Will Sellers: The Monroe Doctrine turns 200

Image Source: Balch & Bingham

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’s 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 that 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 welcome 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 Jinping needs a refresher course?

Will Sellers is a graduate of Hillsdale College and an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of Alabama. He is best reached at jws@willsellers.com.