Throughout modern history, the principle of non-intervention, tempered by the right of self-defense, has been cherished, especially by small and weak nations that lacked the strength to resist intrusions by stronger rivals. The United States, which started its political life as a small and weak nation, was no exception. Its vocal support of the principles of nonintervention—the nonintervention doctrine—has served three major purposes throughout the years, aside from its use as a guideline for policy. First, it was meant to deter European interventions directed against the United States and its neighbors. President George Washington, in his Farewell Address to the nation, repeated a mantra common to the Founders. The United States would not intervene in Europe's affairs in return for reciprocity by European powers. Accordingly, it would object to interventions by other powers because it considered nonintervention as the normal rule to be applied by the world community.
Second, the doctrine was intended to inform the American people that pressures on their government for a policy of intervention were likely to be rejected on principle, even when Americans were eager to help European colonies in Latin America to become independent states. Expectations were that repeated proclamations of the nonintervention policy would deter interventions that the country could ill afford to undertake.
Third, once the principle had become venerable and established as right and moral conduct, it became useful as a psychological tool of politics. Many undesirable international activities could be readily condemned by labeling them as "intervention." Desired interventions could be excused by denying that they constituted interventions. Alternatively, the United States could claim that a particular intervention was within the scope of interventions permitted under the hallowed nonintervention doctrine. Putting policies within a framework of "moral" and "immoral" actions is particularly important for a democratic country where political leaders depend on the support of elected government officials and public opinion. It is easier to secure support when policies can be defended as moral principles, rather than as complex bargaining schemes or maneuvers in political power games.
All three purposes appeared to be particularly well served during the early years of the nation. It is therefore not surprising that American presidents, starting with George Washington, almost routinely advocated nonintervention. During the decades when the country was most vulnerable to foreign intervention and ill-equipped to intervene individually or collectively in faraway Europe, the doctrine was credited with keeping European powers from intervening in the affairs of the United States as a reward for American nonintervention in Europe's liberation struggles. The doctrine permitted American leaders to refuse most requests for political as well as humanitarian interventions. The successes claimed for the doctrine strengthened faith in its value.
At first, the doctrine was generally expressed in absolute terms to give it the strongest possible impact. This formulation was never viewed as a renunciation of the presumably inalienable right of every country to use intervention to protect its vital interests. Rather, the doctrine was avowed for its practical usefulness for American policy needs. That the nonintervention doctrine involved legal considerations under international law was not stressed until 1842, when Secretary of State Daniel Webster alluded to its grounding in the legal doctrine of sovereign rights.
Because the absolute formulation of the doctrine was literally interpreted by many people, it grew embarrassing when the United States engaged in numerous interventions in the Western Hemisphere. Therefore, American statesmen reformulated the doctrine so that it would specify the exceptional conditions under which intervention would be permitted. The ebb and flow of efforts to spell out the limits of nonintervention, without abandoning the nonintervention doctrine as a general principle, constitute the major aspects of doctrinal developments over the ensuing decades.
President James Buchanan's inaugural address in 1857 is an early example of reformulation. He declared it to be the nation's policy never to interfere in the domestic concerns of other nations "unless this shall be imperatively required by the great law of self-preservation." He did not specify the occasions when the law of self-preservation might apply and the ways in which such occasions could be identified. Buchanan also contended that the nonintervention doctrine did not preclude the duty of preventive intervention. When, as happened in Mexico in 1859, a Western Hemisphere country was afflicted by internal unrest that spilled over its borders, it was the duty of the United States to intervene to stop the unrest and thereby prevent intervention by other powers. Congress did not accept this argument at that time. But when the argument was revived and amplified during the closing decades of the nineteenth century, it became an accepted clarification of the scope of the nonintervention doctrine.
