Tom Hennigan writes: After the swift unravelling of the Soviet Union, its strategic thinkers scrambled to justify Russia’s demand for continuing influence in lands suddenly beyond its control. One of the earliest terms coined for their emerging policy was the Monroeski Doctrine, which enters the historical record in August 1992, just seven months after Moscow lost jurisdiction over a quarter of the territory of the now defunct USSR. Its author was Andranik Migranian, an ethnic Armenian and Soviet Americanist who later became an adviser to presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.
In staking a right to special privileges in a new Russian sphere of influence Migranian deliberately modelled Moscow’s claim on one of the oldest pillars of US strategic thinking, the Monroe Doctrine. He named this new ersatz policy well. The Monroe Doctrine has long been viewed by many, both in the US and abroad, as a unilateral expression of interventionist US hegemony in the Western hemisphere. In the geopolitical chaos that followed the breakup of the USSR, what better way for Moscow to try and limit its strategic losses across Eurasia than by advancing a new policy that ostentatiously referenced this most enduring tenet of US geopolitical strategy?
Ever since, the Monroe Doctrine has been cited in the debate over Russia’s privileges in its “near-abroad”, typically by advocates of Moscow’s position, so-called “realists” who concede its legitimacy, and those always alert for examples of US hypocrisy. And yet the Monroe Doctrine is both a misunderstood and much abused piece of policy. President James Monroe unveiled it in a written message (actually composed by his secretary of state and successor as president, John Quincy Adams) read out to congress in December 1823. It was a time of momentous change in the Americas. Brazil had declared its independence from Portugal the year before and Monroe correctly predicted the inevitable failure of Madrid’s efforts to defeat its American rebels when declaring the New World closed to further colonisation by the Old. He promised to respect existing European colonies but warned that attempts to aid Spain in reimposing colonial rule in its former possessions would be viewed as a hostile act towards the US. Thus his doctrine was at birth explicitly anti-imperialist and welcomed in a region still fighting for its independence, even as Monroe reaffirmed US neutrality in these wars. Metternich’s secretary Friedrich von Gentz immediately understood the new doctrine’s “transcendental importance for our epoch” by confirming “the political separation of America and Europe was now complete and irrevocable”.
What is curious today in the light of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is to find concerns over Russian ambitions in both the Atlantic and Pacific to the fore during the Monroe Doctrine’s formulation. Russia’s presence in North America is now all but forgotten. So it is a surprise to discover that Monroe’s declaration “that the American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers” was explicitly aimed against Russia’s ambitious territorial claims in the Pacific Northwest, which clashed with those of the US and Britain. Russia was also indirectly confronted when Monroe’s statement turned to its main theme ‑ the situation in the Spanish colonies then fighting for their independence. As the leading light in the reactionary “Holy Alliance”, Tsar Alexander was aghast at the spread of republicanism in the New World and had urged the re-establishment of divinely ordained monarchical order there.
Fears of an Alliance-backed military intervention in the New World, shared by Simón Bolívar, were heightened by the fate of Spain’s liberal revolution of 1820. This had been crushed by 1823 following a French invasion sanctioned by Russia and other European powers. It was in response to this reactionary alliance aimed at Spanish liberals that the US finally recognised those Spanish colonies that had broken away, lest the counter-revolution look to cross the Atlantic. Monroe drew a clear distinction between reactionary monarchy in the Old World and the republicanism of the New, declaring to congress: “We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those [European] powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” As a quid pro quo Monroe, while restating his countrymen’s sympathy for the liberal revolutions in Spain and Portugal, promised not to interfere in European efforts against them: “In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy to do so.” You monarchists can do as you will in Europe, but leave us republicans in the New World alone.
