THE KING AND THE COWBOY
Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners
By David Fromkin Penguin
256pp. | $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...