Doctrines - The monroe doctrine

Doctrines The Monroe Doctrine 4055
Photo by: Stephen Coburn

In many ways, the "doctrines" of American foreign policy take their cue from the Monroe Doctrine, the seminal statement of national purpose. Articulated in 1823, this doctrine reflects the concerns and aspirations of a young country, bold enough to assert its power on the world stage. In dictating that Europe maintain a "hands-off" policy toward the Americas, it established the United States as a global power, albeit one with limited, hemispheric ambitions. Those ambitions would expand, however, and in future decades the Monroe Doctrine would prove useful for interventionists and isolationists alike. As the most recognizable and perhaps most venerated of diplomatic principles, its hold on the popular imagination has been so strong that it has defined the limits of acceptable policy options, shaping the range of choices open to presidents for the better part of two centuries.

Any appreciation of the Monroe Doctrine must take into account the domestic conditions of a young America and the international dynamics of the European great power system. The United States had only recently withstood the economic and military challenges posed by France and Britain during the Napoleonic wars. The conclusion of hostilities in 1815 seemed to release a host of energies that Americans harnessed and then directed inward. Numerous projects dedicated to fostering a more robust national system—such as the building of roads and canals—expressed the desire of many to subdue the land. It was a project that Americans carried out with missionary zeal, believing it their destiny to inhabit and control vast reaches of space from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Extending the empire of liberty across the continent demanded that the United States shore up its diplomatic position, for that project of territorial expansion sought to absorb lands still coveted by several European states. One of those states was the empire of Spain, a world power from a previous era suffering the death throes of imperial overstretch. From Argentina to its holdings in North America, Spain's colonies in the New World were declaring their independence, a process that accelerated during the early years of the nineteenth century. Developments in connection with one of those holdings—West Florida—led Congress to establish a policy of "no transfer," which forbade the transfer of Spain's former colonies to any other European power. Interest in wrenching Florida free from Spanish control continued throughout the 1810s; by 1819 the United States was able to capitalize on Spanish weakness and secure title to Florida as well as to regions in the Far West. It was thus well on the way to enlarging the domains under democratic rule.

Support for political liberty was not wholesale, however. While Americans considered a more democratic world to be a more peaceful world—and more conducive to American interests—they questioned the ability of one and all to participate in the democratic experiment. Several members of the Monroe administration, including President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, regarded Latin Americans as poorly equipped for democratic government. Spanish misrule, Catholic hierarchies, and Old World cultures weighed heavily on those peoples, making U.S. officials leery of supporting revolutions that might ultimately fail—especially if Spain were to mount an effort to retake those lands. Concerns such as these led officials in the Monroe administration to curb their republican passions and withhold recognition. By the early 1820s, however, several of those nations had stabilized, warranting a more formal American commitment to their viability. That pledge would come via President Monroe's December 1823 address to Congress. Not only would the United States recognize those new nations; it would seek to prevent their recolonization by any European power.

While expectations of conflict with Spain created the general context for the Monroe Doctrine, the president's declaration stemmed from a more tangible and immediate dispute with Imperial Russia. The czar had long been interested in the Pacific Northwest, coveting the waters off the American coast as a valuable spot for commercial fishing. In 1821, Alexander I declared the waters above 51 degrees north latitude the exclusive province of the Russian American Company and sought to maintain ports as far south as San Francisco.

American officials were not the only ones eager to create a barrier between Europe and the Americas. British statesmen were similarly anxious about the signals coming out of continental Europe, particularly regarding the fate of imperial Spain. The breakdown of Spain's New World empire was accompanied by political disturbances at home; in the end, however, revolution abroad would not be accompanied by revolution at home as France invaded Spain in 1823, restoring monarchical control to the country. Fears that France, along with Prussia and Austria—the two other members of the Holy Alliance—were interested in regaining for Spain its American colonies unnerved the British. Such a reversal could threaten British holdings in the Atlantic as well as the balance of power in Europe.

These concerns led Britain to approach the United States in the hope of making a joint statement regarding the Western Hemisphere. The intended effect of that declaration would be to ward off Spanish efforts either to recolonize its lost domains or to transfer control of those nations to other European powers. In weighing the British proposal, Monroe sought the help of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Friends and political allies, both Jefferson and Madison leaned toward accepting the British proposal, an inclination Monroe shared. Secretary of State Adams, however, disagreed with both their appraisal of the situation and their recommended course of action. First, he pointed out, Spain was ill-prepared to reclaim its colonies, a condition that called into question the very basis of the British proposal. Moreover, even if the European monarchies were prepared to help Spain retake its lost domains, it would be foolish for the United States to throw in its lot with Great Britain. "It would be more candid," Adams argued, "as well as more dignified, to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France than to come as a cock-boat in the wake of a British man-of-war." The United States, Adams was saying, should go it alone. It would brook no "interposition" by a European power in the affairs of the Americas, nor would it look kindly on efforts to subjugate newly independent states. For its part, America would refrain from inserting itself into the troubles of Europe, thereby consigning Europe and the United States to their respective and distinct spheres of influence. Those three principles—no interposition, noncolonization, and no interference—would become wedded to the fabric of American foreign policy, attaining the status of dogma for much of the nation's history.

