from The Water's Edge

TWE Remembers: The Monroe Doctrine

Political cartoon depicting the Monroe Doctrine Courtesy the Library of Congress

December 2, 2010

Political cartoon depicting the Monroe Doctrine Courtesy the Library of Congress
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The Monroe Doctrine was first announced on this day in 1823.  While most Americans have heard of this most famous of foreign policy doctrines, few know that it was born as a bluff based on shrewd diplomatic analysis.

The context for the Monroe Doctrine was the collapse of Spanish rule in Latin America during the Napoleonic wars.  With Napoleon dispatched at the Battle of Waterloo and “normalcy” returning to continental politics by the early 1820s, fears arose that Spain might try to reclaim its colonies. That prospect especially worried Great Britain. British merchants had taken advantage of the collapse of Spanish rule to gain greater access to Latin America’s markets.  Eager to protect their commercial interests, British officials proposed to President James Monroe in 1823 that the two countries jointly warn European powers against any effort to reestablish colonial rule in Latin America.

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Monroe initially decided to accept the British offer, in good part because his two political mentors, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, urged him to do so.  They knew that the United States was too weak to prevent Latin America’s recolonization, and they calculated that an informal alliance with Britain would benefit U.S. security—no European power would dare challenge the British navy.  But when Monroe told his cabinet of his decision, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams objected vigorously.   He believed that the United States should act unilaterally, even if it couldn’t back up its words with deeds.

Adams’s conclusion reflected three hard-nosed geopolitical calculations.  First, the talk about European intervention in Latin America was just that, talk.  Because European intervention was unlikely, any American action would be symbolic only.  Second, if anyone called the administration’s bluff, Britain would come to America’s aid.  The British had too much at stake in Latin America to let Spain or any other European power reestablish colonial rule.  Third, a joint declaration would not help the United States. Britain would get all the credit because it was the great power.  As Adams put it, the United States would be better off acting alone than “to come in as a cockboat in the wake of the British man-of-war.”

Adams’s arguments won the day.  On December 2, 1823, Monroe sent a message to Congress laying down three principles for U.S. foreign policy.  First, while the United States would not interfere with existing European colonies in the Western Hemisphere, it considered the hemisphere closed to further colonization.  Second, the United States would regard any European effort to reimpose colonial rule as a hostile act toward the United States.  Third, the United States would continue to adhere to its traditional policy of not involving itself in the domestic affairs of Europe.

European leaders reacted in fury at the audacity of the Americans.  (Some things never change.)  Austria dismissed Monroe’s message as “an indecent declaration.”  Russia said it “merits only the most profound contempt.”  But in the end, Adams was right.  No European power intervened in Latin America.  This of course had everything to do with politics in Europe and nothing to do with Washington’s pronouncements.  But the Americans could still claim victory.

Although the Monroe Doctrine stands today as one of the cardinal statements of U.S. foreign policy, few people saw it that way at the time. No one called it a “doctrine” until 1852, and no president invoked it to deter European activity in Latin America until Grover Cleveland did so in 1895.  Indeed, the Monroe Doctrine’s real impact would only come when President Teddy Roosevelt redefined it.  More on that next week.

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