Woodrow Wilson's Presidency

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How was Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy different from Theodore Roosevelt's?

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Greg Jackson eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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While both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson believed that the best foreign policy was one that promoted the peaceful relations between nations, the way they approached this goal was markedly different.

For starters, Roosevelt took an imperialistic approach to promote American interests abroad. He felt that by extending his country's influence globally he could promote democracy and support the interests of the United States at the same time. This approach can be seen in the support of Panamanian independence which was ostensibly done to support the sovereignty of the Panamanians but clearly also to get favorable conditions for an American controlled canal across the isthmus. Roosevelt favored U.S. involvement in foreign affairs of all sorts when it could help the country grow as a global power.

Wilson, on the other hand, favored keeping the country neutral concerning most foreign affairs. For instance, he only sent troops into Mexico when Pancho Villa forced his hand by raiding American border towns. He also did his best to keep the country out of the First World War (Roosevelt favored intervention). Wilson supported other countries' right to self-governance as laid out in his 14 Points. Roosevelt, conversely, was much more of an imperialist and favored the colonial pursuits of imperialistic nations.

You might summarize the difference between the two presidents' foreign policy this way: Roosevelt wanted to expand the country's influence abroad and make it a beacon of democracy and power to other nations. Wilson wanted to focus on domestic affairs and only got involved in major international matters when he saw it as essential to safeguarding America's interests at home.

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pholland14 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Roosevelt believed in projecting American power. He sent the Great White Fleet on a worldwide tour to show off the modernized American navy and to state American interests in the Pacific. Roosevelt supported Panamanian independence in order to create the Panama canal. He signed the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine which gave the United States the right to intervene in Latin America. Roosevelt also arbitrated in the Russo-Japanese War, an act which won a Nobel Peace Prize. At the onset of WWI, Roosevelt argued for immediate American intervention on the side of the Allies and even offered to lead a division of American soldiers in the conflict. Roosevelt believed that the United States had a duty to project power and its way of life abroad in order to cultivate both manly virtue at home and American values abroad.

Wilson, on the other hand, was more idealistic. He did not want to be known for his foreign policy but rather his domestic agenda. Wilson sent troops into Mexico in order to chase after Pancho Villa and to reestablish the rightful ruler after he was overthrown. While Wilson allowed financiers to loan billions of dollars to the Allies, he did not ask Congress for a declaration of war against the Central Powers until 1917 after Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmerman note surfaced. After the war, Wilson's Fourteen Points were seen as a way to promote self-determination for Europeans and to ensure a peace without revenge. Wilson's undoing happened with his stubbornness over the League of Nations. The League ultimately had no power without the United States's backing and proved to be powerless in the buildup to WWII.

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy is typically said to have been much more idealistic than that of Theodore Roosevelt.  However, this is not completely accurate.

There is no doubt that Roosevelt’s policies were not very idealistic.  He did win the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating between Russia and Japan to end their war.  However, he did so largely because he thought the war was contrary to US interests, not because he loved peace for its own sake.  Roosevelt is known for his “big stick” policies in which he used US military power to advance the interests of the country.  This can be seen, for example, in his interventions in Latin America when he thought developments there were hurting the US.

Wilson, by contrast, is seen as idealistic.  This is particularly true with respect to WWI.  In that instance, Wilson wanted to use the US military (through its part in the victory in WWI) to create a new world order that would be fairer, more democratic, and therefore more peaceful.  However, Wilson was not always as idealistic as that.  He, too, intervened often in the affairs of Latin American countries.

Thus, we can say that Wilson was more idealistic than Roosevelt, but we must not overstate his level of idealism.

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