A blanc check for intervention - the evolution of the Monroe Doctrine and its significance in contemporary U.S. foreign policy

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Origins, language and historical context of the Monroe Doctrine

3. Manifest Destiny and Roosevelt’s vision

4. The Roosevelt Corollary

5. Extension and Reinterpretation of the Monroe Doctrine

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The Monroe Doctrine will be 200 years old in 2023 and the world of today could not be more different than from the conditions of the world in which president James Monroe gave his speech, which would become so famous and significant for the direction of U.S. foreign policy. Yet the policies of the Monroe Doctrine are still very much alive. Especially after president Theodore Roosevelt announced the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904 America’s path of becoming a major player in world affairs with arbitrary power was paved for them.

The argument of this paper is that the document known today as the Monroe Doctrine started out as a simple but efficient and bold proclamation, which dealt with the problems of its time and has been transformed into a tool for global involvement. Originally it attempts to keep Europeans out of the New World but it does not attack the already existing colonies in the Western Hemisphere. Over time various presidents altered this original phrasing. One of the more important examples of this tradition is Theodore Roosevelt’s Corollary to the doctrine, which will serve as an illustration to outline the main argument. Roosevelt turned the meaning of the doctrine around and went from noninterference to active responsibility by the United States to intervene anywhere in the Western Hemisphere where chaos and violence ruled. Still limited on the Western Hemisphere and whatever was defined to fit into this category Roosevelt’s definition of the “international police power” soon became just that. The United States would enter two World Wars on the basic justification that they were restoring order and justice and were only acting out of self-defense reasons. After World War II nothing of what James Monroe had once proclaimed as essential to American progress was left. The defining characteristic of Monroe’s old doctrine-the non-interference with European affairs phrase-had been shattered to pieces. The Cold War forced the United States to become even more dedicated to European matters and even after the Cold War the U.S. or a multilateral coalition under U.S. leadership now dealt with new threats to European peace.

With the post 9/11 era all dreams about isolation from Europe were forever destroyed. The War on Terrorism is the latest effort of the United States to change the conditions of countries all around the world. The ends and means of this undertaking shall not be discussed in this paper but it serves as the most recent example of a doctrine that has become something totally different than what it originally meant to accomplish. And even though the doctrine is not cited every time the United States does become involved in Europe or elsewhere the fact that preceding presidents have altered its meaning so that it could actually serve as justification is important.

2. Origins, historical context and language of the Monroe Doctrine

This first part is dedicated to the origins of the Monroe Doctrine and the surrounding context of its development. It will serve as analysis for the particular reasons of why James Monroe felt it necessary to articulate the doctrine in 1823 as well as what specific policy issues he was responding to. In essence the Monroe Doctrine has two important parts which lay out the principles of U.S. foreign policy in the years to come and which have become so well known over the course of the following century. The first important paragraph of the doctrine revolves around an American foreign policy sentiment, which has a long history and dates back to the very origins of the United States. The paragraph deals with the isolationist view so famously voiced by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The rhetoric reflects the attitude the newly independent United States began to adopt towards Europe. It was also evidence for two very different views on how countries should be governed. As historian Dexter Perkins argues, “To Americans European absolutism, in 1823 was a system as odious, as devoid of moral sanction, as that of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia seems to many citizens of the United States today. On the other hand, to many of the statesmen of Continental Europe, the buoyant republicanism and the democratic faith of the people of the United States were a vast dissolvent which threatened destruction to the existing order, and unknown and incalculable perils for the future.”[1] It seems that president Monroe’s message was not only motivated by policy decisions but also more fundamentally by ideals and a deep conviction of how a state should be governed.

As mentioned earlier the isolationist attitude’s roots originated during the founding period of the new republic that came to be the United States. One of the most canonized speeches is George Washington’s farewell address in 1798 in which he lays out the foundation for the Monroe Doctrine. He famously cherished the geographic advantage the United States had according to him with the words: “Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course [from Europe]” and asks “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?”[2] Thomas Jefferson agreed with Washington’s assessment and as secretary of state (1792) he made similar remarks in his letter to Thomas Paine: “We shall avoid implicating ourselves with the powers of Europe […]. They have so many interests different from ours, that we must avoid being entangled in them.”[3] This sense of isolationism was ever present in the Monroe Administration and long before James Monroe delivered his famous speech his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had begun to formulate similar ideas with reciprocal character concerning Europe. As early as 1819 Adams voiced his thoughts that the world “must be familiarized with the idea of considering our proper dominion to be the continent of North America.”[4] Adams therefore not only thought that the United States was best not to interfere on the European continent he also believed that Europe should understand that the Americas belong to the Americans. In that regard Adams can be seen as the author of the first part of the Monroe Doctrine. He basically created the reasoning and rhetoric of the paragraph regarding the exclusion of European influence from the American continents. James Monroe included one of Adams’ statements almost completely into his address which read: “we should contest the right of Russia to any territorial establishment on this continent, and that we should assume distinctly the principle that the American continents are no longer subjects for any new European colonial establishments.”[5] The reason of this particular statement seemed to have been the existence of Russia and its colonies on the northwest coast of America. In 1823 Russia still had settlements in Fort Ross, at Bodega Bay on the coast of California. For those within the administration who dreamt of a United States spanning its sphere of influence from the Atlantic to the Pacific Russia was clearly a thorn in their eyes. People such as Adams particularly feared being excluded from any new markets the New World might provide. Additionally the United States did not want to have a constant reminder of their colonial past in such close proximity. The trigger event for the Monroe Doctrine part concerning Russia was caused by Tsar Alexander issuing an imperial decree, which set exclusive trading rights in place down to the line of 51 degrees and forbade all foreign vessels to come within one hundred miles of the shore on penalty of confiscation. This kind of official decree included of course the very circumstance, which advocates of Adams and Monroe feared the most, an exclusion of a New World market. That could not be left unopposed and was vigorously challenged by the administration from the outset. John Quincy Adams boldly expressed his wish to deny the right to Russia to any American territory and proposed to Monroe the already quoted lines of the non-colonization clause. When James Monroe gave his infamous speech on December 2nd 1823 the paragraph relevant for this discussion in the Monroe Doctrine said “that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European power.”[6]

