The Many Faces of the Monroe Doctrine

Keep_off!_The_Monroe_Doctrine_must_be_respected_(F._Victor_Gillam,_1896)

In yet another curious twist in its long history, the Monroe Doctrine, which turned 200 on Saturday, is making an unexpected political comeback in the United States. “I think it’s as relevant today as it was the day it was written,” declared Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s first secretary of state, in Mexico City in 2018. More recently, contestants for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination have competed to lay claim to the doctrine. The evening of his botched campaign announcement on Twitter/X, Florida governor Ron DeSantis took to Fox News’ airwaves to call for “a 21st-century version of the Monroe Doctrine” to counter rising Chinese influence in Latin America. Vivek Ramaswamy announced that, were he elected president, “The North Star of my foreign policy will be the modern Monroe Doctrine.” Not to be outdone, Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently introduced a resolution declaring their fidelity to this doctrine from the days of sailing ships, flintlock muskets, and monarchs. 

Those hearing these unexpected shout-outs to a piece of early 19th-century history could be forgiven for sharing the reaction that John F. Kennedy had when advisors encouraged him to invoke the doctrine during the Cuban Missile Crisis: “The Monroe Doctrine — what the hell is that?” Kennedy’s question remains a good one: What is the Monroe Doctrine? And why is it reappearing in its bicentennial year? 

The answer lies in recognizing that the doctrine is not simply an instrument of foreign policy, but rather a shape-shifting and contested symbol of domestic politics. As I argued in my 2011 book on the topic, the secret to understanding the Monroe Doctrine is that Americans have invoked it against one another far more than they have used it against foreign governments. 

 

 

Over the course of its 200-year history, the doctrine has had a jack-in-the-box quality: It has framed political debates in one period, only to disappear in the next. To be sure, this waxing and waning have responded to geopolitical shifts, but it has primarily been the result of how those shifts in the global system have intensified domestic political debate and partisan conflict. The historical periods in which the doctrine has jumped out of the history books and into popular discourse — the present included — are those moments in which there is most internal debate concerning the role of the United States in the wider world.

A Nothingburger Message

If you’re American, the high school textbook that you once read probably presented James Monroe’s 1823 message as a foreign policy equivalent of the U.S. Constitution. It allegedly outlined basic rules, headlined by a prohibition on further European colonization in the Western Hemisphere, that structured U.S. foreign policy thereafter. But this clean and tidy view of the doctrine always has been more myth than reality. 

For starters, the nonsequential foreign policy paragraphs of James Monroe’s 1823 annual message were not intended to be a timeless set of policy prescriptions. Rather, Monroe and his team muddled through a complex situation, dodging critical questions and controversies as they responded to events beyond their control. When Monroe audaciously proclaimed an end to European intervention in the Western Hemisphere at a critical moment in the Spanish-American revolutions, he failed to mention how it would be enforced (fortuitously, by the time Monroe delivered his message, the British had already cut a secret deal with France that resolved the diplomatic crisis). The ambiguous text of the 1823 message to Congress also sidestepped the critical matter of future U.S. imperial expansion. 

Monroe fudged the key issues. He kicked the can of an alliance offer from Britain down the road, while offering only lip-service support to the revolutions in Latin America and Greece. Most of all, his message stopped short of committing the United States to any action. The evidence is clear: The 1823 message was never intended to become a binding foreign policy “doctrine.” Monroe’s message was a nothingburger.

But the subsequent “Monroe Doctrine,” a phrase that first appeared in the decades before the Civil War, had very little to do with the original text. Rather, it was an adaptable symbol of U.S. foreign policy that ricocheted back and forth across the American political spectrum, sometimes even bouncing across borders when appropriated by foreign officials. The best definition of the Monroe Doctrine might be as follows: a contested political symbol into which varying actors have loaded their agendas. 

