The Monroe Doctrine (1823) may well be the most famous and long-lasting foreign policy in world history – certainly since the beginning of the “nation-state” system (1648) that ended historic “empires” and inaugurated “countries” as the main participants in world politics.
Two things, however, are beyond challenge: 1) it is the only item in his full term that we remember about James Monroe, America’s fifth president, 2) it is by far the longest-running foreign policy in American history, officially ending only when Secretary of State John Kerry proclaimed it over in 2013. That’s 190 years of the same foreign policy, what’s going to top that?
To describe the Monroe Doctrine (MD) as “the same” is accurate only in the semantic sense. From its inception, the MD has gone through such a number of “twists and turns” that it may be difficult to recall what was intended from the beginning. Nevertheless, it has (or had) remained the main “pillar” of America’s relations to the external world, and it is difficult to separate the idea from the country. In short, Monroe defined America (from the outside).
The first (and maybe the only) notable point about the MD is just that it was only an “idea,” defined as “a formulated thought or opinion.” When President Monroe delivered his Doctrine to Congress on December 2, 1823 (drafted by Secretary of State John Q. Adams) he was giving just that: an opinion, about what should be. No “plan,” no “action,” no troops, no navy; in short no Nothing, just a thought. This was expressed in two short passages at the beginning:
- The Western Hemisphere is “henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers;”
- “we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”
Please note the key verb in each sentence, “consider,” defined as “to think about carefully.”
This was, in pure fact, actually the true intention of the U.S. government in 1823 and, in equal fact, the only operative action that could possibly be “considered.”
“Consider” this reality: just nine short years prior to Monroe’s message, the British Army had burned the nation’s Capital, including the White House. What, on earth, would the U.S. do against a similar incursion on Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Santiago, or even Mexico City?
In short, the MD was a “paper pledge,” invoking nothing more than the will of its sponsor. In fact, it had no more authority than any similar “Doctrine” issued by other entities, including Hitler’s “thousand-year Reich,” Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat,” or Woodrow Wilson’s “war to end war.” That, after all, was the only true meaning of the word doctrine, a “principle, position, teaching.”
In practice, the “authority” of the MD was derived almost exclusively from the British Navy, which, in fact, had the singular power to patrol the waters of the Western Hemisphere and also had an identical interest in keeping continental Europe from further intrusions. As diplomat George Kennan once expressed in his book American Diplomacy (1950), the MD was made possible by Britain’s control of the Atlantic, through which the U.S. could operate without dissent from a “sheltered position behind the British fleet and Britain’s continental diplomacy.”
Perhaps the lasting legacy of the MD was not the hemisphere but the origins of the “special relationship” between the two countries that became the saviors of the Twentieth Century.
But in practical terms, the MD eventually turned from a defensive “shield” into an offensive and aggressive “sword.” The first indications of this transition were the expansion of the U.S. Navy into a world power (1880s), the Spanish-American War (1898), the takeover of the Philippines and Hawaii (1898-99), construction of the Panama Canal (1904-14), the dispatch of the Great White Fleet around the globe (1908), and America’s defense of British interests in World War I. As Kennan again expressed it, the U.S. developed “an awareness of the damage that would be done to our world position by the elimination of England as a strong force in the world.”
Almost overnight, the MD became the raison d’état for the American position in the global “hierarchy.” The first and most dramatic statement was made by Secretary of State Richard Olney that “The United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law to which it confines its jurisdiction” (1895). Theodore Roosevelt announced a “Corollary” to the original, giving the U.S. “international police power” in the area (1904), while Senator Henry Cabot Lodge made his own Corollary to protect corporations (1912).
The MD continued to be used throughout the Twentieth Century. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles used it against Soviet influence in the hemisphere in 1954, declaring that “The MD means what it has meant since President Monroe enunciated it.” President Kennedy invoked it in his historic address over the Cuban missile crisis: any missile launched from Cuba, he declared, “against any nation in the Western Hemisphere” would require “a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union” (1962).
James Monroe would turn over in his grave should he dream that his Doctrine might someday annihilate the world!
But wasn’t the MD finished by Secretary Kerry, telling the Organization of American States (OAS) in 2013 that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over”? But did everybody listen?
Apparently not. In 2018, John Bolton, President Trump’s National Security Advisor, announced that “In this administration, we’re not afraid to use the words Monroe Doctrine.”
After all, it’s just an idea.
The Institute of World Politics is a graduate school of national security, intelligence, and international affairs, dedicated to developing leaders with a sound understanding of international realities and the ethical conduct of statecraft, based on knowledge and appreciation of the founding principles of the American political economy and the Western moral tradition.