Big Stick Diplomacy

At the dawn of the 20th century, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt assumed the Presidency, following the assassination of President William McKinley. Roosevelt advocated for peace, but believed staunchly in protecting the nation’s interests and safety. Roosevelt borrowed a proverb from old Africa when he voiced the nation’s strategy in foreign policy should be to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”  To explore this concept, consider the following Big Stick Diplomacy definition.

Definition of Big Stick Diplomacy


  1. The ideology that the nation should negotiate for peace, while maintaining a threat of enforcement by military action.


1900    Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Henry L. Sprague (taken from an African proverb)

What is Big Stick Diplomacy

The idea of big stick diplomacy in the U.S. has its origin with President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s attitude at the time was that the United States has a right to police other nations in the Western Hemisphere, and that those nations have no right to cause turmoil or unrest in America. At the time Roosevelt expressed these sentiments, the nation was concerned with the turbulence caused by Europe’s conflict with Latin America.

While Roosevelt engaged in a policy of engaging in negotiations with other nations using diplomatic poise, the nation’s interests were backed by military might. Roosevelt understood that diplomacy and negotiations were needed to keep the peace, but also understood that, without a solid ability to enforce the country’s wishes and security, the U.S. would have no leg to stand on.

Gunboat Diplomacy

Gunboat diplomacy is the international equivalent to the U.S.’ big stick ideology. It refers to the quest for peace through diplomacy, while brandishing a force of naval power capable of enforcing the terms of any agreement made. Gunboat diplomacy and big stick diplomacy are considered by some to be forms of supremacy and domination.

Example of Big Stick Diplomacy through Naval Maneuvering

The political unrest brewing in the Middle East during the 1990s inspired the positioning of U.S. Naval ships in the Persian Gulf, making the statement that violent actions by aggressor nations would face the prospect of declaring war on a superpower nation. As President Bush ordered the protection of oil shipments in 1990, ally nations joined in the operation of protecting the maintenance and shipping of Persian Gulf oil.

This example of big stick diplomacy served to protect the vital oil trade, and underscored the U.S. Navy’s ability to support forceful action by the allied nations. More than 40 years of preparing for war with the Soviet Union had resulted in the creation of a formidable U.S. navy, which possesses the most advanced ships and weapons, and the most advanced aircraft and support equipment, all of which can be launched from the Navy’s position at sea.

Dollar Diplomacy

While big stick diplomacy still has its place in U.S. diplomatic relations, it has been largely replaced by “dollar diplomacy,” in which the U.S. attempts to encourage cooperation by dangling a carrot, rather than threatening with a big stick. The “carrot” in modern diplomatic relations comes in the form of private and commercial investment, financial aid, food subsidies, and trade agreements. In using dollar diplomacy, the penalty for breaching the agreement is usually the withdrawal of the financial or other aid that had been given.

William Howard Taft took over the Presidency from Roosevelt in 1908. Taft was responsible for using dollar diplomacy to spread U.S. influence and control throughout the world. He encouraged Wall Street investors to place their money in foreign markets where the U.S. had strategic interests. Such places of the time included the Panama Canal region, and the Far East.

While Congress criticized Taft’s plan, even refusing to sign certain treaties, he pushed forward, urging private banks and investors to act on their own. A primary goal of dollar diplomacy is to block the attempts of foreign powers to gain a significant foothold in key markets.

Example of Dollar Diplomacy

In the early 1900s, hostilities between the countries of Nicaragua and Panama endangered U.S. interest in the Panama Canal region. President William Taft guaranteed loans made to the Nicaraguan government, and U.S. investors and bankers reorganized the country’s financial structure, as well as the management of its customs services.

In addition to financial assistance, the U.S. encouraged the overthrow of Nicaragua’s president, Jose Santos Zelaya, in favor of instilling Adolfo Diaz as the country’s leader. This was unpopular with the Nicaraguan people, which caused enough trouble that American military troops were sent in to keep the peace. While this story begins with dollar diplomacy used to secure U.S. interests in the vital Panama Canal region, it ends as an example of big stick diplomacy, as U.S. military forces had been standing ready to enforce the actions of U.S. leaders.

Big Stick Diplomacy Example in Union Negotiations

In the burgeoning 20th century, coal mining was the source of raw materials used to provide power and heat to the entire country, as well as jobs for tens of thousands of families. Miners were taken advantage of, however, being forced to work long hours in dark and perilous conditions. In 1902, nearly 150,000 miners, led by United Mine Workers (“UMW”) leader John Mitchell, went on strike. The miners wanted shorter work hours, higher pay, and better housing. The mining companies simply refused to meet the miners’ demands.

The coal industry was not only vital for power and employment, but had a glaring effect on the nation’s economy. Prior to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, the government would likely have just sent in military forces to end the strike. Instead, when the mining companies asked for military assistance, representatives of the miners, and mining company delegates were invited to a discussion at the White House.

Following the meeting, John Mitchell met with the miners, who again refused to yield to political pressure, choosing to remain on strike. Roosevelt then took a unique approach to ending the strike. Rather than sending in military forces to force a return to work, and return power to the mining companies, he ordered the military to take over the mines and operate them in the “public interest.” This meant that neither the mining companies, nor many of the miners, were making money, though coal was being delivered to the nation. Because they were no longer making their huge profits on mining operations, the mining companies agreed to the UMW demands.

This example of big stick diplomacy illustrates the policy’s flexibility for use both at home and abroad. The threat of military might is not only useful in preventing military action on foreign shores, but can be of use in settling serious disputes at home. This policy of dealing with labor strikes has since been referred to as Theodore Roosevelt’s “Square Deal.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Diplomacy – The skill or profession of managing international relations; the conduct of negotiations and relations between nations by government officials.
  • Foreign Policy – A government’s strategy in dealing with other nations.
  • Labor Strike – An organized stoppage or slowdown of work by laborers to force their employer to accept their demands for better conditions or higher wages.
  • Supremacy – The state of being superior in power, authority, or status.

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