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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?

(Reprint)

 

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