Russia and Austria immediately understood Monroe’s doctrine as an attempt to make the New World safe for republican forms of government that so threatened the reactionaries of the Holy Alliance. Metternich himself accused Monroe of “fostering revolutions” and the US of giving “new strength to the apostles of sedition, and reanimate[d] the courage of every conspirator”. In a letter to his Russian counterpart, Count Nesselrode, he asked: “If this flood of evil doctrine and pernicious examples should extend over the whole of America what would become of our religious and political institutions, of the moral force of our governments, and of that conservative system which has saved Europe from complete dissolution?” Nesselrode himself wrote that the new doctrine “enunciates views and pretensions so exaggerated, it establishes principles so contrary to the rights of European powers, that it merits only the most profound contempt”.
Not all Europeans were dismayed though. Britain’s foreign secretary, George Canning, welcomed Monroe’s statement, as well he might. He had proposed a joint declaration along similar lines as part of his strategy to co-opt the US as a counterweight to the ambitions of Russia, which after Napoleon’s defeat had emerged as Britain’s principal rival in Europe. London’s interests also clashed with Moscow’s in British Colombia, while its merchants were enjoying profitable access to New World ports once closed to them by Spain’s monopoly of trade with its colonies. It had no wish to see the Holy Alliance encourage the Bourbons into re-establishing control over them. The fact that Monroe had ignored the advice his mentor and predecessor Thomas Jefferson among others and spurned Canning’s offer of alliance in favour of laying down a unilateral marker was an important diplomatic statement of independence. But with its navy supreme London knew the new doctrine did not apply to its own activities. When Britain reoccupied the Falkland Islands in 1833, expelling a small Argentine garrison, Washington silently acquiesced.
But by then Latin America’s wars of independence had concluded and Russia was already disengaging from the New World; the doctrine risked sliding into obscurity. It would be over two decades before Monroe’s statement to congress was even capitalised as a Doctrine, when in 1845 President James Polk invoked it to warn off British encroachment on the Oregon Territory. But in the 1860s the Lincoln administration studiously avoided invoking it during the French intervention in Mexico, least it tip Paris into supporting the Confederacy. It was only after victory over the South that Washington moved to back Mexican republicans against the French-supported Emperor Maximilian, but even then without reference to Monroe.
It was at the close of the nineteenth century that the original Monroe Doctrine, anti-imperialist in intent, began to morph into a crude expression of US power. This process took place within a decade during which the US could and would no longer deny its emergence not only as a great power but one whose potential seemed limitless. It was the 1895 border crisis between Venezuela and the British colony of Guyana that launched this change. In the US this dispute was framed as a European bully preying on a weaker Latin republic, prompting President Grover Cleveland to invoke the doctrine before helping oversee arbitration. But what was striking about the US intervention in the dispute was the declaration of Cleveland’s secretary of state, Richard Olney, that under the Monroe Doctrine: “the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition”.
This so-called Olney Interpretation was soon superseded by the even more notorious Roosevelt Corollary of 1904. This emerged as the result of European gun-boat diplomacy targeting the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean state had fallen behind on debt repayments and Washington feared the dispatch of warships to collect risked a greater European naval presence in the Caribbean, whose strategic importance to the US was critical following the construction of the Panama Canal. And so Teddy Roosevelt awarded to the US the right to intervene in other American nations least their domestic misrule invite European interference in the region’s affairs. In his 1904 state of the union message Roosevelt warned: “[I]n the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.” It was this claim of a right “to the exercise of an international police power” that warped the original doctrine out of all recognition. During the next three decades the US dispatched eight expeditionary forces to Latin America, five resulting in military occupations, three of which lasted more than a decade. Whether this constituted an emerging yanqui imperialism or was merely a new great power exercising a recently acquired droit de seigneur in its clearly defined sphere of influence was a moot question for many in the region. The upshot was Latin America’s one-time protector had turned predator.
