Gunboat Diplomacy: Teddy Roosevelt's 'Big Stick' Policy

Newspaper cartoon of President Theodore Roosevelt towing US warships across the Caribbean Sea as an illustration of his gunboat diplomacy.
Theodore Roosevelt and his Big Stick in the Caribbean. William Allen Rogers / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Gunboat diplomacy is an aggressive foreign policy applied with the use of highly-visible displays of military—usually naval—power to imply a threat of warfare as a means of forcing cooperation. The term is typically equated with the “Big Stick” ideology of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and the globetrotting voyage of his “Great White Fleet” in 1909.

Key Takeaways: Gunboat Diplomacy

  • Gunboat diplomacy is the use of highly-visible displays of military power to force the cooperation of a foreign government.
  • The threat of military power became an official tool of U.S. foreign policy in 1904 as part of President Roosevelt’s “Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.”
  • Today, the United States continues to employ gunboat diplomacy through the presence of the U.S. Navy at over 450 bases around the world.

History

The concept of gunboat diplomacy emerged during the late nineteenth-century period of imperialism, when the Western powers—the United States and Europe—competed to establish colonial trading empires in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Whenever conventional diplomacy failed, fleets of the larger nations’ warships would suddenly appear maneuvering off the coasts of the smaller, uncooperative countries. In many cases, the veiled threat of these “peaceful” shows of military force was enough to bring about capitulation without bloodshed. 

The fleet of “Black Ships” commanded by U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry is a classic example of this early period of gunboat diplomacy. In July 1853, Perry sailed his fleet of four solid black warships into Japan’s Tokyo Bay. Without a navy of its own, Japan quickly agreed to open its ports to trade with the West for the first time in over 200 years.

Evolution of US Gunboat Diplomacy

With the Spanish-American War of 1899, the United States emerged from its century-long period of isolationism. As a result of the war, the U.S. took territorial control of Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain, while increasing its economic influence over Cuba.

In 1903, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt sent a flotilla of warships to support Panamanian rebels fighting for independence from Colombia. Though the ships never fired a shot, the show of force helped Panama gain its independence and the United States gain the right to build and control the Panama Canal.

In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine” officially made the threat of military force a tool of United States foreign policy. Adding ten battleships and four cruisers to the U.S. Navy, Roosevelt hoped to establish the United States as the dominant power in the Caribbean and across the Pacific. 

Examples of US Gunboat Diplomacy

In 1905, Roosevelt used gunboat diplomacy to secure U.S. control of the financial interests of the Dominican Republic without the costs of formal colonization. Under U.S. control, the Dominican Republic succeeded in repaying its debts to France, Germany, and Italy.

On December 16, 1907, Roosevelt demonstrated the global reach of America’s growing naval power when his famed “Great White Fleet” of 16 gleaming white battleships and seven destroyers set sail from the Chesapeake Bay on a voyage around the world. Over the next 14 months, the Great White Fleet covered 43,000 miles while making Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” point in 20 port calls on six continents. To this day, the voyage is considered one of the U.S. Navy’s greatest peacetime achievements.

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent U.S. Marines to Haiti for the stated purpose of preventing Germany from building submarine bases there. Whether Germany intended to build the bases or not, the Marines remained in Haiti until 1934. The Roosevelt Corollary’s brand of gunboat diplomacy was also used as justification for the U.S. military occupations of Cuba in 1906, Nicaragua in 1912, and Veracruz, Mexico in 1914.

Legacy of Gunboat Diplomacy

As the military might of the United States grew during the early 20th century, Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” gunboat diplomacy was temporarily replaced by dollar diplomacy, a policy of “substituting dollars for bullets” implemented by President William Howard Taft. When dollar diplomacy failed to prevent economic instability and revolution in Latin America and China, gunboat diplomacy returned and continues to play a major role in how the U.S. deals with foreign threats and disputes.

By the mid-1950s, the post-World War II U.S. naval bases in Japan and the Philippines had grown into a global network of more than 450 bases intended to counter the Cold War threat of the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism.