The utility of the Monroe Doctrine lay in the elasticity of the 1823 message, which amounted to a blank canvas waiting to be filled by an astonishingly diverse range of political interests. The invented tradition of the Monroe Doctrine was appropriated by slavers and abolitionists, isolationists and internationalists, pacifists and war hawks, protectionists and free traders, anti-imperialists and advocates of colonial rule. There have been as many Monroe Doctrines as perspectives on America’s role in the world.

A Contested Corollary

That the Monroe Doctrine was a contested creation of America’s messy democratic politics can be seen by revisiting one of the most famous episodes in its 200-year history: the formulation of the 1904 Roosevelt Corollary. This addendum to Monroe’s old prohibition on European intervention explicitly and controversially transformed the doctrine into a justification for unilateral U.S. imperial intervention.

Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary was itself a reaction to external events — namely a crisis in Santo Domingo that threatened to trigger the intervention of European creditor powers. Meanwhile, Latin American states, led by Argentina, sought to preempt any intervention through the “Drago Doctrine,” which amounted to a multilateral, hemispheric version of the old Monroe Doctrine. Roosevelt appears to have had some sympathy for the Drago option, but he wanted to maintain U.S. control of this complex situation that fell within what he considered America’s sphere of influence: “If we intend to say ‘Hands off’ to the powers of Europe, then sooner or later we must keep order ourselves,” he concluded.

But the Roosevelt Corollary was also the product of domestic political dynamics. At this moment in the doctrine’s schizophrenic history, the symbol was most closely associated with anti-imperialists, who invoked it in support of reining in U.S. colonial expansion and a limited foreign policy more broadly. The anti-imperialists had lost the battle in 1898, when imperialists connected to Roosevelt narrowly rammed through the Senate a treaty that mandated the full-blown colonial annexation of former Spanish colonies, most notably the Philippines. But the ensuing colonialist outburst proved to be a poisoned chalice. The United States inherited instability in the Caribbean and an anticolonial war of resistance in the Philippines. As the costs mounted, U.S. public opinion turned away from the imperialist project advocated by Roosevelt and his band of “large policy men,” shifting to the side of the old anti-imperialists.

This was the situation when Roosevelt and his team confronted the crisis in Santo Domingo in 1904–5. In an audacious power grab, Roosevelt appropriated the favored symbol of his domestic opponents, using it as cover for a nakedly imperialist program of unilateral intervention in the Caribbean that they opposed. This was part of a sophisticated and coordinated public relations push, which included a prominent speech by Secretary of State Elihu Root on Cuban independence day, Roosevelt’s famous message to Congress, and a covering letter to the U.S. Senate for the bilateral protocol that transferred Dominican customs houses to U.S. management. “The protocol affords a practical test of the efficiency of the United States Government to maintain the Monroe doctrine,” Roosevelt declared in words that infuriated the anti-imperialists that he had outfoxed.

Domestic politics shaped the substance, as well as the presentation, of the Roosevelt Corollary. Historians tend to interpret the corollary as the climax of the evolution of the Monroe Doctrine and 19th-century U.S. imperialism. Yet it represented a retreat from the position that Roosevelt had occupied just a few years earlier. Rather than advocate further colonial expansion of the 1898 type, the failings and unpopularity of this “large policy” now led Roosevelt to formulate a hybrid imperial policy that constituted something of a compromise between those on either side of the great debate of 1898. 

Constrained by domestic opponents and commitments in the Philippines and Cuba, the Roosevelt administration limited the number and scope of its ventures in the Caribbean, not least by outsourcing the details of debt repayment to private Wall Street banks and seeking to train up local constabulary forces to take over the burden of bringing stability to Santo Domingo. This was unilateral imperialism, to be sure, but it was not the full-blown colonial annexation that Roosevelt had previously championed. As was the case in other pivotal moments in the history of the Monroe Doctrine, the Roosevelt Corollary was a compromise policy generated by the contingent interaction of geopolitical developments with the dynamics of internal politics.

