Teddy Roosevelt and His Big Stick
President Theodore Roosevelt’s interventionist foreign policy subverted the Constitution and helped transform America into the most powerful nation on Earth.
Describing his foreign policy, Roosevelt quoted a West African proverb: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." As president, Roosevelt used "big stick diplomacy" to seize unprecedented executive power in handling international affairs.
This notion of spreading American values and ideals throughout the world helped make the U.S. a world power, but it also greatly weakened constitutional government by making the executive branch supreme in foreign policy. This set a precedent that still exists today.
Roosevelt adhered to the Progressive concept that government should be used to help the needy and combat societal injustice. This, combined with an underlying American sense of manifest destiny, influenced Roosevelt’s attitude toward foreign relations. This attitude led to the perception that any foreign country that did not embrace American views on freedom and democracy was a potential threat to U.S. national security.
As European nations began expanding their spheres of influence, many attempted to infiltrate Latin America. Roosevelt responded by declaring that only the U.S. had authority to intervene in Latin America for the “best interests” of the Western Hemisphere. He stated that “the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, to the exercise of an international police power.” This "Roosevelt Corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine was used to justify future U.S. military interventions, not only in Latin American countries but throughout the world.
The Roosevelt Corollary's first test came when the Dominican Republic defaulted on its debts to Belgium, Italy, and Germany. When these nations threatened to seize the Dominican customs houses, President Roosevelt sent the U.S.S. Detroit to intervene. The Dominicans agreed to allow the U.S. to take over their customs houses and enforce revenue collection, and even though the Senate never ratified the treaty legalizing this agreement, Roosevelt enforced its terms nonetheless.
Cuba had gained independence when the U.S. defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War. When Cubans rebelled against election results in 1906, Roosevelt sent in the military to restore order. He stated, "I should not dream of asking the permission of Congress…" This set a precedent in which future U.S. presidents committed the military to foreign countries for “nation building” purposes without congressional approval.
U.S. officials had long sought to build a canal through Central America so that ships could travel from ocean to ocean without having to go all the way around South America. When Panama revolted against ruling Colombia, President Roosevelt sent warships without congressional consent to support the Panamanians. Roosevelt quickly recognized the hastily created Republic of Panama, and a treaty was negotiated giving the U.S. the right to build the Panama Canal.
Securing the Panama Canal was Roosevelt’s greatest foreign policy achievement and the most vivid example of Roosevelt’s “big stick” diplomacy. But the way it was done was most likely unconstitutional. Roosevelt defended his actions by later stating: “I took the Canal Zone and let Congress debate; and while the debate goes on the Canal does also.”
In 1907, Roosevelt sent the “Great White Fleet” of 16 U.S. warships on the first world naval tour in history to demonstrate military strength. The voyage was especially meant to intimidate Japan, which was expanding into a world power. While the voyage was initially viewed as a great international success for both Roosevelt and the U.S., it encouraged Japan to accelerate naval and arms production to match America. In this way, the fleet’s voyage indirectly played a role in paving the way toward World War II.
While Theodore Roosevelt did much to make the U.S. a world power, he did so by showing contempt not only for Congress but for the constitutional form of government established by the framers. This is partly why America today is so different than what the framers had envisioned. By using unprecedented executive power in international affairs, Theodore Roosevelt was the first modern U.S. president.