Though some might contest its status of a “super power”, I think that today we can all agree on the fact that the United States is still a major actor on the international scene. Whether from an economic, political, educational or military point of view, the north American influence is there to be noticed in every relevant field of the international order. For the younger generations this might come as a natural feature, but not so many know that actually this was not the case for a long period of time in the country’s history. The best example in this sense is the Monroe Doctrine, established almost two centuries ago, that, in short, politically isolated the American states from the European Great Powers’ influence. For almost a century, until the late involvement in the World War I, this was the fundamental approach in the US foreign policy. So, what changed and most of all, why? What was the doctrine’s contribution to the further development of the foreign policy?
For most of the American history, the isolationist tendency prevailed in its foreign policy. In its early years, American foreign policy was in fact a reflection of the American national interest, namely to fortify the new nation’s independence. With the European continent torn apart by the great powers’ rivalry, the American nation could develop at its own pace, without any major external threat. Therefore the nonalignment practice, the isolationism, the constant effort to remain free of entanglements overseas became characteristic features of the early American foreign policy (Kissinger, 10-12). The step forward in strengthening this view was made in 1823, when the Monroe Doctrine was proclaimed, a political decision basically stating that further European action on the American continent will be interpreted as an intervention and a threat for the new nation’s stability. Surprisingly accepted without much of a revolt by the European powers, the new doctrine defended America and assured an uninterrupted pursue of its goal: growing internally and turning itself into a Great Power, with the formidable advantage of not being threatened by state rivalry.
But as expected, the flourishing internal development could not have been maintained strictly within the internal borders, “no nation having ever experienced such an increase in its power without seeking to translate it into global influence”; so that, by the 1880s, the United States began to gradually “enter the wider arena of international affairs” (Kissinger: 13). Consequently, the main isolationist tendency in the foreign policy could not have remained unaffected, most of the following presidents bringing forth what they called “corollaries” to the Monroe Doctrine: basically, entirely different approaches regarding the international involvement of the US, but that still claimed to preserve the Monroe legacy. From the country that did not wish any European involvement, later on America becomes the one involving in the European affairs.
Regarding this issue, an interesting point was made by Theodore S. Woolsey in an article published in 1914, critical moment for the US in deciding whether to interfere or not into the European major conflict. His basic statement is that the Monroe Doctrine “has been so overlaid with comment and so modified and enlarged and developed that we are apt to lose sight of its real and fundamental character. […] But before all and throughout all we must keep in mind that it is a policy, not a law. […] A nation’s policy is changeable as self-interest dictates”. In other words, even if established on different principles, the foreign policy of a state ultimately remains a policy, not imposing obligation on a state, not becoming a (international) law. According to him, one of the old doctrine’s fundamental characteristics is that it “was a statement of policy, originated and maintained by reason of self-interest, not altruism”. Therefore, as long as it preserves the national interest in international relations, any direction taken in foreign policy can be accepted. The reasonable question would be why the majority of the US presidents insisted on emphasizing the association to the 1823’s Monroe Doctrine, when there was really no resemblance, for example taking Woodrow Wilson’s approach: “and probably most of us have been somewhat at a loss to know what could be the meaning of President Wilson’s statement that in entering the war we are not really renouncing, but only extending the Monroe Doctrine”. It could be that the permanent correlation with a strong, valuable policy from the past gave a sense of legitimacy in pursuing a new foreign policy goal, a sense of doing the “right thing”, a guarantee for the young nation that traditional values are still carried on, even if the new configuration of powers on the international level was not really understood by all citizens. It can be said that a significant outcome of the Monroe Doctrine was that of establishing some kind of a rhetorical style, typically implied by the language of idealism and high principle, in order to advance the cause of humankind, by upholding values such as freedom, democracy and peace. As expected, such language served in fact as a cover for less ennobling purposes in the economic or defense areas that could not have been mentioned publicly.
The Monroe Doctrine and its purposes have always provided both justification and an explanation for most American interventionist measures. From its establishment in 1823 throughout all the important moments in modern history, the invocation of the Monroe Doctrine and the assumptions underlying it provided policy makers with the justification needed for acting on behalf of what they conceived as being a strategic or economic interest for the United States. “Like a cat with nine lives, the Monroe Doctrine has died many times since its first articulation, only to reemerge in slightly different forms at different historical moments”.
We have seen that in the 21st century the US successfully managed to identify many different potential enemies in order to continue with the interventionist actions: drugs, terrorists, tyrants, political regimes that differ from democracy, all nicely hidden behind the purpose of spreading liberal rights and principles, of democratic consolidation, of defending the inner value of the human life. Does this evoke the Monroe Doctrine in any way? Interestingly enough, it does from the perspective of the eternal national interest: if in the 19th century the world’s progress could assure the nation’s safety at home, therefore a national interest focused isolationism and non-intervention, along with development and the globalization of goods and services also came the globalization of threats, therefore a national interest of defending the country outside its borders. Following the clauswitzean inspired idea that the best defense is a good offense, the US, constantly growing from a regional to a global superpower, in our days it simply seems “to set a Monroe Doctrine for the entire planet”. And this is maybe the one of the many marvels politics in general, and international politics in particular, can spawn: as long as you can twist your argument enough as to make it appealing to the public, over time you can invoke the same policy, but pursue conflicting actions that challenge the very basics of the policy itself. It seems that this is of very little importance, as long as the policy does not become law, but what about those policies that do become (international) law and fail to be respected by the very same countries endorsing them?
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