Theodore Roosevelt's Presidency

Start Free Trial

Compare the foreign policy of Theodore Roosevelt to that of Woodrow Wilson.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

President Theodore Roosevelt had an active foreign policy. President Roosevelt wanted to expand American influence and make the United States a world power. He also wanted to spread American ideals and ways of living around the world. The phrase “speak softly and carry a big stick” summarizes President Roosevelt’s foreign policy very well.

The United States wanted to build a canal in Central America to shorten the distance of shipping products between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. The United States wanted to build this canal through Colombia, but Colombia refused our offer. President Roosevelt then supported a revolution in Panama, which declared its independence from Colombia. The American navy blocked Colombia from ending the revolution, and the United States quickly recognized Panama as an independent country. The United States quickly signed a deal with Panama to build the canal, and the Panama Canal was eventually built.

The United States did not want European countries to interfere in the affairs of countries in the Americas. As a result, he issued the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. This policy told European countries that the United States would handle any issues that they had with countries in Central America or South America. For example, the United States intervened in the Dominican Republic to help collect taxes so the Dominican Republic could pay its debts to Europe.

President Roosevelt wanted to show the world how powerful the United States was. He sent the American navy, called the Great White Fleet, around the world to showcase America’s power.

President Roosevelt also helped bring an end to a war between Japan and Russia. He helped negotiate an end to this conflict. For his efforts, he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

President Wilson believed in a more idealistic foreign policy based on moral principles. President Wilson hoped to develop friendly relations with the countries of Latin America. He also wanted these countries to have democratic governments. Sometimes his actions did not reflect his beliefs; he sent American troops into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Even with American troops in these countries, democratic governments were not established there.

When World War I began, the United States remained neutral. President Wilson hoped the country could stay out of the war, but our extensive trade with the countries involved in World War I made this difficult. When the United States eventually joined World War I on the side of the Allies, Wilson stated that this war would be a "war to end all wars" and that the American involvement would make the world safe for democratic governments. Neither of these principles proved to be true after the war ended.

When the peace treaty was being negotiated, President Wilson voiced his opposition. President Wilson wanted an easier treaty on the defeated Central Powers. His counterparts in the other Allied countries did not agree with this approach. Wilson did get the creation of the League of Nations as a result of the peace treaty. This organization was designed to prevent future conflicts. However, the United States never joined the League of Nations, and the League of Nations ultimately failed in its goal of keeping world peace. Overall, the peace treaty was a harsh one on the defeated Central Powers.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Theodore Roosevelt's foreign policy was commonly known as "Big Stick Diplomacy," based on his favorite expression to "speak softly and carry a big stick." While his actions in Colombia were somewhat questionable, he did promote U.S. foreign interests in other ways, including sending the U.S. Navy on a tour around the world, the so called "Great White Fleet." His foreign policy was in keeping with his personality, as he was fond of a good scrap from time to time. As Under-Secretary of the Navy under President McKinley, he had ordered Admiral Perry to steam to Manila Harbor after his boss left for work, hoping to engage Spain there. He was always disappointed when war was avoided, even attempting to volunteer to fight in World War I. He was turned down because of his age.

Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy was often denominated "Missionary Diplomacy," as he tended to pursue matters more from a matter of principle than policy. He was idealistic, but at the same time could be stubborn. He sent Gen. John Pershing to Mexico in a failed attempt to capture Pancho Villa; he also interfered in a coup taking place in Mexico. At one point he sent American troops to Verz Cruz, Mexico, making the remark that:

I suppose there is nothing for it but to go down there and take the bull by the horns.

Wilson was somewhat idealistic at the Versailles Peace Conference, but again could be stubborn. He had a young Ho Chi Minh thrown out of the conference when the latter asked for self determination of the people of Indochina. He was not so forceful about the entire Fourteen Points as he was about the League of Nations. When Congress proposed changes to the League covenant, Wilson steadfastly refused to consider them. In the end, the Treaty was not ratified because Wilson would not budge.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The major difference between these two presidents' foreign policies is that President Wilson tried more to be idealistic while President Roosevelt was known for being much more interested in advancing the interests of the United States, regardless of what was "right".  For example, Roosevelt was willing to infringe on Colombian sovereignty and to engage in fairly shady dealings to obtain the right to build the Panama Canal.  By contrast, Wilson tried to pursue a much more idealistic approach.  This is seen most clearly in his attempt to push the Fourteen Points at the peace conference that followed WWI.  

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team