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The Monroe Doctrine Turns 200

When James Monroe addressed Congress 200 years ago,

many assumed his annual message would be

limited to legislative initiatives. Since he had no spin

doctors to help him explain his position, clarify its broad

impact, or narrate its context, it was left to him to simply

announce the Monroe Doctrine and let others decide its

ramifications.

Two centuries ago, the New World was shedding Old

World political connections as new nation states were

emerging after achieving independence. President Monroe

clearly understood the general feelings of his fellow countrymen

and realized that the unique American experience provided him a forum to declare

his nation’s place in the World Order.

The Monroe Doctrine is remembered primarily for its bold limitation on European

influence and colonization in the Western Hemisphere, but other parts of the doctrine were

of equal importance and expressed American sentiments about the rest of the world.

Specifically, the doctrine stated that America had no interest in conflicts in

Europe but would respect the existing order in the New World.

When viewed in hindsight, the doctrine was in many ways a concise statement of how

America viewed the world and coupled its role with a tinge of isolationism. President

Monroe told the entire World that the Western Hemisphere was off limits to European

powers. It was a bold move for a nation that was not yet 50 years old and had no

military to enforce the policy, but the policy was supported by George Washington

admonition that America not involve itself in foreign wars.

The American Revolution changed the dynamics of foreign policy, foreign trade, and

foreign investment. Once the revolution ended, wars in Europe waxed and waned with

alliances that switched and boundaries that moved so frequently it was hard to keep an

accurate tally. Monroe understood that America had no interest in these changing

relationships and was ill suited to fully appreciate the dynamics of European diplomatic

intrigues.

Monroe’s main interest was preserving a sphere of influence with America as the

dominant power. There was no need to allow this continent to become a proxy for the

varied changes in European politics and reconquest of former colonies. Keeping

America stable and secure with its energies devoted toward territorial growth and trade

was the president’s ultimate goal.

He knew from experience that wars were expensive and diverted time and talent away

from domestic improvement. Thus, it was easy for him to disclaim any involvement in

Europe, its political theories, and various continental wars, but it was another thing to

make a bold statement that European powers were not welcomed to assert control over

liberated ex-colonies. Even bolder was the assertion that any such involvement by

another country, would be considered a hostile act against the United States.

This provision of the doctrine might be viewed as a NATO-like pledge that any attack by

a foreign power against a territory in the Western Hemisphere would be met with force of

arms from the United States. Since the United States had a very limited navy and no standing

army of any measure, this statement had no enforcement mechanism. If a foreign

power tried to invade another country, the U.S. would have been helpless to take effective

action, but the Monroe Doctrine had a silent guarantor in the form of the British Empire,

which had plenty of ships and troops to enforce the policy. The British acquiesced to the

Monroe Doctrine because limiting other countries’ involvement

in the New World was advantageous to its long-term interest.

It is not a stretch to say that the Monroe Doctrine cemented the Anglo-American

relationship while ensuring American and British interests would never again be so

adversarial as to incubate hostilities. From this point forward, the two nations would be

joined together in almost a common enterprise of trade and international stability.

Without having to fight wars, the United States could focus on opening and subduing the

rest of its territory. For at least some period of time, the expansion of the country created

such opportunities that any foreign influence was not occasioned by military

invasion, but by swarms of immigrants leaving the old world behind to seek fortune and

opportunity in a new place with little historical memory to retard its progress.

Rather than being innovative, the Monroe Doctrine sought to express the consensus of

American sentiment about its view of its place in the world. The influx of immigrants

would also support this idea that once their home country was on the distant horizon, they

were liberated from the politics of the Old World that limited freedom and

advancement. Immigrants coming to the United States would gladly agree that they, too,

had no desire to involve themselves in the politics of a country they had left. So, while

Americans wanted limited involvement with the politics and factious belligerence of

Europe, they did not want foreign influence in the New World. Americans would be

motivated to apply force only if European countries attempted to assert themselves in our

sphere of influence.

This was true even in the last century. During World War I, most Americans had no

desire to send troops to Europe, but sentiment changed only after a secret German

diplomatic initiative was uncovered promising Texas, Arizona and New Mexico to

Mexico if it would ally with the Kaiser. Ending any thought of European influence in our

country’s affairs proved a strong motivator.

Likewise, in World War II, Franklin Roosevelt was unable to arouse American interest in

defeating the Nazis, but once Hitler’s secret plan to divide Latin America into

Nazi-controlled vassal states was exposed, the average citizen began to sense the Nazi

threat.

For 200 years, the Monroe Doctrine has been a centerpiece of American foreign policy.

Its broad provisions continue to affirm a commitment to regional independence and put

other nations on notice that the Western Hemisphere is a self-determination zone with no

tolerance for foreign influence or territorial threat.

Perhaps President Xi needs a refresher course?

The views of submitted editorials may not be the express views of The Alabama Gazette.

 

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