This is Not the Monroe Doctrine You’re Looking For

November 27, 2013

Editor’s note: We are pleased to feature this guest contribution by Jay Sexton, author of The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America.


“The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”

This statement would not constitute news if it came from a Latin American populist. But, it did when it came from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in an address to the Organization of American States (OAS). Not surprisingly—and no doubt by design—Kerry’s address has attracted media interest. Kerry got his history wrong, but in misinterpreting Monroe’s 1823 message he is part of a venerable U.S. tradition. But, will it be the final chapter in the doctrine’s long history?


The Monroe Doctrine is often viewed as a foundational document in U.S. history. It is seen as a foreign policy equivalent of what the Constitution is for government or the Declaration of Independence is for political theory. Yet, it differs from the Constitution and Declaration in that the non-sequential paragraphs from Monroe’s 1823 annual message (the forerunner to today’s State of the Union address) was never intended to be a foundational document.  Furthermore, it did not even assert a clear U.S. foreign policy in relation to the specific contingency that the Monroe administration faced in December 1823 (the threatened re-colonization of the new republics in Latin America by reactionary European powers).

The genius of Monroe’s 1823 message is that it took the domestically popular position on what the European powers could not do (i.e., intervene in Latin America) while saying nothing about what the United States would do to prevent such a contingency from unfolding. In part, this was because the Monroe cabinet correctly gambled that Britain would deploy its immense naval power to prevent a European re-colonization of Latin America. But, it also was because the statesmen of 1823 feared that an assertive policy might prompt the very European action it sought to avoid. The Monroe cabinet also feared that an assertive policy would necessitate unpopular measures of political centralization, which would invoke domestic dissent that might endanger the Union itself.

Rather than a foreign policy “doctrine”, the 1823 message is better viewed as a statement of the early Union’s perceived security requirements. It also was a compromise—a compromise between passive and aggressive policy options, as well as a compromise between different members of the cabinet (most notably Massachusetts man John Quincy Adams and South Carolinian John C. Calhoun).

Kerry presented his listeners at the OAS with a very different interpretation of Monroe’s policy. He asserted that Monroe “declared that the United States would unilaterally, and as a matter of fact, act as the protector of the region.” Monroe’s 1823 message did not say this—it did not commit the United States to a set policy. Rather, it informed European powers that the Western Hemisphere was now off-limits to further colonization, and that the administration would view any intervention in Latin America as “the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.” To be sure, this was a bold statement coming from a relatively weak power. But it was not a pronouncement that Latin America was a protectorate of the United States. In fact, when representatives from Colombia and Brazil later asked Secretary of State Adams if the message constituted a pledge of protection, the answer was a clear no.

Kerry is on firmer ground in linking Monroe’s policy to the tradition of U.S. unilateralism, but even here his speech flattened a more complex story. The cabinet debates that led to the relevant paragraphs in the 1823 message were prompted by an offer from British Foreign Secretary George Canning for joint, Anglo-American action opposing European intervention in Latin America. Adams famously argued against joint action with the hated British, a position different from those initially taken by Calhoun and the President himself.

Yet, this episode was not the clear case of U.S. unilateralism that was later remembered. The 1823 message deliberately left open future cooperation with the British (who, as we now know, back-pedaled from Canning’s offer before the Monroe cabinet formulated its response). Furthermore, two years later, President Adams invoked the 1823 message on behalf of U.S. participation in the first hemispheric congress that was to be held in Panama in 1826. Indeed, many of Kerry’s predecessors in the U.S. State Department have interpreted Monroe’s policy as the genesis of what we now call pan-Americanism.

This is not intended as criticism of Kerry. The Secretary of State certainly has better things to do than read the latest scholarship on the Monroe Doctrine. Moreover, he is among very good company when it comes to U.S. statesmen who have misinterpreted Monroe’s message. In fact, Kerry’s address very much fits into the history of the Monroe Doctrine in that it has always been an imagined, evolving, and politicized symbol that is only loosely (if at all) connected to the 1823 message.

The Monroe Doctrine—which should be viewed as distinct from Monroe’s 1823 message—first emerged in the mid and late nineteenth century and became most prominent in the early twentieth century. It was primarily an instrument of U.S. domestic politics, not foreign policy. It was most commonly invoked by office-seekers in election years to discredit domestic opponents. Candidates scrambled to claim the doctrine and to link themselves to the imagined tradition of a popular and non-partisan president of the past.

The strongest advocates of the doctrine were those who called for expansionist and interventionist U.S. policies: James K. Polk, Stephen Douglas, James Blaine, and Theodore Roosevelt. In this regard, Kerry is right to link the Monroe Doctrine to those who have arrogantly called for U.S. control over Latin America. But, the doctrine was invoked by those across the foreign policy spectrum. It was the anti-imperialists who invoked the Monroe Doctrine in 1898, the year the United States seized from Spain control of territories and peoples in the Caribbean and Pacific.