While those principles have been considered sacrosanct by generations of Americans, government officials have taken great liberties with the Monroe Doctrine, invoking or discarding its precepts at will. The frequency with which politicians, scholars, and citizens have appealed to the doctrine, as well as the malleability it affords, has generated a fascination with this seminal statement of American policy, turning the study of it into a veritable cottage industry. Interpretations of the Monroe Doctrine have been changing since the middle of the nineteenth century, the time when scholars began to treat it with much gravitas.

One of those areas of debate concerns the very authorship of the doctrine. Historians have pointed to either John Quincy Adams or President James Monroe—with help from Jefferson and Madison—as the man more responsible for the doctrine's final form. Both Monroe and Adams sought to wall off Europe from the affairs of the Americas, and both men—though perhaps Adams more so than Monroe—were disposed to keeping America out of European affairs. Nevertheless, it was Adams who prevailed upon Monroe to make his statement a unilateral one, rejecting the idea that Britain and the United States establish their positions jointly. The most persuasive accounts have accorded Monroe and Adams equal responsibility, with Monroe supplying the document's idealism and Adams its geopolitical realism. Yet it was Adams's insistence that America make that statement alone, without the backing of Great Britain, that elevated the doctrine to its place in American lore. His ability to persuade Monroe on this score—arguably the most important aspect of the president's message—has even led one historian to cite the doctrine as America's declaration of diplomatic independence.

An ancillary debate has grown up around the issue of why the doctrine even appeared in the first place. Scholarship has revealed that fears of a Spanish intervention to reclaim its lost colonies—the context for the principle of nonintervention—were essentially groundless. By the time that Monroe made his statement in December 1823, the Holy Alliance had given up its plans, if any existed in the first place, for helping to reestablish Spanish colonial rule. The seeming irrelevance, then, of the Monroe Doctrine to the actions it sought to prevent has led historians to attribute more personal and political motives to its enunciation. In this account the presidential election of 1824 looms large, as Adams sought to outmaneuver potential rivals, some of whom were associates in Monroe's cabinet. Although an intriguing argument can be made for the relevance of these dynamics to the policy process, the weight of evidence seems to run against the argument that the Monroe Doctrine was more the product of political machinations than the principled stand of disinterested public servants.

Further scholarship has delved into the purpose of the Monroe Doctrine, leaving historians to divide over its relative leanings toward interventionism and isolationism. These debates have often reflected concerns specific to the eras in which they took place. Reference to the doctrine, for instance, first appeared during the annexationist debates of the late 1840s. President James Polk would refer to it explicitly as justification for his policies of continental expansion. In that climate the Monroe Doctrine, with its apparent sanction of American privilege in the Western Hemisphere, captured the upsurge of nationalist feeling as the nation moved westward; indeed, historians have commented on the symbiotic relationship between the Monroe Doctrine and the spirit of "manifest destiny," regarding those ideas as being—in the minds of nineteenth-century Americans—mutually reinforcing, if not identical.

Government officials and diplomatic historians would continually refer to the Monroe Doctrine throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, interpreting its rhetoric as support for their own isolationist or interventionist policy preferences. The doctrine would again assume an activist slant in the 1890s as Secretary of State Richard Olney invoked it with respect to the border dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana. According to Olney, British intervention in the quarrel would violate the time-honored principle of noncolonization; though sharp words were exchanged, tensions between the United States and Britain dissipated, inaugurating a period of much smoother relations.

Subsequent events would give the doctrine an increasingly interventionist spin. Fallout from the War of 1898 left the United States with a preponderance of power in the Caribbean, a power it codified with the Platt Amendment of 1901. Reserving for itself the right to intervene in Cuba's affairs, the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt began to mark out an entire policy toward the region that would expand upon Monroe's original dictum. What concerned Roosevelt was the ability of Latin American nations to pay their debts to European creditors. Fearing that a string of defaults might lead Europe to meddle in hemispheric affairs, Roosevelt chose to intervene in the economic and political lives of those nations, establishing the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Episodes such as these have led historians to marvel at the doctrine's flexibility. As a statement of national interest, the Monroe Doctrine has appeared to sanction economic imperialism in the Western Hemisphere as well as the missionary impulse to bring good government to the region. Whatever the case, scholars have offered ample evidence for the argument that such interventionism, whether in the service of cynical or noble motives, was absent from the doctrine's original formulation.

It has questionable relevance to American foreign policy in the twenty-first century. The self-imposed injunction against intervening in European affairs—broken on account of World Wars I and II—was altogether abandoned during the Cold War as U.S. troop commitments and armaments cemented the NATO coalition of west European states. American leadership during the air war against Serbian targets during the 1998–1999 Kosovo crisis invalidated whatever was left of that portion of Monroe's injunction. Likewise, U.S. administrations have alternately supported and condemned foreign involvement in hemispheric affairs. While the Reagan administration supported Britain's war against Argentina over sovereignty of the Falkland Islands in 1982, it clearly demanded that the Soviet Union follow a "hands-off" policy in connection with insurrectionary movements in Central America, as had the Nixon administration before it. Such actions suggest that if presidents are to invoke the Monroe Doctrine in the future, they will likely do so selectively, according to their assessment of prevailing geopolitical winds.

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