History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Beginnings of Empire and World War I


To make sense of both the world of foreign policy and the world as it is, an understanding of United States foreign policy and its interaction with the policies of other nations is critical. It is the purpose of this series to give the reader an overview of the history of the United States' foreign policy, and show how it has helped shape the path of the United States and of international relations in general. Such illustration will include analyses of the United States' foreign policy in both theoretical assumptions and empirical application. The series will thus provide the reader with a foundation from which they will be able to accurately understand global historical events, and also critically examine and form opinions on the current and future United States' foreign policy.

This 101 series is divided into eight articles including:

  1. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Founding Principles

  2. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Looking West - The Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny

  3. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Beginnings of Empire and World War I

  4. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Interwar Period and World War II

  5. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Cold War: Confrontation and Containment

  6. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Cold War Part 2: Detente and Rapprochement

  7. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Unipolarity and the War on Terror

  8. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Rise of China

The year 1898 is widely regarded as a crucial inflection point in American Foreign Policy: in the words of future president Woodrow Wilson, it would be the time when the United States would finally step into the ‘open arena of the world’ (Dailey, 2018, p. 41). In other, less flattering terms, it has been labelled as the beginning of American imperialism (Anderson, 2017; Sjursen, 2021).

This step onto the international scene, beginning with the Spanish-American war in 1898, would be driven by both internal and external factors. Internally, American expansion was pushed forward by commercial interests, as well as by the more abstract but quintessential American callings of spreading democracy and American values out into the world. Furthermore, given that the United States had largely reached its current territorial boundaries by 1898, it was only logical, in the opinion of scholars such as Perry Anderson and Daniel Sjursen, that the spirit of manifest destiny and Westward expansion would seek other outlets (Anderson, 2017; Sjursen, 2021). Externally, the late 19th century and early 20th century marked the apex of European colonialism, with the European powers scrambling for economic and political control of the remaining unclaimed areas of the world (Dailey, 2018). In this context, American foreign policy of the early 20th century was utilised as a means toward economic, and at times territorial, control of foreign markets for the end of empowering American capitalism (Anderson, 2017).

Post, C. J. (n.d.). Bloody Ford [Painting]. Wikimedia Commons.

With the international community on the precipice of World War I in the years leading up to 1914, American foreign policy would take on a more isolationist stance, confining itself to intervention in the Western hemisphere, and proclaiming neutrality in Europe. Though the motives behind such action are varied, one of the primary rationales was the economic benefit neutrality would bestow on the United States (Anderson, 2017; Dailey, 2018). Despite a late entrance into the war, the United States remained relatively untouched by the destruction of World War I, and by its end would assume a privileged position as both the leading economic and political power as a result of its geographical isolation, economic role in the war, and position as a victor (Anderson, 2017; Dailey, 2018).

This essay will proceed by discussing the primary events of the period 1898 to 1918, namely the Spanish-American War, the development of gunboat diplomacy in Latin America, and World War I. An analysis of the motivations and driving forces which dictated United States foreign policy during each event will follow.

The Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American war grew out of the Cuban War for Independence from Spain and American interference in the conflict. The reasons driving American intervention were numerous: “Corporate capitalists sought new markets for their goods; missionaries dreamed of Christianizing and ‘civilizing’ foreign peoples (…) expansionist politicians believed the United States had a mission to expand (…) and muckraking newspapermen desired nothing more than to sell papers and make a profit” (Sjursen, 2021, p. 285). In fact, for the reasons listed above, many in the public and government actively wished for conflict with the Spanish empire, which by 1898 was on the verge of collapse (Sjursen, 2021). Such sentiments led the war to be labelled “by some measures, the most popular war in American history” (Sjursen, p. 283).

Halstead, M. (1898). USS Maine [Painting]. Wikimedia Commons.

The pretext for war would come with the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana in 1898, in which 258 sailors would perish. Though sold to the public as a war crime committed by the Spanish, it has been confirmed that the explosion was in fact completely accidental, a fluke tragedy (Sjursen, 2021). Pressured by a militaristic public and congress, President McKinley would subsequently demand that the Spanish give up possession of Cuba. When Spain inevitably refused, war broke out. The conflict in Cuba would last barely a month, and the military conflict as a whole would only last four months. The subsequent Treaty of Paris would see Spain sign over the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States. While Cuba was accorded its independence, the infamous Platt Amendment in the Cuban constitution would give the United States the right to intervene whenever it saw fit, a thinly veiled attempt to control Cuban affairs (Capo-Rodriguez, 1923).

The Spanish-American war was central to the development of contemporary American foreign policy. In the words of Daniel Sjursen, the importance of the conflict lies in that it marked the convergence of “the peculiar exceptional millenarianism of American idealism (…) with the Western mission of civilization” (Sjursen, 2021, p. 282). In simpler terms, the conflict represented the foundations of an activist foreign policy which justifies overseas intervention on the grounds of American exceptionalism and the universal application of American values. As Perry Anderson explains, this blend of exceptionalism and universalism provided for a seamless transition from nationalism to imperialism, with the United States viewing itself as an exceptional nation, destined to lead the world as a shining example (Anderson, 2017).

