Peace and the Big Stick by Robert N. Meroney

Brute strength and intimidation have sometimes been proposed as ways to assure “peace” under the terms imposed by the those who wield the power.   Big stick diplomacy, dollar diplomacy, and moral diplomacy as originally proposed by U.S. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft and Woodrow Wilson, respectively, have all been used to “impose” peace under specific terms in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Big stick ideology originated with President Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy: “speak softly and carry a big stick.”  The phrase first appeared in private correspondence from Roosevelt to Henry L. Sprague (Union League Club, NY City), dated January 26, 1900, during an enthusiastic celebration of winning an argument with New York’s Republican committee forcing it to pull support away from a corrupt financial adviser.   His idea was to negotiate peacefully, simultaneously threatening with the big stick of the military or executive power.  Later Theodore Roosevelt in a 1905 speech said:

If one man says something to another, the stronger the other man is, the less he finds it necessary to answer back. He does not want to talk at all until he has to act, and then he wants to act with decision. The most contemptible of all attitudes to be in is to have talked loudly and then act with indecision. Now, just so with the nations. Do not speak ill of other nations…Behave courteously, with consideration; do no wrong to any other power and at the same time keep ourselves in such a state of preparedness that it may be evident that we are scrupulous not to wrong others because we believe it right.

Unfortunately, he did not always follow “do no wrong to any other power” part of the quote.   Roosevelt used the Big Stick approach to engineer a revolution in Columbia and support the new republic of Panama.  Roosevelt later said that he “took the Canal and let Congress debate.”  


The big stick phrase is similar to the earlier one “Peace through strength” which is quite old and has been used by leaders like Roman Emperor Hadrian in the first century AD to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.  The American historian Andrew Bacevich, Boston University, argued it really means “Peace through war.” 

Alternatively, the same concept has been called “gunboat diplomacy” where foreign policy objectives are reached with the aid of conspicuous displays of naval power.  This term arose during the nineteenth-century period of imperialism.  It was applied by various nations including Britain, England, Russia, Japan, and others as they built large fleets.  The Opium Wars (1840, 1856), Commodore Perry forcing Japan to open (1853-54), overthrowing the Kingdom of Hawaii (1893), Panama separation from Columbia, Taiwan strait crisis (1954, 1958, 1995-96), and most recently the Spratly Islands dispute (2015).

The German politician Ludwig von Rochau introduced the concept of “Realpolitik” in 1853 arguing that pragmatism and physical force determines the right of one nation to enforce its views on another.  (Some would call this political realism.)  He argued that it is not what is “right” that governs the nations, and the coercion potential of the strong does not evaporate just because it can be shown to be “unjust.”  Thus, nations generally make policy based on the pursuit, possession and application of power.  This might be described then as the Machiavellian approach, who held that the sole aim of a prince (politician) was to seek power, regardless of religious or ethical considerations.  Adolf Hitler’s coercion and invasion of Czechoslovakia was an example of Realpolitik. In the US people like Zbigniew Brzezinski with Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger with Richard Nixon followed Realpolitik principles.

There is no question that short-term goals are achieved. Roosevelt received the Nobel Prize for ending the Russo-Japanese war, military posturing against Columbia by the U.S. permitted the construction and control of the Panama Canal and intervention in the Dominican Republic and Cuba promoted U.S. interests, commercial threats were used to dictate the Open-Door policy in China and promote U.S. bank interests in Latin America, and moral diplomacy was used to justify intervention in Mexican politics in Veracruz to affect their presidential selection and the cross-border pursuit of Pancho Villa. These actions are often defended by the claim by some of American exceptionalism and its special mission in the world.

Unfortunately, long-term consequences of “bully” style diplomacy have led to resentment, backlash (or blowback), great loss in American prestige, anti-American feeling worldwide, subsequent nationalization of American investments in bitter nations, strict regulations on foreign investors, and contempt for what some foreign critics describe as American hypocrisy.

The difficulty with peace established with intimidation is that it rarely produces a long-term solution since the underlying issues are not fully aired, discussed or resolved. Intimidation leaves little room for compromise, conciliation, or resolution in the opinion of the weaker participants.   Perhaps it is time to return to the following definition of diplomacy:

Diplomacy: The art of dealing with people in a sensitive and effective way.

Synonyms are: tact, sensitivity, discretion finesse, delicacy, savoir faire, politeness, thoughtfulness, care, judiciousness, and prudence.


Bob Meroney is an Emeritus Professor of Fluid Mechanics and Wind Engineering with a long career at Colorado State University. He has been an active member of the Fort Collins Rotary Club and regularly researches a range of topics on modern life, issues and politics that serve to spark deeper conversations among friends and colleagues. If you have questions or ideas, you can contact Bob: Robert.Meroney@ColoState.EDU.

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