What should have been the role of the United States in the world in the early twentieth century?

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The answer to this question depends on what is meant by "early twentieth century." If we mean before World War One, the question would likely reference American involvement in Latin America, imperialism in the Philippines, and involvements in attempts to expand economic influence to China. Each of these, it should...

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The answer to this question depends on what is meant by "early twentieth century." If we mean before World War One, the question would likely reference American involvement in Latin America, imperialism in the Philippines, and involvements in attempts to expand economic influence to China. Each of these, it should be fairly clear, was at odds with professions of democracy and human rights, especially the brutal suppression of a rebellion in the Philippines following the Spanish-American War. Frequent interference in the affairs of sovereign nations, it could certainly be argued, was not consistent with American ideals, nor those of any nation born in an anti-colonial struggle.

However, if "early" encompasses the entire period before the First World War, the answer becomes more complex. In the wake of this conflict, the United States attempted to isolate itself from the affairs of European nations in particular, a rejection of the internationalist values expressed in the Fourteen Points of President Woodrow Wilson. This new stance was embodied by the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles by isolationists in the Senate. They refused to ratify it on the grounds that it would have led to American membership in the League of Nations.

The fact that the United States was not involved in the League, and that the nation generally refused to openly support China, France, and Great Britain in the face of aggression by militaristic and fascist dictators, contributed to the outbreak of the Second World War. Many would argue, then, that American foreign policy in this early twentieth century crisis should have been more international in outlook.

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Some historians might argue that the United States should have been a more progressive country in the early twentieth century, as domestically, many Presidents were moving towards a more progressive agenda. For example, Theodore Roosevelt used the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to break apart monopolies and instituted federal legislation such as the Hepburn Railroad Act and Pure Food and Drug Act to make railroad rates fairer and to regulate the quality of food and drugs, respectively.

However, internationally, Roosevelt's agenda was one of enforcing American imperialism on other countries. In 1898 (slightly before the period in the question), Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, ordered Admiral Dewey to attack the Philippines if war broke out between Spain the United States (which happened after the explosion of the U.S. battleship the Maine in Havana harbor). This was the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, which led the U.S. to institute the Platt Amendment in Cuba. This legislation restricted Cuba's ability to make agreements with other countries and allowed the U.S. to intervene in Cuba's domestic affairs. Later, Teddy Roosevelt fomented a revolution in Colombia so that Panama would break away from Colombia. This revolution facilitated Roosevelt's building of the Panama Canal. His idea was to facilitate shipping from one coast of the U.S. to the other.

During the Taft administration, the U.S. pursued a policy of "dollar diplomacy" that promoted American investment abroad, particularly in Latin America and the Far East. It was not until Wilson's entry into World War I in 1917 that the U.S. supported a policy that, at least on the surface, was aimed at promoting international diplomacy and world peace. Until that time, the U.S. pursued an imperialist agenda that was aimed at aiding the American economy and facilitating American conquests abroad.

The U.S. should have taken a more progressive moral stance that provided assistance in the form of financial aid and technical knowledge to countries that were struggling to feed themselves, such as Cuba. This type of humanitarian aid would have provided greater stability than the constant military interventions conducted by the U.S. If the U.S. choose to intervene in a country such as Panama to build infrastructure that would benefit Americans, the American government could have also provided local assistance, such as setting up healthcare clinics or working to eradicate disease-carrying insects. The U.S. should have been a moral example rather than an unfettered interventionist. 

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