Kurz, & Allison. (1898). The Great Naval Battle off Cavite (Manila Bay) [Lithograph]. Library of Congress

Additionally, the conflict was important for the discourse it began about American overseas action, a discourse that still rages on today. The debate was especially divisive as a result of the Philippine-American war, which would break out after the United States, instead of recognizing the Philippines as an independent nation, annexed it after banishing the Spanish. On the one hand, many of the expansionists of the time approved both territorial and economic expansion overseas on the grounds that it would be beneficial for both America and the world, and that the United States had “a moral obligation to spread the benefits of American civilization beyond the nation’s borders” (Dailey, 2018, p. 43). Such sentiments stemmed from two beliefs: that in order to expand economically, foreign markets needed to be infiltrated, and secondly that by spreading democracy abroad the world would become safer for American interests. Here the prominence of the Wilsonian and Hamiltonian strains of American foreign policy can be viewed clearly, with their emphasis on using foreign policy as a means to make the world safer for America’s economic interests and also to spread democracy and American values. On the other hand, the anti-expansionists saw overseas interference and imperialism as contrary to the values of America itself (Dailey, 2018). Given that the United States was born from the struggle against colonialism and tyranny from abroad, it seemed hypocritical to many Americans that the United States should now acquire overseas colonies and interfere in the affairs of other nations itself. Such debates remain no less relevant today.

Gunboat Diplomacy and Dollar Diplomacy

In the years following the Spanish-American War, the focus of American foreign policy would turn to securing its influence in Latin America, and to ensuring freedom of commerce on the high seas (Dailey, 2018). In order to achieve both of these goals, President Theodore Roosevelt, once an assistant secretary of the Navy, would push for naval primacy above all else (Anderson, 2017). His favourite saying, one which would define his foreign policy, was “speak softly and carry a big stick” (Dailey, 2018, p. 56). Such an expression spoke to a type of foreign policy which sought to negotiate peacefully with a soft voice, but always carried the threat of military intervention if necessary (Kohn, 2008). The maxim was exemplified by the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, explained in more detail below.

Rogers, W. A. (1904). Theodore Roosevelt and his Big Stick in the Caribbean [Drawing]. Wikimedia Commons.

Roosevelt’s primary focus would be Latin America. This was evident immediately upon the declaration of the infamous ‘Roosevelt Corollary’ to the Monroe Doctrine, which stated that the United States “would respect the sovereignty of Latin American and Caribbean nations as long as they conducted their affairs with decency” (Dailey, 2018, p. 56). According to Jane Dailey, the Roosevelt Corollary would make the United States the policemen and debt collector of Latin America, another precedent which would persist well into the late 20th century, as evidenced by the various American interventions in the region (Dailey, 2018).

Roosevelt’s Successor, William Taft, would turn to ‘dollar diplomacy’ (Dailey, 2018, p .57) in order to bolster American influence in Latin America, and to counter growing German influence. Such a Hamiltonian form of foreign policy would “treat Latin American countries like failing corporations, injecting capital and reorganizing management” (Dailey, 2018, p. 58). Similar to the Washington Consensus of the 1980s, dollar diplomacy also involved the restructuring of Latin American debts, tariffs, and tax structures (Dailey, 2018). When various Latin American governments rejected these treaties, the Taft regime turned to ‘colonialism by contract’, establishing contracts with foreign governments and private businesses which were managed by the state department (Dailey, 2018, p. 59). This approach would meet widespread opposition in Latin American countries, with revolts occurring in Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Haiti, all of which would be put down by U.S. marines or covert U.S. action (Anderson, 2017). This thinly veiled attempt at imposing American values and institutions on the Latin American countries by coercion, a mistake which would be recurring often in American history, would damage U.S. relations with its southern neighbours for decades, even to the present day. In the immediate future, the result was the foundation of a general mistrust toward American foreign policy, and the formation of nationalist opposition which would struggle against American influence in the years to come (Dailey, 2018).

Harding, G. M. (1918). Traffic To Mont-St. Pere [Painting].

World War I

World War I marked yet another turning point for the United States. While Europe would destroy itself for four years, the United States would suffer no war damage at home, and reap immense economic benefits. Such a result was in large part the consequence of America’s geographical position, but also due to a shrewd calculation of the benefits of neutrality at first, and rearmament later.

The neutrality of the United States government in the early years of World War I was primarily a result of the history of non-interference in European affairs, as well as the domestic conditions of the time. Regarding the history of non-interference, the United States had, as of 1914, remained distant from European affairs for nearly a century, and the majority of Americans supported the continuance of this policy with the outbreak of the First World War (Sjursen, 2021). On the other hand, many Americans were focused on domestic issues during this time. Fresh off the peak of the progressive era, the early 1900s had been a time of radical readjustment from the excesses of the gilded age. Several opponents of the war, including President Wilson, felt that entrance into the conflict would jeopardize the gains of the progressive era. Additionally, given that over ⅓ of Americans had at least one parent with European roots at the time, the war would have prompted a schism within America itself (Dailey, 2018). For these reasons, both the majority of the public and the government supported a policy of non-intervention in Europe on the eve of war (Dailey, 2018).