Today, gunboat diplomacy continues to be based largely on the overwhelming sea power, mobility, and flexibility of the United States Navy. Virtually all presidents since Woodrow Wilson have used the mere presence of large naval fleets to influence the actions of foreign governments.

In 1997, Zbigniew Brzezinski, geopolitical counselor to President Lyndon B. Johnson, and President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor from 1977 to 1981, summed up the legacy of gunboat diplomacy when he warned that should the United States ever be expelled or withdraw from its foreign naval bases, “a potential rival to America might at some point arise.”

During his tenure as United States Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger summed up the concept of Gunboat diplomacy: “An aircraft carrier is 100,000 tons of diplomacy.”

Gunboat Diplomacy in the 21st Century

Gunboat diplomacy is considered a form of hegemony—the political, economic, and military predominance of one country over other countries. As the multifaceted nature of U.S. military power grew throughout the 20th century, Roosevelt’s version of “Big Stick” gunboat diplomacy was partially superseded by dollar diplomacy, which replaced the big stick with the “juicy carrot” of American private investment mainly in Latin American and East Asian countries. However, conventional gunboat diplomacy did occur during Woodrow Wilson's presidency, most notably in the case of the U.S. Army's occupation of Veracruz in 1914, during the Mexican Revolution.

Since the onset of the 21st century, gunboat diplomacy has continued to both thrive and evolve. While generally smaller, today’s navies have attained a technological edge and speed with faster ships, standoff cruise missiles, torpedoes, drones, and sophisticated radar and surveillance systems. Countries with these modern navies have realized the cost of other benefits of gunboat diplomacy in attaining national objectives against the far more costly alternative of going to war.

In 1998, the U.S. attacks of terrorist camps in Sudan and Afghanistan with Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from warships stationed hundreds of miles away at sea, ushered in a completely new dimension to the use of limited force in gunboat diplomacy. As the “costal focus” of gunboat diplomacy became blurred by advanced technology, land-locked states, hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean came under the purview of gunboat diplomacy.

Today, the partial vacuum left by an increasing shift away from conventional warfare due to reductions in national defense budgets and a heightened sensitivity to human casualty is being filled by a comparatively less costly—and more palatable—coercive diplomacy in the form of gunboat diplomacy. 

As one of the fronts in the rivalry between the United States and China, the South China Sea—rich in offshore oil and gas reserves—has set off a conflict similar to 19th-century gunboat diplomacy. In 2010, the Barack Obama administration waded into the treacherous waters of the South China Sea when at a tense meeting of Asian countries in Hanoi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the U.S. would join Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries in resisting Beijing’s efforts to dominate the sea. Predictably enraged, China declared the pact to be an act of American interventionism.

When a November 2010 North Korean rocket attack killed two civilians and two soldiers in South Korea in, President Obama responded with a U.S. naval surge directed not only at North Korea but also at its closest ally, China. 

The president ordered an aircraft carrier strike force headed by the USS George Washington into the Yellow Sea, off the western shore of North Korea. Not only had the Yellow Sea been the scene of North Korea’s barrage on the South Korean island, but it is also an area that China vigorously claims as its own. In this modern display of gunboat diplomacy, Obama risked a confrontation with China after Chinese military officials had warned the United States not to send ships or planes into the Yellow Sea.

While these showdowns in the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea sounded echoes of the Cold War, they foretold a new type of tense gunboat diplomacy that is now playing out from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arctic Ocean. In these waters, fuel-hungry economic powers, newly accessible undersea energy sources, and even changes in the earth’s climate are combining to create a 21st-century contest for the seas.

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Longley, Robert. "Gunboat Diplomacy: Teddy Roosevelt's 'Big Stick' Policy." ThoughtCo, Apr. 16, 2022, thoughtco.com/gunboat-diplomacy-4774988. Longley, Robert. (2022, April 16). Gunboat Diplomacy: Teddy Roosevelt's 'Big Stick' Policy. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/gunboat-diplomacy-4774988 Longley, Robert. "Gunboat Diplomacy: Teddy Roosevelt's 'Big Stick' Policy." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/gunboat-diplomacy-4774988 (accessed May 17, 2022).