Musty old documents can shape and shatter worlds. Among the most potent is the Monroe Doctrine, which was proclaimed 200 years ago this month.
For many people in the United States, it conjures only vague memories from high school history classes. In Latin America, however, some see it as a bloody club that has beaten their continent down for generations. Over its 200-year lifespan, the Monroe Doctrine has been hailed as a cornerstone of US foreign policy and reviled as an imperialist tool.
The most curious piece of this doctrine’s history has unfolded in recent decades. The policy was crafted as a direct warning to outside powers: Stay out of the Western Hemisphere. Today, however, we apply it far beyond our own hemisphere. Without explicitly saying so, the United States has sought to turn the Monroe Doctrine into a global principle. We not only assert our right to intervene in places like Africa and the Middle East but oppose other powers that do the same. Today we apply the Monroe Doctrine principle — you stay out, we’ll handle this — to much of the world.
To commemorate this month’s anniversary, members of Congress have introduced resolutions declaring the eternal value of the Monroe Doctrine. “For 200 years, the Monroe Doctrine has warned foreign powers about meddling in the Western Hemisphere,” said Republican Senator Pete Ricketts, one of the sponsors. “These warnings are particularly relevant today, given current threats from adversaries like Russia, Iran, and the People’s Republic of China.”
said that the Monroe Doctrine began as “opposition to European colonialism, but over the course of history it has been used to justify United States intervention in Latin America.” A columnist in the Dominican Republic, which like Mexico has been invaded by US Marines, called it “an expansionist policy aimed at protecting US economic interests in the Western Hemisphere.”
President John F. Kennedy was urged to invoke the doctrine during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis but scorned the idea by asking, “The Monroe Doctrine — what the hell is that?” In 2013 Secretary of State John Kerry was loudly cheered when he told West Point cadets, “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”
But wait — in 2018, President Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton was cheered just as loudly when he told a Miami audience, “The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well!” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called it “as relevant today as it was the day it was written.”
Despite the doctrine’s name, it wasn’t President James Monroe’s idea. His secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, feared that European powers might seek to retake their newly independent colonies in Latin America. So he slipped a few lines into Monroe’s year-end address to Congress in 1823. Monroe declared that Latin American countries were “henceforth not to be considered as subjects for colonization by any European powers. . . . We would consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”
Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant used the Monroe Doctrine as it was intended. They supported revolutionaries in Mexico who were fighting against Emperor Maximilian, a king imposed by the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. In 1904, however, President Theodore Roosevelt radically expanded the doctrine. He asserted the right of the United States to intervene in any Latin American country it judged guilty of “chronic wrongdoing,” even if it had nothing to do with outside intervention. In what became known as the Roosevelt Corollary, he declared: “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.”
Over the next decade, that declaration — not enshrined in international law or accepted by any other nation — was used to justify the deployment of US Marines to the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Haiti.
In the years after World War I, under three conservative Republican presidents, the United States stepped back from such grandiose assertions of power. The State Department declared in 1928 that the United States would no longer intervene in Latin America except to block the entry of foreign powers. This was the beginning of the “good neighbor” policy toward Latin America, which President Franklin Roosevelt later embraced. The Monroe Doctrine was dying.
The freezing blast of the Cold War revived it. At a Latin American conference in 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles won approval of a resolution giving the United States the right to strike against any country dominated by “the international communist movement.” Three months later, he used that resolution to promote the overthrow of Guatemala’s left-leaning government.
The Monroe Doctrine is a classic assertion of a great power’s sphere of influence — its determination to shape politics in nearby countries. Yet the United States has not recognized the right of other powers to behave similarly. We condemn Iran for sponsoring militias outside its borders and regularly denounce China for pressuring Pacific island nations. Many in Washington consider the Monroe Doctrine an eternally useful tool. South of the Rio Grande, it is widely detested. If the United States insists on applying it to other continents, the reaction will not be much different.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.