Cold War Eclipse

As the example of the Roosevelt Corollary reveals, the history of the Monroe Doctrine is not the story of a set of policy prescriptions outlined in 1823 that subsequent statesmen implemented over time. Rather, it is the disjointed narrative of competing domestic interests, each seeking the upper hand as the United States stumbled, crab-like, toward the position of global preeminence that it would achieve in 1945. 

But as the internationalist “American century” dawned, the old symbol from the age of sailing ships and monarchy began a long ride into the sunset. As the following Google Ngram for the term “Monroe Doctrine” illustrates, 20th-century references to the symbol of 1823 peaked during the two world wars (thanks to debates over the League of Nations and entry into World War II) before steadily waning during the Cold War (albeit with an ephemeral uptick during the Cuban missile crisis that prompted JFK to ask his aforementioned question).

Google Ngram results for “Monroe Doctrine” between 1900 and 2000

To be sure, the post-1945 Monroe Doctrine retained a legacy seat within the pantheon of nationalist traditions. There were celebratory chapters in Cold War–era schoolbooks, commemorative coins, and still the occasional presidential shout-out, such as when Ronald Reagan sought cover for his Central American policies in the 1980s. But the doctrine had become ornamental, not instrumental. It more resembled a flintlock musket in a Revolutionary War museum or a Founding Father statue in a public square than it did the Constitution of 1787, which remained a structuring framework for contemporary statecraft. 

The Monroe Doctrine faded from view because it didn’t speak to the 1945–2001 era. The Cold War consensus limited domestic political debate on foreign policy, which had always been the lifeblood of the doctrine. Moreover, this was an era of geopolitics distinct from the previous century and a quarter. The hallmarks of the post-1945 world were internationalism, U.S. preeminence, and the dispersed proliferation of universalist projects such as globalization and human rights. It is revealing that those Americans most likely to invoke the doctrine in this period, such as Robert Taft, Bricker amendment advocates, and lingering isolationists from the Midwest, were those who sought to pump the brakes on America’s new international commitments. Even in the heyday of the “American century,” invocations of the Monroe Doctrine signaled domestic dissent, not consensus.

It Is a measure of the declining relevance of the Monroe Doctrine that, beginning with Harry S. Truman, U.S. presidents began to invent foreign policy doctrines that bore their own names, rather than announcing new corollaries to the 1823 message. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt had been advised to do just this back in 1904, but opted instead to cloak his new policies in the cloth of Monroe. After 1945, the new presidential doctrines typically pertained to far-flung geographic regions well beyond America’s traditional sphere of influence. The “imperial presidency” of the “American century” desired not to be constrained by archaic edicts from the 19th century.

21st-Century Battles

But as that era has come to a messy end, the Monroe Doctrine has started to make an unexpected comeback, just in time for its 200th birthday this December. The first strike came in a 2013 speech made by President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry, who sought to curry favor in the Organization of American States by repudiating an unpopular symbol of U.S. imperialism. “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” Kerry declared to muffled applause from an incredulous audience of Latin American officials. 

But Kerry’s eulogy of the doctrine was fighting words to the American right, hypersensitive as it is to any putative “cancellation” of revered national symbols. Aggressive reassertions of the old dogma started to pop up with regularity during the Trump presidency. This was an administration, after all, that lost no chance to exploit patriotic symbols and traditions. National Security Advisor John Bolton moved most aggressively in the direction of Monroeism when reports surfaced of Russian involvement in the Venezuela political crisis of 2019. “In this administration,” Bolton brashly asserted, “we’re not afraid to use the phrase ‘Monroe Doctrine.’ This is a country in our hemisphere.” China hawks similarly have turned to it to justify their positions. Rep. Mike Gallagher recently conjured up fears that China’s moves in Latin America seek to “turn the Monroe Doctrine into the Mao Doctrine.” Such invocations of the Monroe Doctrine by right-wing critics of post-1945 internationalism cloak a policy of global retrenchment (as favored by DeSantis and Ramaswamy) in the garb of nationalist tradition and power.

