President Theodore Roosevelt's Foreign Policy

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the foreign policy of President Theodore Roosevelt. We will highlight the key themes and developments surrounding his foreign policy.

A Bold Foreign Policy for a Bold Man

Theodore Roosevelt was one of America's most popular presidents. Roosevelt was a man of tremendous energy: a historian, scientist, soldier, real-life cowboy, and a social reformer, he was a man who had an unbridled zeal for life. Roosevelt was the first president to fly in an airplane: an activity that in those days certainly involved a lot more risk than it does today. He was known for his African safaris in which he hunted elephants and other big game. Roosevelt was robust and bold in his personality, so it should be no surprise that as president he took a bold foreign policy approach.

As president, Roosevelt wanted the U.S. to play a decisive role in world affairs. He took an interventionist approach, meaning he believed the U.S. should intervene in world affairs in order to ensure national well-being. This is in contrast to an isolationist approach, in which a nation ''isolates'' itself from global conflicts and affairs in order to maintain its well-being. Roosevelt's supporters have praised his strong foreign policy and argue he helped spread democratic values throughout the world, while his critics accuse him of being an imperialist. You may or may not have an opinion on Roosevelt's foreign policy, but one this is for certain: it was a bold approach for a bold man. Let's dig deeper and learn more about President Roosevelt's foreign policy.

Theodore Roosevelt was a bold man, and he had a bold foreign policy approach.
president tr

The Importance of Sea Power

As a young man, Roosevelt bought into the idea that a strong navy was essential to the prosperity of a nation. When he served as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy between 1897-98, he implemented policies reflecting this view. When Roosevelt became president (1901-1909), building up a strong navy became a top priority. Between 1907-1909 he commissioned his prided Great White Fleet on a global voyage to showcase the splendor and might of the American Navy. This magnificent fleet of 16 battleships with hulls painted white was basically meant to send a message to friend and foe alike. It was a way of saying: ''Hey, check out our naval might! Don't mess with us!'' One Roosevelt quote that is often tied to the Great White Fleet is ''Speak softly and carry a big stick.'' You can probably figure out the meaning here, but it is the idea that soft-spoken or diplomatic language should be backed up by the threat of force. This view is sometimes referred to as ''Big Stick Diplomacy''.

The Spanish-American War, the Roosevelt Corollary, and the Panama Canal

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Roosevelt resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and formed a volunteer cavalry unit that became known as the ''Rough Riders''. Roosevelt and his men achieved glory for the famous charge up San Juan Hill. The U.S. defeated Spain easily in the ''Splendid Little War'' and as result gained several important Spanish territories, including the Philippines, Cuba, and Guam. Roosevelt was deeply committed to American imperialism, the approach that the U.S. should expand its overseas territories. Once he became president, Roosevelt focused on interests in the Caribbean and Latin America.


Way back in 1823, President James Monroe issued what has come to be known as the Monroe Doctrine. This policy basically stated that European countries should not attempt to colonize or intervene in the foreign policy of the Western Hemisphere (North and South America). It basically said that the Americas were closed to European imperialism. In 1904, President Roosevelt gave his State of the Union address, and articulated what has come to be known as the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. This addendum to the Monroe Doctrine stated that the U.S. had the right to intervene and forcibly prevent European powers from colonization in the Americas. Roosevelt basically decreed that the U.S. would exercise ''international police power'' to spare the Americans (mainly Latin America) from European imperialism. Of course, in reality, the Roosevelt Corollary gave the U.S. a free hand to engage in its own intervention of the region.

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