Wilkinson, N. (1915). Sinking of the Lusitania [Engraving]. Wikimedia Commons.

As the conflict dragged on, however, the opinion of the United States began to favour the Entente. Unrestricted U-boat warfare by the Germans, and the sinking of the British Passenger liner Lusitania, which killed 128 Americans, were key factors in the change of opinion. By 1916, American trade with the Central Powers had fallen to 1.1 million dollars per year, while trade with the Entente had skyrocketed to 3.2 billion (Dailey, 2018). Despite such economic repercussions, few Americans still believed that the war in Europe endangered any vital American interests, or was worth sacrificing American lives in the brutal trench warfare which had begun to define the conflict (Dailey, 2018). These sentiments would change with the infamous Zimmerman telegram in early 1917, a German telegram to the Mexican government in which Mexico was encouraged to attack the United States. Suddenly, as a result of German action, there was the potential for the war to reach the doorstep of the United States. Anti-German sentiment skyrocketed, and President Wilson went to congress for a war declaration (Dailey, 2018).

United States’ entrance into the war, however, was also an act undertaken with shrewd calculation. (Dailey, 2018). Economically, it was clear that the powerful east coast elite and New York bankers in the United States stood to profit handsomely from the industrial buildup which would predate entrance into the war, and also from an Allied victory. Between 1914 and 1917, the United States would lend billions of dollars to the Allies, much of which was turned around and spent to purchase supplies and war inventory from the United States (Dailey, 2018). By 1917, the allies had borrowed over 2 billion dollars from the United States, while the Central powers had only borrowed 27 million (Dailey, 2018). It was clear that the bankers and financial elite favoured the continuance of the war, or at least an allied victory. As senator Robert La Follette put it: “What do [J.P.] Morgan and [Charles] Schwab care for world peace (…) when there are big profits in world war?” (Dailey, 2018, p. 81). In fact, the war would produce 42,000 new millionaires at home, most of whom were located in the banking and financial centre of New York and the surrounding areas.

Glackens, L. M. (1909). No Limit [Illustration]. Wikimedia Commons.

Furthermore, the profits of an Allied victory and the end of the conflict were not only economic. As the war endured, Woodrow Wilson, among many others, saw clearly that American involvement would guarantee it a spot at the bargaining table, while the massive debts of the victorious allies would mean crushing political leverage in the post-war global order (Dailey, 2018). As Woodrow Wilson put it, the political capital from joining the war would mean being able to force others to think how the United States wanted, otherwise America would have to “shout through a crack in the door” at Versailles (Dailey, 2018, p. 80). In this sense, Wilson saw American entrance into the war as a means to establish itself at the top of the new post-war global order. Such a position would give the U.S. the ability to dictate treaty outcomes, while also offering Wilson a powerful position to promote the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations.


In the end, the period between 1898 and 1918 would become one of the most important epochs in the history of American foreign policy. This period would mark the beginning of the genuine American ascent to superpower status on the international scene, due to a bourgeoning political and economic might which was accelerated by the first World War. Yet the importance of the period also lies in the discourses it fostered on what America’s role in the world was, and what values America stood for. Could America export democracy to foreign countries without standing in contradiction to its founding principles of freedom and liberty? Was it against the values of the Republic to maintain colonies or overseas territories? Was intervention in a foreign country justified when it was perceived that human rights were being abused? These were all questions which first arose in earnest during this period. Though the post-1945 era is generally viewed as the beginning of modern American foreign policy, it remains clear that the actions taken from 1898-1917 established important precedents which would carry over into the post-World War II foreign policy establishment. Furthermore, America’s leap onto the international scene would lead to new public discourse on what America’s role in the world was, a conversation which continues to this day.

Bibliographical References

Anderson, P. (2017). American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers (Reprint ed.). Verso.

Capo-Rodriguez, P. (1923). The Platt Amendment. The American Journal of International Law, 17(4), 761–765. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2188666

Dailey, J. (2018). Building the American Republic, Volume 2: A Narrative History from 1877 (1st ed.). University of Chicago Press.

Hobson, R. (2002). Imperialism at Sea: Naval Strategic Thought, the Ideology of Sea Power, and the Tirpitz Plan, 1875–1914 (Studies in Central European Histories). Brill Academic Pub.

Kohn, E. P. (2008). A Benign Big Stick: Theodore Roosevelt and Global Policing [Review of Theodore Roosevelt and World Order: Police Power in International Relations, by J. R. Holmes]. The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 7(1), 132–135. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25144515

Schmitt, B. E. (1936). American Neutrality, 1914-1917. The Journal of Modern History, 8(2), 200–211. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1880950

Sjursen, D. (2021). A True History of the United States: Indigenous Genocide, Racialized Slavery, Hyper-Capitalism, Militarist Imperialism and Other Overlooked Aspects of American Exceptionalism (Truth to Power). Steerforth Press / Truth to Power.

Vandenbosch, A. (1935). Is American Neutrality Possible? Proceedings of the Annual Session (Southern Political Science Association), 8, 18–20. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43945782

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