intellectual underpinnings of Biden’s agenda. In this way, the authors seek to make “Rooseveltian Liberal Internationalism” a distinct school in American foreign policy along with other schools of varying influence, such as Neo-conservatism, Realism, Isolationism, Anti-imperialism, Idealism and others, most of which were also associated with the names of presidents and historical figures such as Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson. The article is divided into six parts. The first part discusses what the “Rooseveltian Tradition” is, explaining the domestic and global implications of the Rooseveltian project, particularly its name’s association with the postwar liberal international order. On the US domestic level, for example, his administration brought about a revolutionary reformulation where it reinvented the liberal democratic state, expanding its activities, resources and influence. On the global level, he moved the US from being a major regional power to a leading global power at all levels. Roosevelt laid the foundations for what became known as the “Pax Americana Century.” Roosevelt’s era was characterized by the growing impact of the industrial revolution and later world technological revolution, as modernity made the world more interconnected and deepened the intense interdependence between many factors and fields. Therefore, the goal of modern liberalism and liberal internationalism was to secure and realize basic liberal values under radically changed conditions. The authors argue that approaches such as realism (based on an anarchist understanding of how the world works) and absolute economic liberty (based on laissez-faire) are incapable of providing appropriate and adequate mechanisms for restraint and cooperation in a highly interdependent world. So, the Rooseveltian tradition has become more current than any other ‘once upon a time’ because many of the core problems in global politics (such as nuclear proliferation, climate change, pandemics) are interconnected problems that spread rapidly across borders. In the second part, the authors explain the foundations of the modern liberal state according to the Rooseveltian perspective. They first provide an overview of the liberal philosophy foundations and its most prominent thinkers in the twentieth century. This philosophy was characterized by pragmatism and adaptability, it viewed modern science and engineering as sources of new wealth and power, and saw the “modern regulatory state” as a tool to reduce the negative effects of industry and modernity in general, which had come to threaten human well-being and undermine the foundations of prosperity. Now, contemporary liberals argue that new conditions require the state to make new arrangements for freedom and the common good. Thus, they call upon the state to exercise more commitments such as redistributing wealth and power and preventing excessive stratification and inequality. The third part discusses the foundations and projects of Rooseveltian internationalism. Rooseveltian belongs to the family of liberal internationalist approaches, it asserts that the high and increasing global interdependence has profound implications for peace, security, prosperity, capitalism, health, and the environment. This tradition has been – since Roosevelt – in progressive evolution, constantly innovating to solve problems that were not even imagined by the Roosevelt administration itself. Moreover, the Roosevelt project gave great importance to the number and role of international organizations and multilateral efforts to solve problems. Through its designs and institutions, it paved the way for a golden age of continuous economic growth and prosperity accompanying the spread of capitalism in once impoverished societies across the world. The Roosevelts also worked to find solutions to the ecology problem with the increasing negatives of industrial expansion at the time. Roosevelt himself attached great importance to the environment, reforestation, and the preservation of natural resources. Today’s world is experiencing similar problems at the level of the economy, the proliferation of weapons, and the environment, all of which require invoking the Rooseveltian model to address them. The fourth part highlights the issue of “promoting democracy” around the world as one of the most notable achievements of the Rooseveltian Project. Liberal democracy was in a state of terrible decline in the thirties of the last century and subject to sabotage by fascist forces, but Roosevelt’s efforts to support democracy and his eagerness for the liberal democracies to win in a major competition against their alternatives saved the US and the free world. Roosevelt also realized that democracy could not survive in smaller and more vulnerable countries without the protection of the United States, making clear the meaning of “democratic solidarity.” Moreover, Roosevelt and later liberal internationalists believed that the prospects for global peace and prosperity, and effective resolution of global problems, would advance as liberal democracy and capitalism spread to more countries; so his goals were not simply to defeat fascism but also to rebuild them as liberal democracies. The fifth part discusses the Rooseveltian foundations of American success, providing ample historical evidence to argue for its positive effects. For instance, the Rooseveltian project saved liberal democracy in the hours of great danger during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, both domestically and internationally. It reconstructed Germany and Japan and integrated them into the international order led by Washington, enabling the US to play a pivotal global role and undermine many imperialist empires, built strong alliances that served to contain the Soviets, and strengthened the ties between democracies through institutions and treaties, which contributed to raising the number of independent countries in the world and liberating them from Imperialist and dictatorial powers. It brought America and the international order peace, unprecedented prosperity and security, and enabled Washington to play an important role in the great struggles of the twentieth century. In short, it has made the world safer for democracy. The final part argues that the new Biden administration has developed a comprehensive Rooseveltian agenda for change aimed at returning the US to the center of progressive liberal leadership to address the twenty-first-century problems, but it is hard to know how successful it will be. Nevertheless, the authors argue that Biden’s progressive agenda is the next logical step in the evolution of modern liberalism and internationalism. There is a lot the Biden administration can learn from the Roosevelt school to address current domestic and international challenges. For example, the Biden administration has placed the threat of China’s rise as a central topic among these challenges. It is in the footsteps of Rooseveltianism in building alliances, global American engagement, supporting democracy and human rights, promoting a national industrial policy, and granting more powers to the state in order to renew the economy and infrastructure to meet this challenge as Roosevelt did in the face of his era’s challenges. The Biden administration’s remarkably central concern with the problem of the environment, climate change, and pandemics is also reminiscent of the Rooseveltian tradition, the only tradition that has provided such ideas and programs within US foreign policy. Rooseveltianism also provides a playbook for an American foreign policy that effectively competes with the Chinese, but at the same time opens itself up to cooperation with them in overcoming common global problems, as Washington effectively did in the Cold War during its fierce competition against the Soviet Union.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate 



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