Officially, a number of major clarifications were labeled corollaries to the Monroe Doctrine, which had become an icon for the nonintervention principle. Linking interventionist policies to this icon served to maintain the aura that the non-intervention doctrine remained absolute. For example, the Olney Corollary of 1895 asserted the right of the United States to intervene in any conflict between an American and non-American power that endangered the security of the United States. Under the Roosevelt Corollary of 1904, the United States claimed an even broader right and duty to act as policeman of the Western Hemisphere. If any nation in the hemisphere permitted conditions on its territory that might invite intervention by another country, then it was incumbent on the United States to intervene to remedy these conditions and forestall intervention by others. The United States must assume this obligation because the Monroe Doctrine prevented other powers from exercising their right of intervention in troubled Western Hemisphere countries.
Many American political leaders were dissatisfied with the doctrinal and practical consequences of the Roosevelt Corollary. In an attempt to adhere more closely to the spirit of nonintervention, President William Howard Taft sought to control internal political affairs in other nations through economic, rather than military, pressures. Since the nonintervention doctrine did not prohibit intervention for the protection of nationals, his administration encouraged American business interests to settle in potentially unstable neighboring countries. Presumably, they would help the country to stabilize its economy and prevent political turmoil. If the presence of American businesses failed to prevent unrest, the United States could then send protective missions as part of its right to protect its citizens abroad. In this manner it could control the politics of unstable countries without violating restraints commanded by the nonintervention doctrine.
During the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the nonintervention doctrine received yet another interpretation. Wilson's claim that the United States must discourage dictatorships or unconstitutional governments in Latin America by refusing to recognize them was accompanied by strong professions that such interventions accorded with the principles embodied in the established doctrine of nonintervention. Destruction of unpopular governments, Wilson argued, freed foreign nations from undue restraints on their sovereign right to opt for democratic rulers. Rather than serving as a tool for coercing these nations into unwanted action, intervention thus became a tool to enable their people to exercise their will. While Wilson expanded the scope of the right of intervention on one hand, he also laid the groundwork for subsequent contractions of the right. His stress on the sovereign rights of states to determine their own fates, regardless of size, led to a series of international agreements that proclaimed the nonintervention principle as a prescription of international law except for individual or collective self-defense. Such agreements became part of the Covenant of the League of Nations (1918) and later the United Nations Charter (1945).
Nations of the Western Hemisphere went even further than the rest of the international community. Through a series of agreements and declarations springing from successive inter-American conferences in the 1930s, Western Hemisphere countries, including the United States, adopted a principle of absolute nonintervention by individual countries within the Western Hemisphere. Individual countries retained the right to protect the personal security of their citizens. Beyond that, only collective intervention by the combined forces of Western Hemisphere countries would remain lawful.
The United States was willing to bind itself to such absolute declarations of nonintervention because it believed that the collective intervention arrangements made in the Western Hemisphere and on the broader international scene provided a viable alternative to intervention by individual countries. At the same time, a series of presidential declarations emphasized more strongly than had been done in the early years that nonintervention pledges did not mean an abandonment of the right of self-defense when there was no effective collective action. Whenever possible, the United States also tried to conclude mutual defense and economic assistance treaties to provide a legal basis for coming to the aid of selected countries when counterintervention was needed to resist a communist takeover.
In addition, the United States explicitly asserted a right of counterintervention against illegal interventions by other powers. Protection from intervention was a privilege earned by deserving countries; it was not an absolute right. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, declared that the nonintervention principle applied only to nations that respected the rights of others. The United States, as a powerful member of the community of nations, had a right and duty to intervene in order to prevent or stop illegal interventions directed against countries that lacked the power or will to resist such interventions.
