Theodore Roosevelt steered a middle course domestically. However, his foreign policy proved more conservative and based on the national interest. Roosevelt was no Wilsonian. He projected American strength when necessary to protect American interests. His activist foreign policy transformed the U.S. into a global power and regional police force.
Roosevelt affected foreign policy before he became president. As assistant secretary of the navy, he placed the armed forces on a war footing as conflict with Spain loomed. He overstepped his authority, but no one countermanded his orders to the fleet to prepare for battle. He took this zest with him into the White House leading Republican Party boss Mark Hannah to exclaim “Now look, that damned cowboy is President of the United States.”
In 1902, Venezuela refused to pay its debts to Britain, Germany and Italy. The Venezuelan president assumed Roosevelt would invoke the Monroe Doctrine to keep the Europeans out of the hemisphere and prevent them from collecting. Venezuela miscalculated. The three nations placed a blockade on Venezuela and Roosevelt did nothing at first. In his view, the Europeans had a right to collect the debt. After the sinking of Venezuelan ships and bombardment of the coast, Roosevelt intervened diplomatically. In early 1903, the parties agreed on a payment plan.
In response to the debt crisis, the president issued his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The Roosevelt Corollary stated that the United States would intervene in the event a Caribbean or Latin American country defaulted on their debts to Europe. American intervention made European militarism unnecessary. Essentially, Roosevelt warned Europe to stay out of the Americas. In particular, he aimed the corollary at Germany, who considered seizing Venezuela’s customs houses. This became known as the “Big Stick policy.” Roosevelt claimed that if you “speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.”
Two years later, President Roosevelt negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese bludgeoned the Russians in the conflict, but the Czar refused to surrender. Roosevelt agreed to serve as arbiter and worked out an agreement leading to peace. Despite his efforts, both sides felt slighted by the Treaty of Portsmouth. In particular, Japan wanted Russia to pay an exorbitant indemnity. Roosevelt refused leaving the Japanese delegation insulted and angry.
President Roosevelt respected the Japanese, but was a realist. He knew they looked to expand their empire and believed a conflict between the U.S. and Japan likely. In order to impress American might onto the Japanese, the president ordered the U.S. battle fleet to circumnavigate the globe. He had the ships painted white for effect and made sure the 16 battleships made a stop in Japan. The Great White Fleet took 14 months to voyage around the world and the Japanese were duly impressed after its stop in Yokohama.
The president did more than issue threats in the form of proclamations or ocean voyages. In 1903, he staged a coup in Panama to gain the territory needed to build a canal between oceans. At the time, Colombia owned Panama and spurned American attempts to gain access to the isthmus. The president aided Panamanians in their revolution and used the navy to block Colombian troop ships. The new Panamanian nation agreed to American terms to lease the Canal Zone and allow Americans to build. The canal was finished in 1914. Despite the boon to world trade, many remain disturbed by American actions that made the canal possible.
President Roosevelt operated a foreign policy based on realism and national interest. The president believed a strong military necessary to institute policy. He wished to negotiate from a position of power in order to further national interest. He unfurled the so-called “big stick” when Japan complained about the Treaty of Portsmouth. He unleashed the stick on Colombia when they refused to negotiate Canal Zone rights. The national interest came first and all other considerations secondary.