Thus when people talk about the Monroe Doctrine as a unilateral instrument of interventionist US power they are usually criticising the Roosevelt Corollary, which stood Monroe’s original intent on its head. We can only speculate what the fifth president would have made of the perversions inflicted on his doctrine by the twenty-sixth. A Founding Father and student of Jefferson, Monroe was a convinced (though slave-owning) republican who chaffed at the caution of previous administrations in supporting liberation movements in the rest of the hemisphere. But he also shared the ambition of others of his generation for their young nation. When Jefferson appointed him to negotiate the purchase of West Florida and New Orleans from France, Monroe exceeded his authority and cut a deal for the entire Louisiana Territory, at the stroke of the pen doubling in size the United States. When he assumed the presidency in 1817 of the nineteen states then in the Union only the recently purchased Louisiana was west of the Mississippi. When Teddy Roosevelt took office in 1901 the Union had already expanded right across the continent. Alaska had been purchased from Russia and the Sandwich Islands organised into the Hawaii Territory. The expansionist energy that resulted in the Louisiana Purchase was increasingly being directed outward. Concomitantly the Latin American republics that Monroe had sought to protect had failed to realise their potential in anything like the way republicans on both sides of the Atlantic had expected at the start of the nineteenth century. The new republics had not grown together. Politically, economically, demographically the US had far outstripped the rest. This might seem inevitable to us now but it was not to anyone of Monroe’s generation who looked at the vast wealth Europe extracted from its American possessions and dreamt of what could be achieved if that link was broken. A Monroe in Roosevelt’s era might have accepted the comparative failures of the Latin republics as dooming the US to a pre-eminent role in the region, great power obligations thrust upon it by the negligence of its neighbours.
The damage inflicted by Roosevelt’s corollary on the self-image if not the interests of the US prompted the administration of Herbert Hoover to renounce it in 1930. Teddy’s cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt withdrew the last of US occupying forces from the region (with the exception of the base at Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay and the Canal Zone in Panama) and instituted a Good Neighbour policy. But that did not stop the Axis Powers from referencing the Monroe Doctrine as justification for their attempts to carve out their own spheres of influence. World War II also provided new use for the doctrine, Washington invoking it to prevent the Nazis installing governors in the Dutch and French possessions in the region following their conquests of 1940. Hitler responded that he would happily respect the Monroe Doctrine if the US would abide by its commitment to stay out of European affairs. During the Cold War the Monroe Doctrine was eclipsed by the anti-Soviet Truman Doctrine. Following Cuba’ revolution Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced the former as a mere pretext for US domination of Latin America when it was the latter’s anti-communism around which Washington organised its regional actions in Guatemala, Cuba, Chile and elsewhere.
But as the Cold War ended the Monroe Doctrine resurfaced. The 1989 invasion of Panama was a clear revival of the Roosevelt Corollary, a naked demonstration of Washington’s continuing belief in its right to intervene unilaterally in its hemisphere. Thus the doctrine continues to complicate US relations with its neighbours, so much so that in 2013 secretary of state John Kerry went so far as to declare it formally dead ‑ only for his successor, Rex Tillerson, to describe it four years later “as relevant today as it was the day it was written”.
It is therefore unsurprising that Russian strategists have cited the Monroe Doctrine as justification for their own interference in their near-abroad, just as the Axis Powers did in the past. One does not have to be an apologist for Putin or see his system as comparable to the US one to accept that his invasion of Ukraine over its desire to join NATO was driven by a similar indignation to that which led President John Kennedy to risk nuclear war in order to force the removal of Soviet missiles from sovereign Cuba. The idea that great powers demand privileges in their spheres is as old as civilisation. But whatever the reality of the underlying forces of geography, demography and economics that continue to drive this dynamic, the concept itself is at odds with the spirit of an age of national self-determination that has seen the number of sovereign nations more than double since the end of World War II. Thus the Monroe Doctrine remains suspect across the Western hemisphere and is divisive within the US itself. The tension between how the US views (or presents) its actions and the naked self-interest that often underpins them is similar to that between the doctrine’s original idealistic intent and later self-serving interpretations of it. The doctrine’s eventual form should not be blamed on the man it is named after. Instead it reflects the new demands and possibilities of a country radically transformed in the decades after his death. Monroe’s fault only extends to his role in helping found the nation that would in its power and ambition come to overshadow all others in its hemisphere.
Tom Hennigan is the South America correspondent of The Irish Times and is based in São Paulo, Brazil.