On one level, the reemergence of Monroe talk in U.S. politics can be explained by the simple fact that the old symbol has become yet another source of fuel for the inferno of today’s partisan culture wars. Like the fights over statues of founding fathers and national origin dates (1619 or 1776?), today’s talk of the Monroe Doctrine follows predictable lines of division and patterns of escalation. When Democrats clumsily distance themselves from a nationalist symbol, as Kerry did with the doctrine, Republicans respond with self-pity, bemoaning the alleged “cancellation” of revered traditions. It is a familiar pattern.    

But there is more to the recent revival of the doctrine than just today’s destructive vortex of culture wars. The Monroe Doctrine speaks to a wider, and more substantive, domestic debate concerning the future role of the United States in an era of declining American power, geopolitical rivalry, and economic competition. The Monroe Doctrine has re-entered our politics today not because it offers relevant policy prescriptions — to repeat: it never has — but because the future course of American foreign policy is now contested and entangled in partisan politics. The process of political sorting concerning foreign policy is now well under way: Those on the right seeking to reduce global commitments invoke the Monroe Doctrine, while those seeking to salvage the post-1945 order on the left avoid mentioning the doctrine, if not declare it dead.

It must be noted here that recent references to the Monroe Doctrine have also come from outside of the United States. Both Russia and China have sought to project power far from their borders, including into Latin America. They have gone further, staking exclusive claims to their own regional zones of influence, in effect announcing Monroe Doctrines of their own. Revanchist Russia’s “Kozyrev Doctrine” and more recent “Putin Doctrine” attempt to justify murderous campaigns at restoring power and influence, most notably in Ukraine. Though China has shied away from officially announcing its own Monroe Doctrine, its presumptuous “nine-dash line” that reaches into the contested waters of the South China Sea echoes the expansive sphere of influence charted by the United States back in the 19th century. And China’s claims on Taiwan and Hong Kong resemble those of the United States on Canada and Cuba in the days of Monroe.

By challenging the post-1945 order based upon unrivalled U.S. power, today’s geopolitics have revived old questions that historically have structured debates over the Monroe Doctrine. What type of foreign intervention in Latin America should be regarded as a threat to U.S. security? What U.S. policies best thread the needle of deterring such interventions while minimizing blowback from the Yankeephobic political cultures of Latin America? Should U.S. rivals be allowed to construct regional spheres of influence outside of the Western Hemisphere — or, to put it differently, and in today’s terms, should the United States support Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, and Ukrainians, or leave them to fend for themselves?

Conclusion

From these specific questions, two broader ones arise that echo the contestations over the Monroe Doctrine from the critical 1914–41 period. First, can democracy, at home and abroad, survive if the United States hunkers behind tariffs, immigration restrictions, and a walled-off “fortress America” in the Western Hemisphere? Conversely, are voters and policymakers prepared to foot the bill to regenerate the international system, in effect globalizing the Monroe Doctrine, as was then advocated by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt? 

These are the questions that future U.S. policymakers and voters will need to tackle. But they are also the questions the United States confronted in the past. This is why the history of the Monroe Doctrine has become newly relevant, regardless of whether office-seeking politicians continue to invoke the hoary old shibboleth in future election cycles. It isn’t the political symbol that matters — what matters are the underlaying geopolitical structures and domestic dynamics to which its evolution has always been tethered. 

Whatever one thinks of the Monroe Doctrine, let alone the global challenges that loom on the horizon, it is obvious that U.S. foreign policy needs more buy-in from voters, requires a broader consensus among the fractured classes of today’s political elites, and must be more responsive to geopolitical dynamics and the moves of rival powers. The Monroe Doctrine’s history provides a 200-year record, replete with successes, failures, and much in between, of past attempts of the United States to juggle these layered internal and external dimensions of statecraft. Let’s hope that those who invoke it today take a moment to study that history during its bicentennial. 

 

 

Jay Sexton is author of seven books, including The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America (2011). He is Director of the Kinder Institute of Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri, as well as Distinguished Fellow of the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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