Far from a binding and clear-cut foreign policy blueprint, the Monroe Doctrine has always been a malleable and versatile symbol. The domestic politics of the doctrine was replicated on an international level, particularly in the early twentieth century. Latin American jurists and diplomats, such as Alejandro Alvarez and Luis Maria Drago, presented their visions of hemispheric relations in relation to what they contended was a pan-American doctrine. In general, Latin Americans in this period invoked the doctrine as a symbol of pan-Americanism that limited U.S. unilateralism or interventionism. Meanwhile, Theodore Roosevelt announced his “corollary” to the doctrine to justify the United States’ unilateral intervention in the Dominican Republic. The meaning of the doctrine, like all doctrines, depended upon who invoked it.

Kerry’s invocation of the doctrine should be seen in a similar light. It is less an announcement of a new U.S. policy than a public relations move aimed to curry favor in Latin America. The objective of the line about the era of the doctrine being over clearly was to elicit the approval of Latin American audiences—indeed, Kerry encouraged a response from his listeners when his applause line fell flat. “That’s worth applauding,” Kerry urged his audience after declaring the end of the doctrine, “That’s not a bad thing.”

What makes Kerry’s Monroe Doctrine unusual (though not unprecedented) is that he announced its death. The traditional move would have been to re-interpret the 1823 shibboleth in light of the policies du jour. In a speech that called for hemispheric unity and equality, Kerry could have done this. He could have presented the doctrine much as his predecessor in the State Department, Elihu Root, did in the second Theodore Roosevelt administration: as an enlightened call for hemispheric cooperation, commercial integration, and political liberalism (“the Monroe Doctrine at its best,” in the words of one of its greatest critics in the early twentieth century, Hiram Bingham). If this interpretation of the historical Monroe Doctrine is only partly correct, well that would be the point—to selectively use history to substantiate a contemporary objective.

Alternatively, Kerry could have repudiated particular policies or corollaries associated with the doctrine. There are many precedents for this approach. Democratic opponents of Roosevelt, for example, deplored the president’s interventionist corollary even as they proclaimed their fidelity to the old dogma itself. “I subscribe to every sentiment of the Monroe doctrine,” Maryland Democrat Isidor Rayner declared in 1905, “that is, the genuine doctrine, the old text and not the revised edition.” A State Department paper from 1928, the so called Clark Memorandum, undermined the Roosevelt Corollary’s assertion that the Monroe Doctrine sanctioned the right of U.S. intervention. Kerry could have followed this pattern by reclaiming the doctrine from those who have seen it as a call for U.S. hegemony.

Yet, Kerry opted to denounce the Monroe administration as the source of U.S. arrogance and then to proclaim the end of the doctrine. Presumably he did this because the Monroe Doctrine has become so synonymous with U.S. imperialism in Latin America that there is nothing worth salvaging. From a public diplomacy perspective, there is certainly a solid case for doing this.

However, Kerry’s speech has the downside of validating a simplistic interpretation of U.S. diplomatic history, which views it as monolithically arrogant and imperialist. That the United States very often has not lived up to its ideals in the hemisphere is a statement of fact; but, it is also true that there exists historical grounds for hope when it comes to hemispheric unity—a point Kerry paradoxically acknowledged in a speech that will be remembered for its symbolic repudiation of the chief symbol of U.S. foreign policy.

Is Kerry right in declaring that the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over? Possibly—that is, if the Monroe Doctrine is understood to be an instrument of public relations. The doctrine has become a rare bird in recent decades, a result both of the myriad ways in which contemporary geopolitics differs from the nineteenth century and because U.S. statesmen are shrewd enough to steer clear of a symbol that is profoundly unpopular in Latin America.

It is interesting to note how the disappearance of the doctrine runs counter to the contemporary trend of historical appropriation in U.S. politics. Lincoln, the Tea Party, John Adams, Martin Luther King, JFK (positively invoked in Kerry’s speech)—all these and more are now common reference points in U.S. politics. But, possibly no longer the Monroe Doctrine. This might be because we have more recent foreign policy symbols to discuss, particularly the so-called Bush and Obama Doctrines.

But, it might also be because of the ambiguity of Monroe’s message itself. How should we interpret it? That is a historical, rather than a contemporary, political question. And perhaps it is no bad thing if diplomats now conclude that it is best left to historians to answer.


Jay Sexton is Tutorial Fellow at Corpus Christi College, University Oxford, and Deputy Director of the Rothermere American Institute.  He is the author of The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America.


Photo credit: Center for American Progress Action Fund