The immediate effects of this first part of the Monroe Doctrine were at the most of minor nature. The great attention the Monroe Doctrine received only came after it had been rephrased and reused over time by many different administrations. At the time of its origin though it did not create any particular resonance by either the public or European policymakers. In fact, it did not have an effect upon the actual compromise between Russia and the United States concerning their dispute over the trading rights as Dexter Perkins points out.[7] Unsurprisingly the Doctrine was not favourably received by any European power and soon enough official statements from European governments were filled with rhetoric such as that from the British foreign minister stating that “the unoccupied parts of America” were “just as much open as heretofore to colonization by Great Britain … and that the United States would have no right whatever to take umbrage at the establishment of new colonies from Europe in any such parts of the American continent.”[8] This kind of reasoning does have its merits, especially when one begins to question on what logical basis Adams’ declaration rests upon. Dexter Perkins identifies this dilemma as well pointing to the fact that at the time of the Monroe Doctrine to Europeans, Latin America did not consist of ‘independent nations’ and regarding the continent of North America, it was not at all clear that all if the continent was in possession of a ‘civilized power.’ Perkins points to the very fact that Russia and the United States were in dispute over parts of the continent as mere evidence that the whole continent had not been settled. On top of that there were still areas such as Alaska and the northwest of today’s Canada, which remained unexplored.[9] Therefore it is hard to believe that Adams even believed his own argument. He certainly did not impress any of the European nations it was addressed to. Certainly in the view of public law, as Dexter writes, “the United States could not by a declaration affect the international status of lands claimed, ruled, or discovered by other powers.”[10]

With this thorough analysis of the first important part of the Monroe Doctrine let us now examine the second part relevant for this paper which deals with the Southern American continent and its relation to Europe. President James Monroe and other members of his administration including Secretary of War John C. Calhoun were not only concerned with the north-western territories of the North American continent but also with the nations that constituted the continent of South America. Just as Monroe had already indicated in the first part of his address the United States were concerned with the Americas, meaning not only North but especially South America. The idea behind this expansion was to keep European powers from regaining control over some of the older colonies that had just gained independence and since the Monroe Doctrine did not explicitly attack colonies that already existed it did consider any act of new colonization of the Americas as a hostile act towards the United States. After all, the Monroe administration was worried about the Holy Alliance and its plans for South America. The Alliance, which was a coalition of Russia, Austria, Prussia and France, was originally formed to uphold Christianity in European political life and a means to protect its leadership of the member nations against revolution. But this Alliance soon turned into a means of extending the sphere of influence of every member state. One of these plots that was alarming to James Monroe and his colleagues was the plan of the Alliance to help Spain restore her dominion in the New World. That would open up the Americas (especially South America whose countries were not recognized as independent entities by the Alliance) for further colonization and enable the Alliance members to cut deals with each other involving the newly conquered terrain.


[1] Perkins: The History of the Monroe Doctrine. p. 28-29.

[2] Richardson: Messages and Papers of the President. Volume I, p. 222-3.

[3] Thomas: One Hundred Years of the Monroe Doctrine. p. 5.

[4] Adams: The Memoirs of John Quincy Adams. Volume IV, p. 438 f.

[5] Ibid.: Volume VI, p. 163.

[6] Richardson: Messages and Papers of the President, James Monroe. Vol. I, p. 776.

[7] Perkins: The History of the Monroe Doctrine. p. 32.

[8] Rush: Memoranda of a Residence at the Court of London. p. 629.

[9] Perkins, p. 32/33.

[10] Ibid, p. 33.

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A blanc check for intervention - the evolution of the Monroe Doctrine and its significance in contemporary U.S. foreign policy
Indiana University  (Political Science Department)
American Political Traditions
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Monroe, Doctrine, American, Political, Traditions
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Michael Schmid (Author), 2005, A blanc check for intervention - the evolution of the Monroe Doctrine and its significance in contemporary U.S. foreign policy, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/66613


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