The dangers that would give rise to interventions were identified explicitly but broadly in the 1930s and 1940s. During that period, American political leaders believed that the efforts of the Axis powers to expand their control over Europe and Asia endangered peace and warranted intervention. American leaders sought—sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully—to have these concerns incorporated into multinational declarations to indicate that nonintervention pledges did not apply to power plays by the Axis powers. The idea that mutual nonintervention pledges by the United States and the Axis powers might be a better way to protect the United States was rejected by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Following the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II, communism was viewed as the main danger to the national integrity and security of the United States and the world. In the Truman Doctrine, proclaimed in 1947, the United States declared broadly that either unilateral or collective intervention was justified to protect any country in the world from falling under communist rule. The peace and security of the United States and the world were at stake. The Eisenhower Doctrine, proclaimed in 1957, pinpointed some of the areas where intervention might be expected. Specifically, the political integrity of Middle Eastern nations was declared to be vital to world peace and American interests. If nations in the Middle East were threatened by overt armed aggression by communist forces, the United States would come to their aid if they requested help.
The 1970s saw a retrenchment in overt interventions against communist expansion. Accordingly, it seemed appropriate once more to redefine the scope of the nonintervention doctrine to conform to the prevailing official interpretation of the limits set by the policy. The Nixon Doctrine of 1970 expressed the principle that the United States did not consider it an obligation to protect other countries against communist intervention unless it had determined, in specific cases, that American security interests were involved. Even then, intervention was not the sole duty of the United States but was an obligation shared by all countries opposed to the overthrow of noncommunist governments by communist contenders. President Jimmy Carter deemed the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 a major threat to the West's oil lifeline. He responded in 1980 with the Carter Doctrine, declaring with unusual specificity that attempts by any foreign power to gain control over the Persian Gulf region would be considered a threat to the vital interests of the United States. It would be repelled, using military force if necessary. Five years later, in 1985, President Ronald Reagan once more pledged support for a policy of unilateral armed intervention in Third World countries if this became necessary to overthrow Marxist-Leninist regimes. The policy was to be applied selectively anywhere in the world where people were fighting against communism. In practice, it was implemented mostly in Central America.
The Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan doctrines did not pinpoint the conditions that might trigger a specific intervention. However, high-level military leaders often laid out the policy in somewhat more detail. For instance, General Colin Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the administration of George H. W. Bush (1989–1993), declared that military interventions should be undertaken only when a number of conditions were met. Most importantly, the political objectives of the intervention had to be clearly defined and the gains and risks and likely outcomes had to be adequately assessed. Based on these assessments, it should be clear that the objectives of the intervention could be reached through military means at a defensible cost. Finally, nonviolent alternative policies, if suitable, had been tried first and failed.
Many observers argued that the various and sundry doctrines and statements by military leaders should not be viewed as blueprints for action. Rather, like the previously proclaimed nonintervention principles, they were tailored primarily for psychological impact. They were intended to discourage intervention-minded leaders and to give moral support to nations fearing communist attacks. It was hoped that policy pronouncements would obviate the need for remedial action. If action became necessary, the pronouncements could be characterized as prior warnings that legitimized subsequent actions.
Thus, the nonintervention doctrine has ebbed and flowed in its more than 200-year history. It has gone from an absolute expression, tempered by the implicit exception that interventions for vital purposes were permissible, to an emphasis on a broad range of exceptions to the doctrine, which left it little more than an empty shell. Then it was reformulated in absolute terms, tempered by statements of exceptions stressing that collective or unilateral intervention would still be used by the United States to protect vital security interests. But the absolutism abated again in the wake of major international threats posed by upheavals in Europe and Asia and evidence that collective interventions were difficult to orchestrate.
By the early twenty-first century, the policy implications of the doctrine were that the United States, like all sovereign states, claimed the right to protect its security by all means within its power—including intervention—whenever its leaders believed that this security was seriously endangered. Despite American capacity to intervene freely in the politics of most small nations, however, intervention would be used sparingly, primarily when conditions existed that potentially threatened the security of the United States and its allies and when all other means to resolve the problems failed. The pledges of nonintervention made in the twentieth century indicated the areas where intervention was most likely to occur and the conditions most likely to provoke it. They served as a rough guide to the government in its choice of policy options.